Thousands of people across Turkey have taken the streets since Friday when the police violently cracked down on a peaceful sit-in to prevent the destruction of a historical urban park, Gezi Park, in Taksim Square, to build the 94th shopping mall in the heart of Istanbul.
Over the weekend, protesters took over Istanbul and brought it to a halt. They even walked across the Bosphorus Bridge from the Asian side of the city to Taksim Square, a historical center of public resistance and demonstration, on the European side.
While Turkey is different from the Arab Spring countries, for the first time in 30 years a real movement is emerging. A sit-in that started with 40 environmentalists has now escalated to rallies of thousands. Anti-government protests have spread across the country from East to West, including the capital, Ankara.
Even though the protests started over the government's decision to destroy the symbolic green park in Taksim they are now much more. What's happening now is a critique of the government's imposition of conservative Islam and the authoritarian way it has governed Turkey in the last few years.
It is a reaction to the unjust policies of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, which have accumulated over the years. It is long-repressed sentiments over the use of disproportionate violence, systematic encroachment upon different lifestyles, restrictions on the media and the jailing of journalists, limitations of freedom of speech, control over the media, reckless policymaking in foreign affairs, deliberate efforts at societal polarization, recent limitations on the sale and consumption of alcohol, draconian new abortion laws and Islamic values taking the upper hand in Today's Turkey
Erdogan needs to take responsibility for the excessive force the police have used, especially, gas. He needs to understand that boosting Turkey's economic growth and international profile at the cost of causing division and polarization is not defensible. The Erdogan government has changed the political and social landscape of the once secular republic of Turkey. Turkey is witnessing a creeping Islamism under the AKP and this is changing the secular and liberal nature of the country.
Erdogan's description of the protesters, who were initially students, as a handful of looters and extremists has not helped. It is also troubling that the Prime Minister who supported the Arab Spring now vociferously attempts to discredit the news on social media with regards to this movement. Erdogan's decision to leave Turkey, for a visit to the Arab countries, as waves of protesters take the street is irresponsible. The government's dismissive response to the protesters fears and aspirations tells us that it misunderstands the complexity and gravity of these protests. Erdogan needs to come out and take responsibility soon. Otherwise, the protests will intensify and the demands will escalate.
Already we are seeing Turks, Kurds, Armenians, Sunnis, Alevis, atheists, gays, straights, Turkish professional football clubs such as Galatasaray, Fenerbahçe and Beşiktaş uniting against Erdogan. Perhaps Turkey will not become a shining beacon of equal rights for all, but there is hope that the movement might spark a beginning for real dialogue.
It would be foolhardy to predict what will happen, but the protests are already too large and widespread to be shut down without a dramatic escalation of the level of repression, a step the Erdogan government may conclude carries an unacceptable price. Whether the government embarks on a more overtly authoritarian course or enters into dialogue with its opponents, the status quo won't last much longer.