It began as a nice day in the park. On May 30, before Turks drew the wrath of their government and the attention of the world, a group of activists congregated in a small park in Istanbul, hoping to save it from being razed for the construction of a shopping mall and replica Ottoman barracks. Only 1.5 percent of Istanbul is devoted to public green space, making Gezi Park a key respite within the sprawling metropolis. The day had "a festival-like atmosphere," with people singing, dancing and eating watermelon and chickpeas sold by street vendors, the Atlantic Cities reports.
Then police raided the demonstration with tear gas and water cannons, more protestors appeared in response, and the once peaceful protest morphed into a massive outpouring of anger at the Turkish government.
Now it seems protesters are airing as many grievances as there are mosques in Istanbul: complaints of aggressive urban development; the loss of cultural heritage; violations of press freedom; growing Islamism in the government; police brutality; Turkish support of Syrian rebels; and the pursuit of peace with the separatist Kurdistan Workers' Party.
Through every complaint runs the idea that Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, now entering his 11th year in power, is ignoring the wishes of his people in pursuit of his own authoritarian goals. The police abuses over the past week have been well documented, but Erdogan cannot be seen simply as Turkey's Hosni Mubarak or Muammar Gaddafi. The climate and circumstances in Turkey are not so easily simplified.
Was Recep Tayyip Erdogan democratically elected? Yes. Turkey has been a parliamentary republic since 1923, and despite a history of single-party rule and military coups, its elections of late have been widely hailed as both free and fair. When Erdogan was first elected Prime Minister in 2002, his Justice and Development Party (AKP) controlled a majority of Turkey's legislature despite receiving only 34 percent of the total votes. The country remains strongly divided, but AKP's tally has grown in each successive election, culminating in a full 50 percent of votes in 2011. The AKP's advancement comes in large part from Turkey's economic revitalization over the past decade, when the nation rode a massive growth wave while the neighboring European Union, which Turkey hopes to join, faltered.
What do Erdogan and his party want? AKP is typically described as a socially conservative, pro-business, moderately Islamic party. New development projects reflect the party's pro-business tilt, though bolstering Turkey's economy often comes at the expense of cultural landmarks and the environment. The reconstruction of Gezi Park fully epitomizes that dichotomy.
Though not the first moderate Islamic party in Turkey (in fact, it was built on the bases of similar, older parties), AKP is by far the most powerful. Much has been made of the conversion of a secular Turkish state toward a more Islamic society. Since taking power, Erdogan has converted secular schools into religious schools and ended the ban on headscarves in universities, a change he intends to extend to government offices, according to Hurriyet Daily News. In late May, AKP also spearheaded a law limiting when and where alcohol can be sold.
Isn't Turkey already Islamic? Though Turkey's population is 99.8 percent Muslim, according to the CIA World Factbook, its modern state is built on the principle of secularism. The founder of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, wanted Turkey to make a clean break from the Ottoman Empire that preceded it, according to Bloomberg, and even went so far as to change printed Turkish from an Arabic to a Latin script. Erdogan's critics accuse him of chipping away at Turkey's secular foundations and moving the state gradually toward an Iran-styled theocracy.
Is the Turkish public against Erdogan's Islamic bent? Hard to say. Ataturk is almost universally revered by Turks, and pro-secular rallies regularly draw in the hundreds of thousands in Turkey. At the same time, pro-Islamic parties have steadily gained power, driven by the rural, conservative base that now supports AKP. It's unclear if Turkey's democracy and secularism are fully compatible. The first time an Islamist party gained control of the government, in 1997, it was forced out of power in a bloodless coup orchestrated by the pro-secular army.
When it comes to the reforms made thus far, Erdogan seems to have the backing of most Turks. A 2007 KONDA Consultancy poll found that 69 percent of Turkish citizens cover their heads or are married to someone who does, and a full 78 percent opposed the ban on head-covering in universities. But some Turks point to AKP's links to the Fethullah Gulen movement, a massive Islamic NGO that runs schools around the world, and argue the party's true goal is a fully Islamic state.
The growing emphasis on Turkey's Islamic identity has also served as a basis for Erdogan's entreaties with the armed separatist Kurdistan Workers' Party, which brought about a historic ceasefire earlier this year. Ataturk's Turkish nationalism had no place for the Kurds, but Islamism promises to unite Turks and Kurds through a common religious identity.
Why hasn't the military been able to stop Erdogan? Ultimately, Erdogan is stronger. He was a member of the Islamic party ousted in 1997, and since AKP took power, the army and judiciary have tried to ban AKP and its candidates from national elections, but have failed. In return, AKP launched a massive investigation into a shadowy group known as Ergenekon, which it "claimed had been responsible for virtually every act of political violence – and controlled every terrorist group – in Turkey over the last 30 years," according to the Turkey Analyst. Subsequent prosecutions were almost certainly politically motivated, as army generals and journalists who criticized AKP and the Fethullah Gulen movement have been pursued. More than 400 military officers have been jailed, cowing a once powerful bulwark of Turkey's founding principles.
While the Ergenekon cases are one of the main grievances of the protesters, the public is still divided on what role the military should play, and even Turkey's main opposition party wants to limit its political activities.
Has Erdogan squelched the freedom of the press? Unquestionably. As of 2012, Turkey was the world's worst jailer of journalists. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, members of the media who criticize government actions or publish information it does not want public are charged and imprisoned through a variety of anti-terrorism laws. Journalists who question the existence of Ergenekon are soon charged with membership in Ergenekon. Even more journalists are fired or silenced by their employers, who fear prosecution. The Turkish government even banned Youtube entirely in 2008, based on charges the site hosted videos critical of Ataturk. The concerted hounding of critical journalism has been so successful that during the height of the protests this past weekend, CNN Turk chose to air a penguin documentary.
What has Erdogan done in Syria? Erdogan has come out in strong support of the rebels battling Bashar Assad's regime in Syria. Assad has responded with small-scale attacks across the border into Turkey. Turkey says the devastating twin car bombings in the southern city of Reyhanli on May 11, 2013, were conducted by Syrian agents. Many Turks saw the 51 killed in the attack as retribution for Erdogan's support of Syrian rebels, which 65 percent of the Turkish public opposes, according to a Pew Research poll.
How does Erdogan see himself? According to U.S. diplomatic cables released by Der Spiegel, Erdogan fancies himself "The Tribune of Anatolia" and believes he was chosen by God to lead Turkey. Turkish newspaper columnists have accused the PM of building a cult of personality around himself, turning his political party into a "one-man show." In his initial response to the protests, Erdogan projected an air of defiance and a lack of concern for the grievances of those who oppose him. "If this is about holding meetings, if this is a social movement, where they gather 20, I will get up and gather 200,000 people," he said. "Where they gather 100,000, I will bring together 1 million from my party."
Erdogan has reached his term limit as prime minister, but he has made clear he wants to run for president in 2014, and to alter the form of the Turkish government before then so the presidency would be more powerful than the largely ceremonial role it plays today. Erdogan does not currently control enough votes to change Turkey's constitution unilaterally, and opposition parties in parliament are loath to help him. Even so, the protests have provided no clear sign that Erdogan's majority has cracked, and 2014's election seems far on the horizon.