Last night, Taksim Square was the site of one of its biggest rallies yet, as Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan returned to Ankara sounding his usual defiant tone.
Though Taksim remains the “utopic freetown” of several days ago, sympathy protests in Ankara were gassed by police for a second day in a row. Disturbing allegations of police brutality, including an account of a police officer threatening one female detainee with rape, are now emerging. The Turkish media, still eager to please the government, remains in a cycle of narcissistic self-criticism and coverage of Erdogan’s speeches, instead relegating these allegations to their sex blog, presumably in the hopes they will escape litigation.
On the other side of the equation, six police have committed suicide since the protests began, according to the police union, facing brutal working conditions and general hatred from the populace. Many police are being drafted in to the centres of protest from far away towns and are removed from their families, forced to sleep on public benches and work long hours. Though sympathy for police is understandably difficult amid reports of such brutality, it probably does not help their sense of proportion and justice to be routinely exhausted and isolated.
Though other members of Erdogan’s government, including Istanbul Governor Hüseyin Avni Mutlu and Deputy PM Bulent Arinc have made conciliatory motions towards protesters (in the former’s case, even expressing a desire to be with them), Erdogan himself remains stubbornly defiant. Taking ownership of the police, he declared in a speech from conservative Ankara: “There are those who side with those swearing against the prime minister of this country. We are going to show patience, but patience has a limit as well.”
Continuing to lash out at other opponents, and wildly criticize abstract bodies of opposition including an alleged “interest rate lobby”, Erdogan added, “The moment we discover stock exchange speculation, we will ram it down your throat.”
These increasingly violent and defiant tones from the prime minister are all the more alarming as the AKP prepares for counter-protests scheduled in Ankara and Istanbul. Amid reports of supporter violence, there is a potential for this to grow ugly as the AKP attempts to galvanize opposition to the protests into a single bloc.
Meanwhile, foreign media outlets appear to be showing considerable sympathy with the protesters, who have escaped stereotyping as young, secular, and anti-religious. “Anti-capitalist Muslims,” now a considerable bloc within the protests, have attracted media attention as a symbol of the wide-reaching criticisms of the AKP represented in Gezi.
Though the protests began as an attempt to prevent the redevelopment of Istanbul’s historic square into what one article called an “neo-Ottoman theme park,” the brutality of the police response has created sympathy among opponents of the AKP’s religious and economic conservativism.
Despite ongoing protests, Erdogan still maintains he will redevelop the park. In the New York Times, Michael Kimmelman argues the importance of the project for Erdogan is the sanitization and Islamification of the public square, long a disorganized and yet harmonious whole, eschewing class and political distinction. Erdogan’s efforts to build a new, sizeable mosque and reconstruct an Ottoman-era building, he writes, are part of an effort to return Taksim to a pre-Republican past, a project dear to Erdogan’s religious sensibilities — the Ottoman period less unforgivably secular than Ataturk’s republic.
(It also seems Erdogan has little respect for the national hero of secular Turks, having called him a drunk in discussions over his proposed new liquor restrictions, much to the ire of Ataturk’s Kemalist fan clubs. Erdogan has previously stated that anyone drinking more than a few drinks a year is an alcoholic.)
This pro-development, Ottoman-revival attitude is not just limited to Gezi — as reported today, reconstructing a residence of the Sheikh al-Islam in a university’s botanical garden is also a pet project of Erdogan’s.
Amid continuing EU pressure and rumours of early elections, Erdogan is coming under increasing pressure to do something, anything, to indicate he is willing to compromise. However, as several commentators pointed out when the protests first began, this has become an issue of hubris, and Erdogan now risks losing his sway over his bloc of loyal supporters if he indicates any desire to be a Prime Minister for the other 49 percent.
- EU criticism of Erdogan’s reponse to the protests remains heavy on police brutality and public censorship, but suspiciously light on media censorship. It seems the EU thinks Twitter is more important than a newspaper or television station able to broadcast criticism of government, but maybe that’s just because it’s doing more to undermine Erdogan’s government right now. Either way, for shame, EU, for shame.
- A good article in the Economist points out something many commentators have missed in their criticisms of Erdogan — that he is preparing a bid to become Turkey’s first popularly elected president, while simultaneously expanding the power of the post to dissolve parliament and appoint the cabinet. If you think Erdogan is acting like an autocrat now, the enhanced powers of the presidency would certainly make him more immune to parliamentary criticism. If criticism continues to grow, writes the Economist, current President Abdullah Gul might be encouraged to run again — and may win the support of Turkey’s powerful Gulen movement to do it. Meanwhile, the party rank and file, not immune from the fallout, is concerned Gezi Park may end their majority in the November election.
- The tourism and spirits industry has criticized proposed new liquor restrictions ahead of their final drafting, saying they were not consulted. The restrictions, which disallow sales between 10 P.M. and 6 A.M. and forbid alcohol within 100m of a school or mosque (which affects most of crowded urban Besiktas) have been widely criticized, leading some within the protests to ironically call it the “alcoholics” movement.
- An ongoing controversy about whether protesters fleeing police and receiving medical care in a local mosque wore shoes and drank beer is getting a lot of media attention, not least because it trades on the idea that the protests are predominantly anti-religious. Despite the fact that the imam of the mosque denied the claims several times, Erdogan maintains this affront to Islam is indicative of the overall mood of the protest.
- In neighbouring Iraq, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has visited Iraqi Kurdistan in a bid to ease rising tensions, which have increased since militants from Turkey began their withdrawal into the area last month. Longstanding disputes over oil resources have led to threats of “renegotiation” of the relationship between the two governments.
- The situation in nearby Lebanon is deteriorating as Hezbollah gets more tangled up in the Syrian conflict. Your Middle East has an excellent piece on the sectarian troubles of Lebanon and why another civil war may be immanent.
- Meanwhile, the Syrian army is gearing up to take the longtime rebel stronghold of Aleppo, according to the Daily Star. A victory here, with the assistance of Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia, could turn the tide of the civil war, just as allegations of chemical warfare and ethnic cleansing are pushing Western nations to intervene on behalf of the rebels.