In spite of ongoing country-wide protests, the Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said that the redevelopment of Gezi Park in Istanbul will go ahead as planned.
Cutting short his current North African tour, Mr. Erdogan is returning to Turkey as mass protests continue to bring the country to a standstill. His prediction that the protests would be over by the time he returned from his Africa trip was squashed as rioting continued to take place last night in cities across Turkey. Police in Ankara used tear gas and water cannon on protesters who had barricaded roads and set the barricades on fire.
The current street protests in Turkey are the largest public demonstrations since the Justice and Development Party (AKP), an Islamic-leaning party, came into power over ten years ago. They began on May 28th, with a protest against the demolition and redevelopment of Gezi Park in Taksim Square, Istanbul. Just a few weeks earlier, police had angered leftist marchers by preventing them from holding their usual May Day rally in the square. With tensions already high, the proposed building of a mosque and Ottoman-style barracks on a site of great symbolic importance to non Islamic Turks led a relatively small number of protesters to ‘occupy’ the park.
It was the reaction of the police, however, which turned a protest about the redevelopment of a park into country-wide demonstrations and riots in which thousands have been injured and almost a thousand have been arrested to date. Riot police used tear gas and water cannon to clear the crowd out of the park, and their actions sparked a wave of solidarity protests in dozens of cities and towns across the country.
Officially, there is no direct link between the demonstrators and Turkey’s secularist opposition, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), although the government has alleged that the CHP are leading the protesters. A separate committee representing the demonstrators has been formed with the purpose of negotiating with the government. The Taksim Solidarity Platform (TSP) is demanding that redevelopment plans concerning Gezi Park be abandoned, and that all imprisoned protesters be released. It is also calling for a ban on the use of tear gas, and the removal of police chiefs from their positions.
Demonstrators are also demanding the resignation of Mr. Erdogan amidst growing fears that Turkey’s secular state is being slowly Islamized under the Prime Minister’s regime. His increasingly authoritarian government has sought to introduce bans on adultery, public displays of affection, and late-night sales of alcohol, as well as lifting the ban on the Islamic headscarf.
Non-Islamic residents of Turkey who identify themselves as secular are angry at the gradual Islamization of their secular, democratic state. The brutality of the police and the refusal of the government to listen to public demands on the Gezi Park issue have been the triggers for a show of nationwide public unrest that has been building for some time. The Prime Minister, however, claims that the protests are organized by ‘extremists’.