The violence racking Turkey over the last five days hasn't been about saving a few trees in densely developed Istanbul.
By the hundreds of thousands, Turks have been venting a decadelong accumulation of resentments over what they regard as Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s high-handed conduct in modernizing the famed Eurasian crossroads and riding roughshod over opponents' views.
Erdogan unilaterally decided to replace a rare patch of greenery in central Istanbul with a shopping mall and high-rise apartment complex, despite planning authorities' rejection and a court order to halt the work.
He also took it upon himself to name a new bridge over the Bosphorus for Yavuz Sultan Selim, a 16th century Ottoman sultan known for slaughtering the Alevi minority as well as expanding the empire’s reach.
The prime minister, who will have exhausted his term limits as government leader next year, is expected then to make a run at the presidency, and has been pushing for constitutional changes that would enhance the powers of that mostly ceremonial office.
Erdogan outraged trade unionists when he outlawed demonstrations on May 1, the traditional holiday celebrating labor. And the legislation he pushed through the Turkish parliament last month to limit when and where beer, wine and spirits can be sold has been met with accusations that he is imposing his own conservative Islamic views on the entire 80 million population.
The turmoil that began as a peaceful environmental protest last week, then flared into a national crisis after police tried to crush the sit-in with tear gas, water cannons and truncheons, reflects Turkish fears that Erdogan is undermining the country’s nearly century-old democracy and seeking to resurrect the authoritarian rule of the sultans.
Throughout the "Arab Spring" uprisings against long-ruling dictators over the last three years, Turkey has been held up by the advocates of democracy as a model for Muslim countries in the Middle East to emulate. Analysts now warn that Turkey is at risk of tarnishing its democratic credentials if Erdogan continues to disregard the needs and desires of the 50% of Turkish voters who didn’t support him.
Gezi Park, where private contractors with close government ties began uprooting trees in preparation for the building project, became the boil-over point for Erdogan critics because “all the issues people complain about are rolled up in it,” said Steven A. Cook, an expert on Turkish politics at the Council on Foreign Relations.
“It’s got crony capitalism, a brutal police force, an arrogant government and a prime minister who is accumulating power with little regard for those who disagree with him,” said Cook.
Police attempted to break up the initial sit-in at Gezi Park by hurling tear gas canisters – reportedly at protesters' heads. The excessive use of force drew worldwide condemnation and spurred a massive, nationwide outpouring into the streets.
More than 3,000 people have been injured in the running battles between riot police and protesters. At least two young men have died in the melees that have spread to almost every major city.
Before leaving Monday on a three-day visit to northern Africa, Erdogan dismissed the violence as the work of troublemakers “arm in arm with terrorists” and said he expected it all to have blown over by the time he returns.
Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc sought Tuesday to defuse the protests with an apology for “the excessive use of force.” A day earlier, President Abdullah Gul, once a close ally of Erdogan but likely to be his rival in next year’s election, obliquely criticized the prime minister when he observed that “peaceful demonstrations are part of democracy.”
Even in Erdogan’s absence, those gestures are unlikely to mollify protesters venting anger that has been building for years.
“The contrition has to come from Erdogan, but it’s very hard to see that happening,” said Cook. “It’s just not in his makeup.”
Political analysts forecast a worsening confrontation unless and until Erdogan shows some flexibility on the Gezi Park project in particular and his style of governance in general.
“We’re talking about a very devout leader who says he rejects all forms of nationalism, yet he incorporates nostalgia for the Ottoman period in his foreign policy as well as his desire for grandeur in architecture,” said Bulent Aliriza, founder and director of the Turkey Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Among the projects planned for Taksim Square, the area that includes Gezi Park, is a replica of a 19th century Ottoman military barracks.
Aliriza describes the unrest gripping Turkey now as the collision of “the irresistible force of Erdogan and the immovable object of an unhappy population.”
He says the prime minister has two ways out of the crisis: reiterate Arinc’s apology for the police brutality and freeze the controversial Taksim Square building project, or order police to clear the square “with all that that implies in the danger of further fatalities.”
He laments that Erdogan’s “track record” suggests he’ll attempt the latter, undermining Turkey’s image as a country that put authoritarian rule and militancy behind it.
Since a Tunisian vegetable seller set himself on fire in December 2010 to protest police seizure of his cart, “the hope and expectation has been that Turkey would lead the way for these countries,” Aliriza said of the "Arab Spring" uprisings. “But when Turkish police are behaving this way, using disproportionate force against those peacefully voicing their dissent, then you cannot be a model or an inspiration to anyone.”
A foreign correspondent for 25 years, Carol J. Williams traveled to and reported from more than 80 countries in Europe, Asia, the Middle East and Latin America.