Students of history often look for key dates that mark the beginning of change, revolution or a turning point in a nation’s political life.
Jan. 26, 1952, became known as Black Saturday in Egypt. Riots spread across the capital of Cairo, where 750 buildings were either burned or looted after British forces killed 50 Egyptian auxiliary troops in the Suez town of Ismailia. This paved the way for the Free Officers’ Revolution of July later that year.
In May 1968, student occupational protests and general strikes led to the resignation of French President Charles de Gaulle.
Bloody Sunday 1972 was also a turning point in the conflict in Northern Ireland. Twenty-six civil rights protesters were shot by British forces in Derry. The Northern Irish troubles intensified.
The assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri on Feb. 14, 2005, triggered the Cedar Revolution, a series of weekly protests that would ultimately lead to the withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon after 30 years of occupation.
Dec. 17, 2010, was the day that Mohamed Bouazizi, having been assaulted by a police officer and had his produce cart confiscated, committed an act of self-immolation which sparked Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution that would put an end to President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s two-decade rule of the North African country and would spread across the Middle East in what has become known as the Arab Spring.
And now there is Turkey’s own Black Friday.
During the early hours of Friday, May 31, peaceful activists gathered to protest the demolition of a small park in central Istanbul. They were met by tear gas and police batons. Soon, protests spread across Turkey’s commercial capital to demonstrate against the heavy-handed tactics of the police who only intensified their brutal crackdown. Protests spread throughout Istanbul and other Turkish cities.
The protests come as Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is seeking to change the Turkish constitution to give more powers to the president, an office Erdogan is believed to be eyeing when his term as prime minister soon expires. Many Turks believe that this will give him further powers. Already there are deep concerns over sweeping laws and policies passed by Erdogan which threaten to alter the nature of Turkey's identity to one that favors Islam over secularism without transparency or due process.
Last week, with little public debate, Turkey’s parliament passed legislation to restrict the sale of alcohol. "We don't want a generation wandering around in a merry state day and night," declared Erdogan. This is despite the fact that Turkey enjoys one of the lowest levels of alcohol consumption and drink-related problems in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).
Also last week at a groundbreaking ceremony for a third Bosporus bridge in Istanbul, it was announced that the bridge would be named after Selim the Grim, a conquering Ottoman sultan known for his aversion to alcohol and his massacres of Alevis, a constituency that represents roughly 15% of Turkey’s population. This controversial decision was again made without public consultation.
Meanwhile, the independent media, a pillar of any healthy democracy, has been consistently targeted by Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP). According to the Reporters Without Borders’ 2013 World Press Freedom Index, Turkey is "the world's biggest prison for journalists," where approximately 70 journalists are still behind bars. Turkey was ranked 154th for open press out of 179 countries, a worse ranking than Iraq, Afghanistan and Russia.
This has not gone unnoticed by the public. The almost total media blackout of the first day of protests shocked many Turkish demonstrators who took to Twitter and Facebook to transmit news. But even social media has not escaped the wrath of Erdogan. “There is a now menace which is called Twitter,” the prime minister remarked, “Social media is the worst menace to society."
Another source of public concern is the peace talks between Ankara and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). Considered a terrorist group by Ankara, the PKK has waged a battle against Turkey since 1984 in its demand for Kurdish rights and autonomy. However, there was little public knowledge or debate about the negotiations. When a team of “elders” was finally selected to discuss the issue with the public, its members were drawn almost exclusively from supporters of Erdogan’s party. Many Turks and Kurds doubt the sincerity of the peace process; there are more than 8,000 Kurdish politicians, journalists and activists behind bars, mostly for non-violent offenses.
The planned demolition of Gezi Park is symptomatic of Erdogan’s authoritarian style of rule. Little debate, no public consultation and forced-through measures. Although the recent protests are unlikely to lead to his resignation, Erdogan will be obliged to reappraise his leadership style or face further demonstrations and disruptions in the forthcoming weeks, months or even years ahead.
Black Friday marks a critical turning point in Turkish politics.
Emre Caliskan is a London-based freelance journalist writing on Turkey and Middle East Affairs. On Twitter: @calemre
Simon A. Waldman is a lecturer in Middle Eastern Studies at King's College London. On Twitter: @simonwaldman1