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    Middle East
     Jun 5, '13

Calm and spreading storm in Turkey
By Victor Kotsev

ISTANBUL - On Tuesday night, Istanbul was quiet, save for the occasional bout of tear gas - a reminder that the police had not forgotten about the protesters and were only waiting for a chance to charge at them. Elsewhere in the country, clashes continued, though with lesser intensity than in previous days, with the notable exception of Antakya down south. Several important trade unions planned strikes, and while few could tell exactly where their country was heading, most agreed that something fundamental had changed.

Over the course of just a few days, Taksim Square, one of the most iconic locations of Istanbul that had previously been turned into a police fortress, underwent a series of physical transformations. On Saturday evening, your Asia Times Online

correspondent walked among burnt-out police buildings, buses, cars and ATMs, amid multitudes of people singing and dancing.

A day later, volunteers had cleaned out the debris and constructed nearby food stands and clinics to treat the wounded, as well as other communal infrastructure. The approaches to the square were blocked by multiple rings of makeshift barricades to stop the dreaded police heavy armored vehicles from approaching.

On the square and in the adjacent Gezi Park, where the protests had started with a peaceful sit-in, humanity walked: the left, the right, the hooligans, the blind, even a few religious women and women with headscarves.

"I don't want my country to turn into Syria or Iraq," said 78-year-old Muhlis, whose skull cap and the headscarf on his wife's headscarf identified them as religious, or members of the traditional support base of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. "I'd like the park to stay, and I have seen no evil from Erdogan, but I know that people have different views."

Maya, an articulate secular 15-year-old high school student, also spoke in favor of pluralism. "The location of our city is between Asia and Europe," she said. "You can't expect everyone to be in the same culture, to be in the same religion, so you have to respect that. I think [Erdogan] doesn't respect it and doesn't know how to address it."

Some said that they would stay until the prime minister quit, others that they just wanted to make a stand for what they believe is right. That includes saving the park, but also preserving the civil liberties enshrined in the secular constitution which Erdogan is planning to change soon. People protested against police brutality alongside the aggressive neo-liberal gentrification of their city and the religious values being pushed on them by their government.

Tensions had been running high for a few weeks, with police frequently firing tear gas at crowds of protesters mixed with tourists on the fashionable Istiklal Street, which starts at Taksim. On May Day, police fought pitched battles with protesters seeking to commemorate the anniversary of a 1977 massacre which is believed to have been orchestrated by pro-government elements.

Then just in the weeks since, parliament passed a law restricting the sale and consumption of alcohol, while the authorities warned against public displays of affection, triggering a nationwide kissing protest. Plans were also advanced for the construction of a third bridge over the Bosphorus, which would involve cutting down many trees.

And after police violently broke up the camp of peaceful environmental activists - for the second night in a row - early on Friday, attacking them in their sleep and injuring badly several, tensions exploded. Following a period of more than 24 hours of incessant clashes, when tens of thousands of people took to the streets, the police withdrew from the square.

It is believed that the order for the police to withdraw came from President Abdullah Gul, a member of Erdogan's AKP party but also the prime minister's bitter rival: the two are likely to run against each other in the presidential elections next month. "Clearly Gul is positioning himself opposite Erdogan," wrote Aaron Stein, an analyst at the Center for Economic and Foreign Policy Studies in Istanbul, in an email. "Gul is a masterful politician, his subtle and overt moves during the protests are very savvy," he added later in a tweet.

There is some more intrigue in the ruling party, revolving around Foreign Minister Ahmet "Zero Problems with Neighbors" Davutoglu, who is believed to have fallen out with Erdogan and could become a scapegoat for Turkey's failed Syria policy. And while relations inside the government remain opaque, suffice it to say that Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc used Erdogan's absence on a visit to Morocco to soften the party line.

Where Erdogan had called the demonstrators looters and railed at social media networks as a "menace" to society, Arinc apologized for the "excessive" police violence, at least at the start of the unrest. Protesters dismissed it as too little too late but nevertheless agreed to meet with him.

The relative quiet may continue or prove short-lived. There are some urgent grievances to be addressed, not limited to countless eyewitness claims that police had consistently fired tear gas canisters directly at protesters' heads. Two people died this way in just five days, and hundreds - including at least two journalists and an opposition member of parliament - were injured. These crowd-control casualties (except the ones from rubber-coated bullets) are comparable to those in protests in the West Bank, long a scene of intense demonstrations, over a period of seven years. [1]

And while the show of solidarity and civic responsibility in Taksim suggested that the worst may be over for Istanbul, at least for now, several warning signs popped up. Particularly in Antakya, where a young man was killed by live police fire on Tuesday, the protests appeared to be taking an increasingly sectarian dimension, pitting Alevis against Sunnis. Though a large-scale spillover from the Syrian civil war into Turkey may not be imminent, it remains as a possibility.

The stock market also saw one of its biggest falls on Monday, shedding some 10.5% of its value. While it recovered some of the losses on Tuesday, an overwhelming sense of fragility remains. There is little indication for now that the opportunistic Gulf Arab investors who flocked to the country following the Arab Spring in fear of having their assets frozen in the West are about to pull out, but analysts say that the economy appears to have peaked, and the simultaneous strike of public sector and manufacturing workers could trigger powerful shocks with unpredictable results. [2]

While Occupy Gezi Park may not be a Turkish Spring, as some have suggested, it certainly carries of the uncertainty and excitement of one.

1. The full list of Israel's crowd control weapons revealed in a new report, B'Tselem, January 28, 2013.
2. Turkey: the triple strike that could change everything, Roar Magazine, June 4, 2013.

Victor Kotsev is a journalist and political analyst.

(Copyright 2013 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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