Taksim Square has been converted into what one journalist called a "utopic Freetown" over several days of police non-involvement. Thousands of protesters are packing the square and adjacent Gezi Park in what began as a protest against plans to redevelop one of Istanbul's few remaining green spaces into a shopping centre, but has now become a more general vehicle for discontent against the policies of Erdogan's AKP government.
My girlfriend, a fellow Haligonian, and I met up in Taksim to take in the protests on their ninth day, which were full enough to paralyze Taksim's metro station and turn everyone into a giant bucket of dripping sweat.
Being a foreigner with virtually no knowledge of Turkish, I had to wait until today's news to understand why everyone around me was offering me free baked goods, and why my quests for beery refreshment were thwarted. Turns out that Gezi Park was collectively celebrating Miraç Kandili, an Islamic holiday. Via social media, occupiers declared a no-alcohol zone out of respect for Muslim protesters, even inviting an imam to read at these typically secular protests. And I just thought they were trying to sell me cookies...
Government efforts to brand the protests as overwhelmingly young, liberal, and secular have evidently failed, with members of the religious community lending their support in the form of safe havens, medical supplies, and religious services.
While all was peachy in Istanbul (and while Taksim metro was paralyzed by untold numbers of excited protesters and curious citizens), sympathy protests in other cities in Turkey were met with police and AKP supporter violence (see below). Censorship and arrests continue to affect Twitter users and other sympathetic citizens. While the barricades may be keeping police at bay in Istanbul for the moment, late-night football fan-led marches planned at Dolmabahce Palace, where Erdogan has an office, have previously been met with brutal repression and are likely to face it again, should Erdogan come to Istanbul.
In largely positive news:
- Taksim Platform met yesterday with Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç. Sources cited by Hurriyet quoted Taksim Platform as saying they had no authority to end the protests, and were merely presenting a list of demands. According to the article, they are mostly environmental, though not limited to Gezi Park. Taksim Platform demanded an end to several of Erdogan's other controversial unilateral development projects, including the third bridge over the Bosphorus, the "crazy" Istanbul Canal project, the demolition of the Ataturk Culture Museum, and plans for a third airport. They continued calls for the resignation of public officials and an end to tear gassing. Arınç said the government would discuss "binding promises".
- Turkey's foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu has criticized the US response to reports of police brutality, saying, "These sorts of incidents happen everywhere and they are considered unexceptional." Kurdish blogger Dilar Dirik certainly thinks they are unexceptional, citing the hypocrisy of Kemalist Turks taking to the streets when Kurds have experienced the same systematic state repression for decades. She writes, "Millions of Kurds occupied the streets in Turkey this year and this sort of terrifying police violence is not at all new to them. The difference is that nobody cared."
- In an apparent exercise in irony, Erdogan received an honourary degree from the University of Algiers while on his tour of North Africa for his "contributions to humanity". Turkey's human rights record is the worst it's been in a decade, when Erdogan took power, with more journalists imprisoned than Iran and China.
- Turkish Airlines flight attendants, who earlier this year were banned from wearing red lipstick or nail polish (since overturned) -- and who just received some hideous new uniforms from a conservative redesign process -- have joined the protest by demonstrating flight safety in Guy Fawkes masks in Istanbul's Galatasaray Square.
- Violence between police and protesters continued in the capital of Ankara, where police hit union and opposition members with a "sudden tear gas attack". Reports have been coming out of Ankara that a minority of protesters are throwing stones at police approaching Kizilay Square.
- A Turkish game show is facing censorship after changing all of its questions and answers to subtle references to the Taksim protests. Answers included "gas mask", "apology", and "twitter", for which the question was, "The microblog and social network site that has been described as a 'menace'" -- a reference to Erdogan's declaration that Twitter caused social unrest. For full translation and more on media censorship in Turkey (including the infamous penguins), see Zeynep Tufeki's post here.
- The first confirmed instances of supporter violence occurred yesterday in Rize, the hometown of PM Erdogan. AKP supporters allegedly attacked members of the Turkish Youth Union protesting in solidarity with Gezi Park. The PM's earlier threats that he could mobilize his supporters to quell protests seem a lot scarier now that instances of violence are beginning to pop up. As the New York Times reported earlier, even Istanbul has its pro-Erdogan neighbourhood, where a stadium is named in his honour.
- Eleven foreign nationals, including four exchange students, have been detained for allegedly "provoking protesters", whatever that means.
- Whit Mason in the Financial Post writes that the cause of the protests isn't Erdogan's conservativism, but his illiberality. According to Mason, the desire for reform has less to do with religion and more to do with restraining the power of majoritarian governments. Given that Erdogan is changing the constitution in an effort to set up a presidential run for himself, giving himself potentially 10 more years in power, it seems like a fair point.