For the Recep Tayyip Erdogan government, which has made Turkey a key player in world politics, the relentless agitation in Taksim Square in Istanbul is a stinging slap in the face. All that the government wanted to do is restyle the surroundings by replacing a bit of the greenery with glitzy malls and a swanky new mosque, perhaps to help people make up for the sin of consumerism. Instead of thanking the government for its thoughtfulness, the intended beneficiaries have launched an agitation whose only intention, the government believes, is to criticize the Erdogan administration. Days ago, similar protests had greeted the new bridge on Bosphorus. A livid Mr Erdogan has thus declared war on the Opposition for instigating the protests, clamped down on the social media and unleashed his brutal police force on the protesters.
It is strange that a government that wants an autocratic Bashar al-Assad in neighbouring Syria to step down should miss the point altogether. The protests in Turkey are a response to what is being increasingly perceived as the authoritarianism of the government, a sin for which powerful regimes in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya have bitten the dust. To the people of Turkey, especially urbane Istanbul, it is even more galling that a government they elected to power should show the same streak. The Erdogan government has undoubtedly given Turkey a premier place in international politics, revolutionized its economy and freed it from the control of the military, but it is far away from giving a democratic polity its due. The media are still under government control, there is a lack of transparency, the construction lobby rules the roost, conservative Sunni allies are appeased with regulations on alcohol and limitations on women’s reproductive rights and the government seems oblivious of how insecure minorities such as the Alevis and Shiites have begun to feel. It is equally blasé about honouring public opinion on how public spaces are used, named or built upon. Repeated demonstrations have shown that the people do not particularly like the demolition of iconic theatres or the destruction of greenery for the sake of shopping malls. The Turkish prime minister has dismissed the protests as the handiwork of the upper middle class or the kaymak tabaka, but the resilience of the agitation at Taksim Square shows that it is not the only class deeply resentful of the government’s actions.