Turkish Riot Police Clear Taksim Square

Turkish-protestor-clash-riot-police-protest-300x300Yesterday, riot police used tear gas and water cannon to clear protesters from Taksim Square, the main square in Istanbul. The security forces started their actions around 8:30 pm local time, and at 3 am, the violence was still going on. This escalation endangers the government and creates a nasty environment for negotiations, It’s as if Chicago 1968 were moved to Istanbul and magnified a thousand fold. The parallel with the messy Democratic convention in Chicago in 1968 is clear. Turkey now, like America then, is a country divided between two distinct views of what the nation should be: the traditionalists and the innovators. More specifically in the Turkish case, the sectarian and the secular. Prime Minister Erdogan leads a democratically elected government and a party with its roots in Islam. He has straddled the modernity of Ataturk’s Turkey and the tradition of the Ottoman legacy for a decade. His success, some say, has led to arrogance and given free rein to his authoritarian streak. The protest began as a demonstration against a zoning decision that would replace a park with a shopping mall. The police response brought out more protesters with more issues and soon, Taksim Square held thousands for days. Prime Minister Erdogan was scheduled to talk to some of the protesters today, but discussions are in doubt after last night’s events. Worse, he can’t blame it on over-zealous underlings. Yesterday, he called the protesters “vandals” and “terrorists.” And he threw in “drunks,” which signals to his supporters that the protesters are somehow un-Islamic. Who would want to talk to him after that? The great fear among policy makers and analysts is that this unrest will escalate further until the military intervenes to impose order. That is not going to happen. The military is not about to mount a coup to support street protesters. After all, by midnight local time, many of the protesters had commercial quality gas masks, something seen more among professional agitators than among common citizens. The army is not about to step in to help such people. By the same token, the army won’t lift a finger to save the government either. Prime Minister Erdogan has arrested several senior military officers alleging plots against the state. Given the state of the relationship between the government and the army, the army is going to stay in barracks. And so, what’s next? The police cannot keep the protesters from assembling somewhere, and the demonstrations have spread to dozens of Turkish cities. The army will stay neutral. The protesters are still unhappy, and the government’s backers are solidly in Mr. Erdogan’s camp. In other words, expect more of the same for some time to come. In the long run, that is bad for Turkey and its friends, which includes this journal.