One week on from what began as an environmental protest to save a park in central Istanbul, Turkish streets are engulfed by heated debate on all sides about which way the country is heading. The explosion of expression, some of it peaceful, some of it not, has brought forth new alliances and aired old grievances. The fall out lead to a notable dip in the stock exchange and a public apology by a leading broadcaster for not giving the protest enough airtime. Ironically, it may be the economy that will save Gezi Park, Taksim Square, where anti-capitalist campaigners are staging a sit in to prevent Prime Minister Erdogan from replacing the park with a shiny new shopping mall.
These are interesting times in Turkey, times in which an open conversation, although often unforgiving, is taking place between factions who have long disliked each other, politically speaking. The ever evolving polarisation of Turkish society has erupted into a surprisingly democratic discourse. One that has turned engrained assumptions on their head and could in theory be reassuring for the development of Turkish democracy.
While visiting the Fatih district in Istanbul, where prime minister enjoys a lot of support, AK Party voters openly criticized his 'over-reaction' in dealing with a small group of peaceful protesters wanting to save trees. In Nisantasi, an up-market European style opposition stronghold, women say they don't like his 'imposing manner' on drinking alcohol and even family planning, while screenwriters are stuck over how not to depict alcohol, part of the new restrictions on booze.
It's fascinating to hear the many shades of Turkish society - from practising Muslims, radical leftists to the middle of the road liberals - jointly agree that they don't like the notion their leader is not listening to the people. They all agree that Erdogan has a temper. And it was this temper that seems to have gotten him into trouble. Rather than talking to the park protesters, the knee-jerk reaction was to send police in to tear gas them in their sleep on Friday morning. It was this incident that sparked wider protests across the country, protests that have been diverse and localised.
In the eastern city of Erzincan Alevis have protested Erdogan's choice of name for the proposed third bridge in Istanbul, Yavuz Sultan Selim, a name that evokes one of historical persecution. In Canakale, on the western Aegean coast, locals walked to their town square to protest AKP's Islamist threat to the secular order, and in Taksim, actors from state theaters marched for better working conditions and artistic freedoms. It's reported that protests have taken place in at least sixty-seven cities, and yet Erdogan is still not listening.
Comparisons have been made to the 'Arab Spring' by pundits, but those of us who know Turkey find this simplistic at best. Erdogan has been democratically elected three times, and many of the park protesters are not looking to the military for support or even wish to oust him. The movement calls itself 'The Civil Resistance' and their fundamental desire is for their democratically elected prime minister to acknowledge they do exist. If he doesn't do so while serving his last term as prime minister it may damage his ambitions to run for president in Turkey's first ever direct vote, due next year. They are after all a product of his democracy, one in which Turkey has opened up to the outside world and no longer lives in fear of a military coup.
For a long time a portion of Turkish society has felt unloved by Turkey's new ruling conservative elite. The atmosphere has been oppressive. Istanbul neighbourhoods lost their outdoor drinking terraces and many of their favourite newspaper columnists were arrested for 'allegedly plotting against AKP'. One arrest that garnered notoriety was that of the well-known investigative journalists Ahmet Sik, who penned a book called 'The Imam's Army', an account of who holds influential power in Turkey's police force. In his book he documents the power of the Sufi scholar Fetullah Gulen who resides in the US. He rarely gives public interviews these days, but has called for a calmer atmosphere regarding the protests.
Through interviews with police officers, Sik was able to paint a picture of an increasingly silent power here, the Gulen Movement, which is missionary in its manner with hundreds of schools around the world, many in the US. Gulen followers believe they are the answer to moderate political Islam, but liberals are nervous about another conservative power holding too much sway in Turkey, not unlike what they are witnessing now with Erdogan. But could the movement force Erdogan to change his ways?
Within twelve hours of the prime minister leaving on a foreign trip on Monday, just hours after some of the worst overnight riots in Istanbul, his deputy Bulent Arinc had apologised to the protesters for the heavy handed tactics of the police. The president Abdullah Gul had also remarked on Erdogan's rude comments that dismissed the concerns of the protesters. Gul and Arinc are close to the Gulen school of thinking and this might be seen as them positioning themselves against a prime minister who is increasingly emotional and out of touch with a large percentage of the population, not a quality stock markets or tourism understand.
The day after the dip in the stock market, NTV's coverage of the protests changed as did CNNTurk's, possibly as their patrons are also some of Turkey's richest most influential business men. Both channels dedicated their entire morning programmes to the protest in Gezi Park with live broadcasts showing the almost carnival like atmosphere, quite different than how Erdogan described them as 'looters and pillagers'.
Arinc met with the protesters while Erdogan was abroad. The invitation to listen has lead to a calmer atmosphere in Turkey this week. And while some smaller clashes continue overnight, they are no longer happening by the prime ministry approximately five kilometres from the main site of the protest in Taksim Square. The frontline is being held in the Dolmabahce area now by police, on the periphery of the square. On Tuesday night, Swat teams opened fired with rubber bullets against unarmed protesters, leaving them traumatised. Many are now wondering if this is a taste of what there is to come.
Erdogan returned from a foreign trip on Thursday evening to a roaring crowd of his supporters who had waited hours to see him. His message was one of defiance against the Gezi Park protesters to the thousands of supporters that turned out to welcome him chanting 'crush Gezi Park'. The metro stayed open until 4 a.m. to facilitate their travel. The country is now braced for a showdown between those who support his leadership and those who feel ignored. Many feel a crackdown could be on the cards given what happened overnight on Thursday in Ankara and other cities.
One can hope when the prime minister leaves Istanbul for the capital his pilot takes a tour over the city. From the air, Erdogan would have a clear view of Taksim and the thousands who have joined the democratic debate.