The View From Taksim Square: The Fight for Modern Turkey

An on-the-ground account of the first tear gas canisters flying

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ISTANBUL – Was this past weekend the beginning of the end of the wait for Turkey's day of reckoning with political Islam? The peaceful youth demonstrations in Tuksim Square in Istanbul quickly became violent due to the excessive force by the government in the form of tear gas and water cannons. We are in our seventh day of violence and it has not only spread into all the main cities like Istanbul, Ankara, Izmir, Adana and Hatay, but over 70 other Turkish cities and towns. There have been over 3,000 arrests, more than 1,500 injured and some deaths. Now Turkey's largest trade union groups are staging a strike. This has been the biggest anti-government demonstration in Turkey in over a decade.

I happened to be in Taksim Square last Friday when the first tear gas canisters were fired into the crowd.

I was with my class of 30 George Washington University Executive MBA students conducting a 10-day Istanbul residency on “Assessing the Business Risks in Emerging Markets.” Our hotel was on the famous pedestrian walk called Istiklal Avenue which leads right to Taksim Square. This avenue has foot traffic of over 3 million people a day on the weekends. Several days into the residency the students and I noticed riot police camped outside our hotel and all the way up and down Istiklal Avenue. Our hotel was an easy 10 minute stroll to Taksim Square. We saw more and more riot police each day with more equipment. But no one – neither foreigners nor Turks – was concerned; we knew there was a peaceful demonstration scheduled on Taksim Square by a group of environmentalists later in the week. We understood all this activity to mean, as did the locals, that we were seeing real democracy at work and that the riot police were there to make sure that the anticipated crowds of young people were kept safe. In fact, the students and I had discussed in class the growing noticeable presence of the riot police. We concluded that Turkey’s future was nearing a tipping point. None of us anticipated that it would arrive within 72 hours.

Last Friday most of the students and I were strolling up and down the Istiklal Avenue with the other foreign and Turkish shoppers during the early evening. All day young demonstrators had been steadily streaming into Taksim, chanting as they made their way toward the main square, all moving in harmony with the shoppers and in a peaceful mood on a beautiful day amid colorful banners.

Suddenly we heard a series of very loud bangs and then momentary silence. Everyone stopped. Then screams and shouts echoed off the cobblestones of the square and pedestrian walk. We were being shoved and pushed as mobs of people started running away from the square in every direction. Most of us ran down Istiklal Avenue toward our hotel. People were in disbelief and panicked. They were running and looking back, running and looking back – at Taksim Square – not believing that the government had fired upon the crowds. The air began to smell funny – of tear gas. People ran into shopping malls, restaurants, stores or any side alley street they could find. Good Samaritan shop keepers pulled shocked foreign shoppers into their stores to keep them safe from the running crowds and the tear gas – including one of my students who shot the video below. You can hear her thanking the shopkeeper for helping her.

The very loud, large bangs that we were hearing are typical of tear gas canisters being fired by police (gun fire has a higher pitch). Few know the difference but the sounds are unmistakable. I had heard them before and so had some of my students with military and security backgrounds. We immediately started running and texting other students to take cover from the gas, not to touch their face and to get as far away from Taksim Square as they could. At some point a helicopter dumped tear gas onto the crowds. Almost no one escaped without teary eyes or burning throats. No one could have imagined this kind of reaction by the government. Turkey watchers such as myself knew that public pressure was building up against the government – but this excessive use of force was an absolute shock.

That initial peaceful demonstration was about the planned commercial development of the Gezi Park- the only large green park in the middle of Istanbul. But the crowd’s frustration amidst heavy-handed government tactics on that first fatal day of what was supposed to be a democratic peaceful demonstration quickly brought to the surface the growing pressures building in Turkish society.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Middle East.]

These pressures include the growing perception of government autocracy and intolerance to dissent, the Islamization of Turkey, curbed freedom of the press and general increased government involvement in civilian social issues. For example, last month's regulations on the restricted sale and use of alcohol, more mosques being built and repaired all over Turkey (versus other public projects), government denouncements of public displays of affection, encouragement of families to have at least three children, CNN-Turk and prime-time TV stations airing cooking shows and penguin documentaries during the current Istanbul demonstrations, etc. There is a long list.

The government had believed that it was being very shrewd by slowly chipping away, using rules and regulations, to move the country towards a more conservative social agenda while pressing forward with economic growth. The people, however, are aware that each seemingly innocuous law by itself is changing the social and legal fabric of the country. This popular uprising is unprecedented, unexpected, unplanned and not organized by any entity in particular. The secular Turks are fighting for their personal freedom, sanctity of private lifestyle choices, and their public space. Their message to the government is clear: We are fed up with you. ... You are not listening to us. The peaceful protest which was started by a small group of environmentalists who were trying to stop 600 trees from being cut down in Gezi Park has now evolved into a national protest about getting the government to resign. 

How is this possible? Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan had nearly 50 percent of the public support in the 2011 elections and his AKP Justice and Development Party has been in power for a decade. Erdogan has won three landslide elections. The Turkish economy has been booming since it crashed in 2001. It had growth rates of 9 and 8.5 percent in 2010 and 2011, but dropped to 2.2 percent in 2012. Expected growth rates until this last weekend were between 3-4 percent for 2013 and 2014. Erdogan has an aggressive economic plan for the country. He has a "2023 Vision" to upgrade the economy with public projects in time for the centennial of Turkey's founding. For example, he wants to build a new $29 billion third airport for Istanbul that could support 100 million passengers annually. He has tripled Turkey's per capita gross domestic product in a decade. He is making a bid to bring the 2020 Summer Olympics to Istanbul.

He was recently in Washington D.C. and was quoted as saying "Turkey's not talking about the world now…[t]he world is talking about Turkey." Well he's right – but the world isn't focused on the topics of foreign investment and business that he had in mind.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the economy.]

The point is that much of the economic planning this government is doing is without much public debate or input. The gray areas of politics and business are still of concern. For example, "the company that won the contract to rebuild Tarlabasi [a neighborhood near Istanbul's Gezi Park] is owned by Calik Holding, whose CEO is Prime Minister Erdogan's son-in-law," according to Foreign Policy. Sounds like business as usual in the region and not the new modern country model for the newly liberated fragile Islamic states.

I wrote an article seven months ago saying that "Turkey could lead the Post-Arab Spring Muslim World." I asked: "Is Turkey's AKP Justice and Development Party elegant enough to realize that it could elevate Turkey to be the standard bearer once more for the Muslim world as chaotic Egypt cannot control itself?" Well the answer to that question was came last Friday; with tear gas, water cannons, press censorship and increasing autocratic rule. The key question is if this event has tarnished Turkey as the beacon of a modern Islamic emerging market?

[Read the U.S. News Debate: Has Obama Properly Handled the Arab Spring?]

Secular Turks are angry at Erdogan (whom they believe is intoxicated with power and whose main goal is Islamization) and not towards President Abdullah Gul who is viewed as more moderate. It is widely believed that Erdogan and Gul will compete for the presidency in next year's election. The Erdogan government is only safe if foreign investment keeps pouring into Turkey and growth continues.

Erdogan's worst fears may be coming true as international news channels are showing vivid images that look like Turkey is having its own "Turkish [late] Spring." The truth of the matter is that from one day to the next, given all the media bombardment about unrest in the Middle East, most people cannot distinguish between riots in Manama (Bahrain), Cairo (Egypt) or Tuksim Square (Istanbul). The images are the same: youths are throwing stones while riot police are tear gassing and using water cannons. Foreign investors and market analysts know that what is happening in Turkey is very different than Arab Spring, but they are watching very carefully – as is the International Olympic Committee.

This is a stark reminder that Turkey is still “an emerging market” thus lucrative but volatile. It is also a shot across the bow for many American universities who are on the bandwagon of international student residencies in the fast paced emerging markets. This is a reminder that emerging market uncertainties are very real and universities must be seasoned in the global residency business. My students are lucky – George Washington University excels at it and we had the students who wanted to leave extracted from the area in less than 24 hours from the time the first canister of tear gas was fired.

Turkey has always been seen as the perfect candidate to bridge Eastern and Western markets, however, the rise of modern Turkey (since the early 1900s) has always fallen short in the end. We thought that perhaps it might be different this time. While I write this blog, with my throat still a bit scratchy from the Turkish tear gas, I am feeling cautiously pessimistic. The fight to create a secular modern Islamic democracy with a fast growing free market is still being waged and is far from won in Turkey. This is not going to end anytime soon. 

  • Read Lamont Colucci: Bush Grasped Counterterrorism Far More Than Obama
  • Read Claire Belinski: Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the Turkey Riots
  • Check out U.S. News Weekly, now available on iPad

  • Corrected on 6/6/13: An earlier version of this blog post understated the number of people injured in the Turkish protests. More than 1,500 have been injured. Also an earlier version of this post incorrectly stated how much of the vote Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan received in the 2011 election. It was slightly less than 50 percent.