By now you will have seen pictures of police battles, burning tyres, riot shields and tear-gas- stricken protesters. These images have become so familiar to us over the past few years that we are almost immune to them. Tahrir has become a byword for Athens, Spain, and Rome. But what you can’t get from the pictures is the extraordinary transformation that has taken place in Taksim Square – the centre of Istanbul – in the space of a mere ten days. It has become a living, breathing community of peace, love and hope. “Woodstock” people whisper as they walk amongst the stalls of free food, books, and the forests of posters and red flags.
Wind back to one week before: Taksim on any day of the week packed full of cars; traffic jams even at midnight! On one side where the stairs were built out of the gravestones from an Armenian cemetery, the buses normally collect. Turkish drivers aren’t patient at the best of times so the air is rent with the sound of beeping. Now there isn’t a motor vehicle in sight; all is calm and quiet. Around the square people break into dance; elsewhere political gatherings address the faithful.
But the movement has historical precedents. The Young Turks were a diverse group of Turkish citizens who rebelled against Ottoman Sultan Abdülhamid II and his extremely authoritarian government in the early 20th century. The Young Turks are often credited with laying the groundwork for the modernization of the Ottoman Empire. The association of the Young Turks with radical ideas and revolutionary change is so widespread that the term is often used in slang to refer to groups of youthful and politically active individuals who agitate for change.
The origins of the Young Turks lie in 1889, when an atmosphere of quiet dissent began to spread throughout the Ottoman Empire, primarily among students and disaffected members of the military. After a brief period of constitutional government from 1876-1878, the Sultan suspended the Turkish Constitution, causing a great deal of unrest among many Ottoman citizens. The Young Turks began meeting in small cells to talk about the creation of a secular, constitutionally based government as an alternative to Turkey's existing monarchy, and the movement quickly spread until 1906, when the Young Turks came out in the open and began to actively agitate for change.
Now in this country where insulting Turkishness (whatever that might mean) is a crime, there are posters of Recep Erdogan as Hitler. His insult to the people – that they are mere hooligans – has become a rallying cry as well as a running joke. Huge posters demonstrate the likeness between the two. Whilst the streets were burning the government-imposed media blackout showed films of penguins so now they, too, have become a part of the common language of defiance. Older citizens who saw plenty of upheavals in the last century shake their heads in amazement saying, “We have never witnessed anything like this before.”
The organisation of the protesters is impeccable: all over the square and the adjoining Gezi Park (the threatened destruction of which instigated the protests) every inch of space is covered by tents, blankets, tables laden with food and information posts. There is a map to indicate where things are. Barricades block all the entrances so that only the trusted can enter. There is a library, a makeshift clinic, theatre masks and gas masks. In order not to allow the municipality with its large vans to collect rubbish, each morning the community organises a roster of members to clean up the mess, passing bags along a human chain. Instead of the streams of relentless shoppers each caught in his own acquisitive world, people wander about engaging one another in talk.
What began as a protest against the demolition of one of the few remaining green spaces in Istanbul has become a beacon of radicalisation for the whole country. Each night as dark falls, the city is alive with the sound of pots and pans. Cars hoot at one another to show solidarity and there is a general atmosphere of gaiety.
Erdogan has planned to bring back Ottoman barracks and to transform the square into a pedestrian precinct. This is in the name of progress – like the billion dollar infrastructure projects like the third bridge over the Bosphorus and the third aiport, slated to be the biggest in the world. Not for nothing did the current issue of The Economist show the Prime Minister draped in the clothes of a Sultan, for this is how he has seen his role. But the people won’t have it; they have long smelled a rat and know that the Islamist leader has been enriching his own coffers. The construction at Taksim has been allocated to a member of his family; as elsewhere, Turkey’s wealthiest have done well out of the expanding economy but the majority of those employed work in appalling conditions for very little pay. As for any rights at work – forget about it.
Erdogan may show contempt for his people but meanwhile the lira is dropping in value and investors are turning away. Those are things he can’t ignore for long.