Is Erdogan afraid of the 'Arab Spring' bug?
Istanbul – Since the start of the protests and ensuing unrest in Turkey, a peculiar tradition has emerged in Istanbul. As the soon as the clock strikes 9 p.m., a chorus of percussion – banging pots and pans – emanates from open windows in “pro-opposition” buildings. The cacophony lasts for about half an hour, sometimes more, depending on the day’s events. Its purpose: to show solidarity with the protesters in Taksim Square.
Aznur returned from the dentist disappointed and worried. She had an appointment, but the clinic was closed. She was not sure if this had something to do with the general strike called by Turkey’s trade unions.
The young woman, in her twenties, stood bemused, her face still swollen from yesterday’s tear gas. She then mumbled, “Maybe he is still detained. He was protesting with us last night.”
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Though Aznur’s English is broken, this is nonetheless a “great achievement” in Turkey, where few people go on to master any foreign languages. In truth, the language barrier has made on-location coverage difficult for those who want to understand events beyond the news agencies.
Five Turkish trade unions declared the strike following the brutal police crackdown on protesters, which has claimed the lives of four activists and injured thousands since the protests began. Yesterday alone, 600 protesters were detained throughout Turkey, according to a source in the Turkish Bar Association who declined to be named.
The trade unions’ move also signals their rejection of the policies of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Such policies have started to infringe alarmingly on individual freedoms, as many young men and women have told us.
Serttaş, a 30-year-old physical therapist, said, “Does Erdogan think Turkey is Gaza? The municipality of Ankara prohibited men and women from holding hands in public places and public transportation! Who does he think he is? All that is left for him to do is come with me to the bathroom! And why would he ban the sale of alcohol after 10 p.m.? I don’t understand.”
“We are here defending our way of life,” he added.
Yesterday was a momentous day. The repression of unarmed, peaceful protesters was unparalleled for a country not at war. Perhaps the explanation for Erdogan’s ham-fisted approach lies in his fear of catching the “Arab Spring” bug.
In its crackdown on the protesters, the government used a new type of tear gas, which could be a misnomer since the gas is blinding, as we were told by medical sources who said that 17 people have lost their sight because of the gas. The government has also shut down all communications, Internet access, and public transport like the subway and taxis. On top of it all, he has cut off power from Taksim Square to deter protesters from coming to the site.
These measures paralyzed the touristic capital. Thousands of tourists were stranded. We were able to spot some lost in the streets, unable to find their way back to their hotels.
We saw a Japanese tourist standing in front of a clerk at the bus station in Findikli Station on the Bosphorus. “I have a question,” she tried to tell the clerk. He looked at her said, “Yok yok” – Turkish for “there isn’t,” as in there isn’t anything operating. The tourist asked again, “Bus? Tram?”
“Bus yok, metro yok,” the clerk replied, making hand gestures to mimic someone walking. The girl, not quite sure what to do, followed his advice.
I, too, was stranded after witnessing the dispersal of a protest near Taksim using tear gas, water cannons, and batons. I ran away from the terrible smell in the direction of the waterfront along with some protesters. There, I encountered staggering traffic along the Bosphorus.
I learned afterwards that the legendary traffic was caused by Erdogan’s supporters, who came in from the Turkish provinces to meet his call to rally in the neighborhood of Zeytinburnu, where Erdogan delivered his speech.
“Most people left before Erdogan finished half of his speech,” a man in his fifties told us from where he standing, in front of his café. I glanced at the Turkish television inside that was broadcasting Erdogan’s speech, and I saw the flag of the Syrian opposition.
During my long wait at the waterfront, I saw many large buses packed with women wearing the headscarf, and crammed taxis. Traffic was a standstill. We asked one taxi after another, “Osmanbey?” to which the unanimous answer was “Kapali, kapali,” meaning “it’s closed.” The police reinforcements had closed it down.
Nearly an hour later, when Erdogan’s speech was over, traffic suddenly started rolling. In a matter of minutes, the street was completely empty, as though someone had blocked it at a faraway spot. I heard chants in the distance, and soon thereafter, a few-hundred-strong protest arrived in the area. Clearly, they came to protest against what Erdogan said during his speech.
Most of the protesters are young and middle class. There even are claims that most of the protesters are taking to the streets for the first time. Almost everyone was wearing a gas mask or goggles.
They looked at the choppers flying overhead and waved their fists at them in a challenging gesture. Passing boats in the Bosphorus sounded their horns, and people banged pots on balconies or applauded.
Şenol, a 40-year-old man who took part in the protests, said, “I do not blame the poor for backing Erdogan. They do not know their rights. They think that the handouts of the Justice and Development Party are something good. They don’t understand that his economic policies impoverish them.”
He continued, “Erdogan fools them with religious slogans while he sells public property, and expands the circle of cronies of businessmen and the nouveau riche. One day, they will understand. We too voted for him thinking he would rid us of the military, but he is worse than them.”
The time is nearly 8 p.m. The sky is overcast. I tried to contact friends, but the phone lines are broken. Smartphones weren’t so smart either, because the Internet had been shut down.
Istanbul was nearly choking because of the fires and toxic gases that poisoned the air. Scores of hotel reservations and trips have been cancelled, much to the chagrin of workers who depend on tourism to make a living.
The clashes in Taksim and neighboring quarters continued throughout Saturday and Sunday. Street battles near the Osmanbey metro station led to a major confrontation on Sunday shortly after 4 p.m.
It rained heavily, flash-flooding Istanbul’s streets. The rain washed away the toxic air, and forced some police officers to retreat. The protesters also took advantage of the rain to flee to their homes and wait for the next round of protests tomorrow.