Istanbul is a fortress – his fortress. And Taksim Square is his square – even yesterday, on the anniversary of the revolt in that very square, where at least 7 died and 3000 were wounded. Turkey, as seen by Recep Tayyp Erdogan, is a capricious horse to be held in check, and the reminder of the revolt simply a perversion to be put down by force. While twenty-five thousand police positioned themselves throughout the danger zone, dozens of water cannons were set in place, trucks and armored vehicles occupied the ground, and the city’s main street, Istikal Caddesi, was closed, as were the waterways, with ferries and boats being blocked by buses to create a real state of siege. Against this background, Erdogan announced: “If you go into the square, know that our security forces have received specific instructions and will do whatever is necessary, from A to Z…what happened last year will not be allowed to happen again, because you must obey the law. If you do not, the State will do what is necessary.”
The promise is clear: he is talking about prison, beatings, injuries, even death. A law passed last year prohibiting doctors from treating the injured only makes Erdogan’s words more threatening. As proof of the tense atmosphere, CNN journalist Ivan Watson was kicked out of the square. The Prime Minister has referred to the organizers of protests on the anniversary of Taksim as “terrorists”, using his favorite trope of international conspiracy – always useful for his numerous internal political troubles, as well as for the mining tragedy in Soma, where 300 workers lost their lives. There too, it was the Israelis – his sick obsession – who supposedly caused the disaster, just as they organized the fall of fellow Muslim Brotherhood member Mohamed Morsi in Egypt. He also claims the Jews support his archenemy, cleric Fethullah Gülen, who lives in the US and disrupts Erdogan’s operations with his powerful organizational network, as well as journalists and Google, “the worst threat to contemporary society”.
Erdogan has been in power since 2002. His party, the AKP, returned political Islam to Turkey, which, with a mixture of uncertainty and boldness, had been swept on a tide of Kemalism toward democracy and the European Union. Despite the excitable and unbalanced policy he has pursued up till now, he has always managed to recapture the support of the majority. On March 30, he won once again at the polls, despite the phone tap recordings that exposed his and his family’s involvement in million-dollar tales of corruption, despite the number of journalists imprisoned (rivaling China’s record), and despite the Ergenekon trials, which succeeded in silencing the entire military class – the guardians of secular power in Turkey. Erdogan’s 21 million votes in previous elections dropped to 19.5 million, and people who protested for another Taksim in the provinces have created a mass movement believed to be 3,600,000 strong.
Opposition does exist, and it is strong and diverse, from Gülen to secularist movements, from student groups to the protest of women for whom Erdogan’s lifting of Kemal Ataturk’s ban of the hijab has become a symbol. Young people also hated the prohibition against the sale of alcohol between ten in the evening and six in the morning. Erdogan has also had to put up with the release of many of the generals and journalists whom he had imprisoned, and protests continue, showing that Turkey has a large secular core. The crowd did not fail to respond when fifteen-year-old Berkin Elvan was killed on his way to buy bread, when two other deaths occurred on March 21, and when social networks were shut down for accusing Erdogan of corruption. But then came tens of thousands of police, water cannons, and armed tanks, as the dictator took the stage in the role of bridge between the Western and Islamic worlds – and indeed, Obama has been praising his “great leadership” for years. But that’s all history now.
This article originally appeared in slightly different form in Italian in Il Giornale; English copyright, The Gatestone Institute