The air of uncertainty in Istanbul

Despite Erdogan’s surprisingly autocratic turn, the protesters have not given up

Breathing the air...

Dado Ruvic/Reuters

It’s been a startling three weeks in Istanbul. What appeared at first to be a gathering of tree-huggers and hippies in a park in the city centre has evolved into a mass mobilization challenging the legitimacy of Turkish Prime Minster Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Istanbul’s downtown core has been turned into a battle zone, primarily by the police who roam its labyrinthine streets in packs, seeking out

groups of potential protesters to question and disperse. An unnatural tranquility has descended over Taksim Square and Gezi Park, the focal points of the protests and the heart of a frenetic city. On any given day, tens of thousands of people normally converge on Taksim and Gezi, from irreverent revellers to the more sedate faithful, mulling around the Atatürk monument or lounging on the diminishing patches of grass in this concrete-encrusted metropolis.

Now Gezi has fallen silent and Taksim moribund. The violent clashes that marked the early days of the protests have been crushed. In place of the tear gas that hovered for weeks in the air is the one question on everyone’s mind: What next?

Looking forward has never been as unpredictable as it is now in Turkey. Over the past three weeks, Turks have witnessed the death of quite a few dreams. But perhaps the most astonishing is the vision for Turkey held by its leader, Erdogan.

When he first took over the prime ministerial office in 2003, on the back of a sweeping electoral victory by his Justice and Development Party (AKP), Erdogan—a pious Muslim— promised a new era in Turkish politics, one free from ideological confrontation and rooted in modern concepts of plurality and inclusiveness.

Over the next few years, he built an image for himself as a leader for the people, not only in Turkey, but throughout the Muslim world, and also in the West. Events in Turkey’s neighourhood played in his favour: In March 2003, the U.S. invaded Iraq but the AKP-dominated parliament refused to let them open a northern front through Turkey. Anti-war protesters, millions of them around the world, loved them for it. Erdogan’s vocal support for the revolutions in Arab countries endeared him to the Arab street.

At the 2011 Arab League summit in Egypt, he called on leaders to respect individual freedoms. “A secular state does not mean an irreligious state,” he said. “Rather, it means respect for all the religions and giving all individuals the freedom to practise religion as they please.”

More recently, his vocal condemnation of the atrocities carried out by the Syrian regime, and support for the Syrian opposition, has won him friends in Europe and North America.

Domestically, he has won praise for kick-starting Turkey’s economy and raising its international profile. He has stood up to the arrogance of European leaders such as former French president Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, both of whom publicly opposed Turkey’s membership in the European Union. And he has fought for the rights of his Muslim base, repealing draconian laws banning the head scarf and helping religious high schools gain greater legitimacy.

If nothing else, Erdogan has been a brilliant strategist. He has spent the past decade creating an image of himself as a principled leader, untainted by ideologically driven politics. But over the past few years, contradictions have begun to seep through.

Erdogan has been accused of letting his personal piety affect government decision-making. Attempts at sharply limiting abortion, curbing alcohol consumption, and even forcing Turkish Airline stewardesses to wear more conservative uniforms have been met with accusations of Islamization.

Media freedoms have plummeted in recent years; Turkey now holds the infamous title of being the “the world’s largest prison for journalists,” according to Reporters Without Borders. Pro-government media outlets have resorted to conspiracy theories, blaming unrest on everything from Jewish plots to Western imperialism, while Erdogan himself has called social media “the best example of lies” and “the worst menace to society.”

But the Turkish public doesn’t appear to be buying it. A recent nationwide poll conducted by MetroPoll, a Turkish research organization, showed that only 3.2 per cent of Turks believe external and internal powers were behind the protests, while a meagre 0.6 per cent blame them on traditional and social media.

Suggestions have been made of a growing rift between Erdogan and Turkish president Abdullah Gul. The party itself is showing internal strains, as well, with two factions developing, according to sources in the party—one opposed to Erdogan and one supporting him.

Erdogan himself seems desperate, exhibiting all the characteristics of the embattled authoritarian leaders he criticized during the Arab Spring and lashing out at phantom enemies. Facebook and Twitter are being closely monitored and blamed for inciting the unrest. And security forces have begun conducting nationwide sweeps, arresting anyone with connections to the protests.

These are not the actions of a pro-democracy leader. Erdogan has gone from a shining light to a dark shadow. Turks were not alone in misjudging him. In 2010, the United Nations awarded him the Habitat award for his “excellent achievement and commendable conduct in the area of leadership, statesmanship and good governance.” A year earlier, the Crans Montana Forum in Brussels awarded him the Prix de la Fondation, given to the “great modern actors of peace, liberty and democracy.” They must be squirming now.

What’s encouraging, however, is how the protesters have responded to Erdogan’s confrontational stance.

During early days of the protest, after Erdogan accused them of being fringe groups and extremists, they turned Gezi Park into a festival, erecting a library, food stalls and medical tents. A baby grand piano was rolled into the centre of Taksim Square and performers entertained protesters, day and night.

Later, when Erdogan called protesters çapulcu, roughly translated as “looters,” the word, and its Anglicized version, chapulling, was quickly appropriated and transformed into a badge of honour. Pictures depicting protesters singing and dancing with taglines such as, “We’re chapulling!” went viral. “I’m a çapulcu!” Ayse Ozturk, a 28-year-old office worker in Istanbul told Maclean’s. “I’m looting all of the rights and freedoms Erdogan has stolen from me.”

Later still, after Istanbul Gov. Hüseyin Avni Mutlu asked mothers of the protesters to come to Taksim and take their children home, mothers swarmed Taksim Square en masse, forming a human chain around protesters.

But perhaps the most moving expression of defiance was the durandam (standing man), a single man standing in an emptied Taksim Square. For hours through the night on June 17, he stood still, facing the now-defunct Atatürk Cultural Centre, and was eventually joined by dozens of others in a silent vigil to a lost dream.

The standing man has now become the new face of the protests. “More standing people everywhere,” said one protester, requesting anonymity.

Taksim Square and Gezi Park may be quiet now, but it seems the silence is deafening.