A Remarkable Protest in Turkey

Last week, a group of peo­ple in Istan­bul, Turkey, gath­ered in Gezi Park, a green space near the cen­tral Tak­sim Square. The Istan­bul city gov­ern­ment had announced plans to demol­ish the park to build a shop­ping mall, and the pro­test­ers were try­ing to pre­vent it.

The Turk­ish police then fol­lowed what has become a new script when deal­ing with pro­test­ers: they got vio­lent. Much like the May Day protests, which the gov­ern­ment tried to ban then vio­lent­ly broke up after pro­test­ers refused to com­ply, the police moved on the crowd with water can­nons, trun­cheons, and tear gas.

The gov­ern­ment has also effec­tive­ly blacked out Turk­ish media, who have not report­ed on the protests in any sub­stan­tive way. Inter­na­tion­al media have tried to fill in the gap as best they can, but the degree of cen­sor­ship being enforced by Recep Tayyip Erdo­gan is trou­bling.

Though often laud­ed out­side Turkey as a reformer and demo­c­rat, the Erdo­gan gov­ern­ment has tak­en a recent turn for the author­i­tar­i­an. Erdogan’s heavy-hand­ed approach to the protests has helped push an oth­er­wise ordi­nary local envi­ron­men­tal protest into a nation-wide move­ment oppos­ing his rule (and led to his fend­ing off accu­sa­tions that he is a dic­ta­tor).

It remains to be seen how far and wide these protests will go. So far it doesn’t quite look like a “Turk­ish Spring,” or what­ev­er the term is nowa­days to sug­gest a regime-chang­ing protest move­ment. “Urban renew­al” projects that involve bull­doz­ing ancient parts of the city for mod­ern build­ings have gen­er­at­ed incred­i­ble con­tro­ver­sy in Istan­bul. This is the first time such con­tro­ver­sy has bub­bled over into full-on protests.

But the mass protests over Gezi Park seem to augur some­thing new. By almost all accounts – ver­i­fi­able via the ever-use­ful social media – the protests start­ed out fair­ly small. And rather than silent­ly resent­ing the police over­re­ac­tion and media silence that fol­lowed, peo­ple took to social media to talk about what was hap­pen­ing. And while there remains lit­tle sense of con­crete polit­i­cal action that will result, the mass protests are at least a new fea­ture of Turk­ish polit­i­cal life.

If Erdo­gan is smart, he will take the Gezi move­ment as a red line: the casu­al dis­re­gard for pub­lic opin­ion has shown its lim­its. And if he’s not smart, then we might see the protests expand to the break­ing point.

This post orig­i­nal­ly appeared at UN Dis­patch.

joshua.foust
Joshua Foust used to be a foreign policy maven. Now he helps organizations communicate strategically and build audiences.

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