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ISTANBUL — It was always about more than just a park.
A small group of Turks staged a sit-in Friday at Istanbul’s Gezi Park, just off Taksim Square to protest the development of the city’s 94th mall on the last green space in the concrete city center.
In responding to the peaceful protest, the Turkish police fired tear gas, water cannons, and pepper spray onto the citizens they are tasked with protecting. It was not a particularly unusual response for the heavy-handed police forces, who have been known to use similar tactics against crowds in Turkey’s largest city, including as recently as May Day.
But this time was different. Rather than retreat from the police, the protesters grew in number; rather than assess whether the demonstrations would fizzle out, the police responded with increased brutality. Reuters reported that more than 1,000 of the tens of thousands of protesters have been injured in Istanbul, and several hundred more in the capital city of Ankara, in the course of more than 90 demonstrations during the last three days.
As the protests expanded to other neighborhoods in Istanbul and to other cities in Turkey, so did the objective. Turks have come out in the thousands to oppose the Islamist government, headed by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party, that many believe has threatened the political foundation of this traditionally secular democracy.
As one example, the government recently passed legislation limiting the sale of alcohol after 10 p.m. and has funded various controversial public works projects in Istanbul, from mosques to a bridge across the Bosporus that will be named after a controversial Ottoman sultan.
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Now, the feeling in Istanbul is one of confusion, anger, and eerie tension. Transportation has been curbed, as whole neighborhoods have turned into combat areas.
Turkey has the highest number of jailed journalists in the world, and the press is frequently censored. Turks and witnesses have relied on Web sites such as Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter to share their experiences, though a crackdown on social media has limited access.
As a result, talk has been spreading as quickly as the protests themselves: that 40,000 people protested on Saturday on one of Istanbul’s bridges; that police have used guns and Agent Orange on citizens; that they’ve fired tear gas into ambulances, taxis, and subway cars. These accounts have not been substantiated, but their persistence is indicative of the atmosphere in this city. While the protests have been contained to a few areas, Turks are driving through the city waving flags, honking horns, banging on cooking pans, and marching in solidarity with the movement.
Many have called on Mr. Erdogan to resign. But the prime minister is widely popular in the more conservative parts of the country, so his re-electability — and his continually expanded power — may not be weakened by the weekend’s events.
The police violence, fear mongering, and reliance on social media have strong hints of the Arab Spring, events more reminiscent of a dictatorship than a democracy. Turkey has historically been the most secular country in the Middle East, a strong ally of the United States, and a perpetual candidate for European Union membership. Critics of Mr. Erdogan’s party claim that it has been undermining the country’s secular political framework for years. The government’s response to its citizens’ demands will provide insight into whether they are right.
The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Elizabeth Bloom is a reporter for the Post-Gazette.
Contact Elizabeth Bloom at: Ebloom@post-gazette.com