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Saturday, June 1, 2013

Is Gezi Park Turkey's Breaking Point?

Hours before I returned to Afghanistan for a second time on Wednesday's 3am flight from Istanbul, my cousin and I had a conversation that, just a few days later, seems somewhat surreal. We spoke about the approaching breaking point in Turkey; the point at which a seemingly innocuous event could cause people to take to the streets.

Turks, especially those of the secular persuasion, have long resented Prime Minister Erdogan and his ruling AK Party (though they have been unable to produce a viable alternative). Simultaneously autocratic and fundamentalist, Erdogan has undoubtedly reached the point of believing that he can do no wrong. Everything he says is done immediately, no questions asked. It doesn't matter what 'the people' think; he wants it done so it shall be done. He knows what is best for Turkey.

It's a cunning form of dictatorship that manipulates Turkey's unique style of 'democracy' and is protected by the comedy that is the EU accession process. Erdogan is undoubtedly a deft politician. But has his arrogance may have finally gotten the better of him.

Today's Turks (at least those family and friends with whom I chatted over the past two weeks) are fed up with Erdogan doing as he pleases with no repercussions. His cronies in Parliament pass religion-soaked bills and the level of corruption surrounding government contracts has skyrocketed in recent years alongside increasing taxes. Yes, Istanbul is more beautiful than I've ever seen it and public transportation (among other government-supported services) functions well. But at what cost?

I've thought for a while that it would be a comparatively small, unrelated incident that enticed people into the streets. The 'kissing protest' in a subway broken up by police and religious zealots. The passing of a law that restricts the sale of alcohol after 10pm.

The attempt by (literally) tree huggers to protect Gezi Park, one of Istanbul's last remaining public green spaces, from Erdogan's people turning it into a shopping mall. 

What started as a few hundred environmentalists on Monday has morphed into millions on the streets (and bridges) of Istanbul and cities across Turkey after police used tear gas to disperse the protestors. This is now much bigger than trees. A seemingly innocuous environmental protest balloons into a full scale popular revolt unseen to Erdogan in his decade in power.

This may be the breaking point many of us have anticipated; the moment where Erdogan's arrogance meets the wrath of a disgruntled populous. Or it may not be. Either way, an opposition challenger to the Populist/Islamist in Chief is yet to emerge. Until he or she does, this may be just another protest that ends with Erdogan continuing to do as he pleases.

Here's to hoping this is not the case.