Is Taksim Like Tahrir?

HONG KONG – “Hong Kong is with you,” said one banner.

On Sunday 2 June, a small crowd of Turkish and Chinese citizens – about 30 people – protested peacefully against the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Central’s Statue Square at 12 PM.

Demonstrators held banners saying “Everywhere Taksim,” in reference to the square in Istanbul where hundreds of protesters participated in anti-government demonstrations and clashed with the police since last Saturday.

They are resisting the demolition of Gezi Park – one of the few remaining green spaces in the center of Istanbul. The Turkish government wants to convert it into a shopping mall.

Other slogans included “Everywhere Resistance,” “Resist Gezi,” and “We Want ‘Real’ Democracy in Turkey,” written in Chinese.


Mounting tension in Turkey

What has started as a peaceful demonstration to protect urban space has spiraled into violent anti-government clashes with the Turkish police, who fired pepper gas capsules and deployed water cannon to disperse the growing crowd. Protests quickly spread to the capital Ankara and other cities across the country. People have been demonstrating for six days.

These are the most violent confrontations Turkey was engulfed in for decades.

At least two protesters died in Istanbul, said Amnesty International. More than 1,700 people have been detained in protests spreading across 67 cities, said the Interior Minister Muammer Guler on Sunday evening. There have been 235 demonstrations since Tuesday, he added.

Tension is palpable in the country. The police already clashed with tens of thousands of Istanbul residents trying to hold a May Day march, at the beginning of last month. The same month, about 200 people kissed in Ankara to protest against a morality campaign.

Proponents of the opposition Republican People’s Party, who are marching along other Turkish demonstrators on Taksim square, are calling for Erdogan’s resignation.

Just like Tunisians and Egyptians in 2012, Turkish are determined to stay in the square until the government meets their demands.

“In the past five years, despite the fact significant economic developments took place in Turkey, the core elements that make the Turkish Republic – freedom and secularism – have been eroded because of the current government,” explained Cem Yurdum, Turkish Manager at a global trading group in Hong Kong.

“We are fed up with policies that interfere with our daily lives,” he said.

Despite its alleged commitment to state secularism, the ruling Islamic-rooted Justice and Development (AK) Party is jeopardizing the country’s civil liberties, protesters say, by forcing conservative Islamic values on the country.

For instance, Turkey’s Parliament has passed on 24 May a legislation to limit sales of alcohol between 10 pm and 6 am, except in tourist zones, and ban advertising of alcohol.

Cem Baser, a Turkish Manager working for a logistics company in Hong Kong, criticized Erdogan for not cutting short his seven-day visit to the U.S. to pay his respect to the victims of the twin car bombs in the southern town of Reyhanli.

This assault is one of the deadliest attacks on Turkish soil in at least a decade. Turkish officials blamed the Syrian government. Angry Reyhanli residents later protested in the streets against Erdogan, according to a Turkish newspaper.

Many Turkish believe that the spilling of violence from neighboring Syria into their country stems from Turkey’s decision to support Syrian rebels in the war against President Bashar Assad.

“This is a wake up call for the Turkish nation,” Cem Baser said.


Is Taksim like Tahrir?

Make no mistake. The Turkish republic is significantly different from its Arab counterparts. Erdogan was democratically elected and has fostered positive change in the past 10 years, namely economic growth (if Turkey was part of the E.U., it would be the sixth most powerful nation). The country is a magnet for foreign direct investment and an export machine.

Unlike Hosni Mubarak, for instance, Erdogan is a legitimate leader. Besides, the country – and its prime minister – has been lauded in the West as an important NATO ally. It has also been a key player in the Syrian conflict.

Despite shows of defiance against Erdogan’s perceived authoritarianism, he remains, by far, Turkey’s most popular politician – he won three successive elections and holds around two thirds of the seats in parliament.

A more accurate comparison of the civil unrest taking place across Turkey today would be the 1968 protests worldwide. At that time, countries like the U.S. (with the civil rights movement), the U.K. and Germany were socially stable and enjoyed economic growth, just like modern Turkey. In France in particular, the most spectacular riots of students and workers took place – the country’s largest general strike. It paralyzed France and almost brought down the government.

Just like in May 1968, June 1-6, 2013 is the time of emancipation for Turkey. In less than a week, Turkish youth has precipitated a social and cultural revolution in reaction to the AK Party’s laws that prevent, for example, lovers from kissing each other in public. Similar retrograde laws were in place in the French republic of the late 1960s, where women were forbidden to wear pants to work.

The Turkish uprisings toll the death knell of the AK Party’s increasing grip on state institutions. Turkish protesters are airing grievances towards an increasingly authoritarian government, as its appetite for EU membership is fading away. In particular, they blame Erdogan for stifling freedom of expression and muffling opponents. The government cracked down on the media and jailed journalists allegedly plotting to topple the AK party in the past few years. In total, about 400 suspects, namely journalists, politicians, academics and retired military officers, are on trial.

Although Turkey is held up as a model for fledgling Arab democracies emerging from authoritarianism, it has not delivered on his long-awaited promise to enshrine civil liberties in the constitution. It has also repressed its Kurdish minority and assaulted its liberal democratic values – 13,000 Kurds were killed by the Turkish military in the 1930s.

If it all began with a grove of tree, this long-stifled resentment against an increasingly repressive government stresses that Erdogan might not be the exception in this war-torn region. The galvanization of the protests in Turkey also shows – and most importantly – that Islam is compatible with democracy, as long as it remains a private matter.

 The article was published on June 8, 2013 in Weekly Blitz. The online version is available here:

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