Istanbul, Turkey – The world’s attention turned to Brazil and the financial markets as things returned to normal here in Turkey. I spent the last two days in this ancient city, and there were very few signs (even in Gezi Park and Taksim Square) that anything was amiss. Clusters of police officers found shelter from the sun in Taksim, but there was no evidence that they were spoiling for a fight. The occasional “standing man” (or standing person, as we saw a few women as well) could be seen scattered around the city. Otherwise, little is visible.
But that doesn’t mean that nothing is happening. It took me nearly a week to figure it out, but I’m reasonably confident about the basic narrative: a small group of activists objected to the planned construction of an Ottoman-style barracks at Gezi Park, a small patch of trees near Taksim Square. Trees are a useful thing in a city where the summer days are hot, something that I now appreciate first hand. And Gezi is a bigger than I expected. It looks like a nice place to relax or picnic.
When police disrupted a peaceful protest with what many saw as excessive force, others rallied to the protesters’ cause, assembling in nearby Taksim. But within a short time, other opposition groups seized upon the protest to push their pet projects, most of which revolved around Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). When a few of those late-arrivals (and I have not heard anyone suggest that the original protesters were among this group) resorted to violence, burning cars and vandalizing businesses, they lost support of some who might otherwise have been sympathetic to their cause. This is not to excuse the excessive police response, but the message I heard repeatedly was that the perception of a break down of civil order simply could not be tolerated. This is not an idle concern in a country with a history of military coups supplanting civilian authority.
On the other hand, fears of a return to military rule—a Kemalist revival, as it were—seem overdone. A few look back fondly at that earlier period, albeit through rose-colored glasses, but most of the protesters and their supporters are looking forward, not backward. AKP supporters are a little too quick to invoke the Kemalism bogeyman, the one thing that united classical liberals and religious people behind the AKP in the first place. The AKP also likes to blame foreigners, including the foreign press, for throwing gas on the fire. Some allege that foreigners must have started it. By dismissing the liberals’ legitimate concerns about the state of Turkey’s democracy, Erdogan risks losing them completely.