Skip to main content

Istanbul Protesters: 'We Are Here For Our Freedom'

Protesters in Istanbul declare that the current demonstrations are just a start in expressing frustration over Turkish government policies.

ISTANBUL — Protesters continued to clash with police over the weekend as they expressed grievances over Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's rule.

For several days, streams of demonstrators filled the streets around the city's Taksim area where plans to build a shopping center on the grounds of Gezi park set off opposition that swelled into mass anger over Erdogan and his government. The prime minister's supporters credit him with building up the country's economy and say extreme secularists are merely trying to create divisions. Yet protesters say they're frustrated with what they consider the regime's attempts to reach into their personal lives, such as when it comes to alcohol consumption.

On Sunday afternoon, thousands covered the entirety of the tree-lined park and adjoining square waving Turkish flags and chanting slogans against fascism and calling for the government to resign. Young men stood atop vandalized vehicles with shattered windows while others used spray paint to scribble protest messages, adding to graffiti scrawled across storefronts denouncing the prime minister and AKP, his party. Some protesters said they also wanted to show that they are against Erdogan’s policies of involving the country in the Syrian conflict.

“I’m here because I want freedom. I don’t want to live in a country that gives people fascism,” said Gorkem Yilmaz, an automotive company salesman who attended the rally with his wife. “I want my children to live in this country without any government pressure.”

Yilmaz said that the government, besides trying to nudge its way into individual affairs with religious dictates, has failed to raise wages for laborers. Having attended such protests in the past, he said these throngs are unprecedented.

“This time, I am really surprised, because before I didn’t see this many people,” he said. Pointing to the boisterous clusters, he said, “These people are not political. They are very normal people. They don’t have any ideology or politics. But this time, they really want to stop fascism and Tayyip’s politics.”

Although the protests took on a festive mood, with vendors selling cotton candy and pastries, and circles of youth dancing to drum beats, reports of violent encounters with police late Sunday sent many families pouring into the streets — banging pots and pans, honking their car horns and unfurling flags to exhibit their distress and solidarity — in busy retail districts not far from Taksim and even in faraway suburbs.

On Saturday, down the road from the Kabatas tram station, crowds of young people wearing surgical masks, combat gas masks and bandannas to protect themselves from tear gas marched with their fists in the air. Others carried banners with the image of the Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the modern secularist Turkish state. On sidewalks, graffiti spelled out anti-Erdogan slogans in red paint, some even appearing in English:  "Finish Him."

Black smoke wafted from a flaming car on its side. Young men threw glass beer containers and plastic bottles at passing police trucks, which responded by spraying water. Later, some lodged fireworks at authorities, as green sparks lit the air. Demonstrators also knocked down metal police barricades that had been placed to block a road.

Caner Goktas, a life coach and personal trainer, said he had been at the protests since they broke out. With blue swimming goggles hanging from his neck, Goktas accused the government of gradually infringing upon personal freedoms over the past decade, the same period that Erdogan has been in power.

"These people are not fanatic people; they don't want to do bad things," he said of the protesters. "We only want to show we are here for our freedom."

Like others, he appeared to be particularly flummoxed by Erdogan's personality in power and his manner of management, some describing his leadership style as undemocratic. "We have a dictator now. He thinks, 'Everything I say, must happen,'" Goktas said.

A group of "Islamic people" support the prime minister regardless of his decisions, he said, but the protests signify a new dynamic.

"After this, Tayyip will make what he wants. But we show here, this is our start. We will not be silent from now on," Goktas said.

Tourist attractions, including Istanbul's popular Ottoman-era landmarks, remained bustling with foreigners and Turkish school groups, though some street closures disrupted transportation around the city. At dusk Saturday, the call to the prayer rose from the Bezmi Alem Valite Sultan Mosque, as many protesters rested on the front steps, and some even charged their cell phones inside. Nearby some young people who identified themselves as Islamists explained that they didn't necessarily support Erdogan, while others said protesters are unwilling to sit face to face with the government to talk.

Some protesters refused to provide their names in interviews, explaining they were afraid of the consequences if they spoke against the government. One woman likened the protests to the Arab Spring uprisings. In addition, some asserted that local media has not sufficiently covered their efforts, instead keeping a pro-government stance.

A Turkish woman who works at an advertising agency said she'd been out for two days, fighting against "police brutality" as she and her friends got tear-gassed. The woman said what started as an effort to protect the park has burgeoned into a new social movement for her generation.

"First of all, in the first day, we just wanted to save our trees in the park. Now it's just about democracy and humanity, saving our city — it's changed," she said.

She said Friday night was the "best day" of her life as she witnessed demonstrators coming together for a "civil" gathering without being separated based on political parties. She believes under Erdogan, the rights of women and atheists, for instance, have been threatened.

Of Erdogan's supporters, she said: "They are just acting like sheep. They are following him, but we are not like them."

"It's a beginning, I guess, Turkish people woke up," she said. "We will fight for our city, our democracy, our freedom.

Nafeesa Syeed is a freelance writer and editor based in Washington. She spent four years as a staff writer with The Associated Press, reporting on domestic and international news. On Twitter: @NafeesaSyeed

Start your PRO membership today.

Join the Middle East's top business and policy professionals to access exclusive PRO insights today.

Join Al-Monitor PRO Start with 1-week free trial