But after a week as a self-policing commune – more Paris 1968 than Tahrir Square 2011 – Taksim has become something far more dangerous: an urban oasis of festive mockery puncturing the pretensions of a man who seems to want to mould modern Turkey in his own pious image. The Erdogan story, a big part of the story of Turkey in the past decade, has been battered this week.
For Mr Erdogan, the thrice-elected prime minister, the narrative began to change after a few hundred protesters who had gathered to save a public park from redevelopment were tear-gassed and water-cannoned by riot police. Since then, Turkey has
been enveloped in a rebellion.
The police were withdrawn from the square last Saturday on the orders of President Abdullah Gul, co-founder of the neo-Islamist Justice and Development party (AKP) with Mr Erdogan. Mr Gul is now playing a publicly conciliatory role – in contrast to the prime minister’s pugnacious public indignation.
Yet the unforeseen eruption in response to the behaviour of the police might just change the face of Turkey, just as it has relaxed the face of Istanbul into a sardonic smile. While clashes elsewhere in Turkey, including Ankara, the capital, have been more violent, there is laughter as well as anger emanating from Taksim – all of it at the unsmiling Mr Erdogan’s expense.
Nearly every form of Istanbul life cohabits in Taksim Square. There are the secular Kemalists who still revere Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, father of the republic, alongside their Kurdish nationalist foes. There are leftists and nationalists who fought violent battles that ended in the 1980 army coup. There are blue-collar trade unionists alongside associations of doctors or academics; metropolitan liberals and Alevis, an under-recognised Shia minority; anarchists and gays alongside Sufi Muslims and yogis; and even a veiled old lady in a Guy Fawkes mask. The fans of the city’s three football clubs – Besiktas, Galatasaray and Fenerbahce – have buried their rivalries to link arms in “Istanbul United”.
Impromptu skits lampooning the prime minister are performed by the Alcoholics Unity League (“Tayyip, you’re unbearable when you’re sober”) and the Looters Solidarity Front. Taksim, says Hakan Altinay, chairman of the Open Society Foundation in Istanbul, “is an extralegal, liberated space, it’s our carnival. We never had a carnival before”.
This has dissolved Mr Erdogan’s aura. “He can no longer say ‘l’etat c’est moi’,” Mr Altinay says. “This irreverence has dented him all over.”
Many of the dents have come from Twitter. Much of Turkey’s media decided, for as long as they could, not to alarm the populace with footage of protests. As central Istanbul choked on tear gas, private broadcasters went with features on radiation from Mars, schizophrenia and penguins. The surrealism of this disconnect was seized on by tweeters, who were denounced by Mr Erdogan as a social menace. “The revolution will not be televised,” said one Taksim graffito, “it will be tweeted”.
The question now is: how will Mr Erdogan react? He returned early yesterday from a four-day trip to north Africa in an uncompromising mood, greeted by thousands of supporters calling for the Taksim commune to be “crushed”. The towering figure of Turkey since 2002, he says he cannot understand why he is called authoritarian and dictatorial when he commands 50 per cent of the vote.
Under Mr Erdogan, Turkey has become a confident, prosperous regional power. But he had to fight every step of the way until he brought the Kemalist establishment in the army and the judiciary to heel. In 2007, the generals triggered a constitutional crisis by trying to block Mr Gul from assuming the presidency because of his Islamist past, amid mass rallies pitting the AKP against the Kemalists. Mr Erdogan called an election and won a landslide, increasing his share of the vote further upon re-election in 2011. Now, “they instinctively smell another coup”, says Mr Altinay.
Egemen Bagis, minister for EU affairs, says: “We have reason to suspect all this was planned and when the time comes we will share that.”
This misdiagnoses the nature of the rebellion. Mr Erdogan is a polarising figure who seems to believe his preternatural rapport with Turkey’s Anatolian heartland entitles him to intrude into the private space of Turks by, for instance, legislating restrictions on alcohol consumption and abortion, telling all Turks to drink yoghurt and women to have more babies. His taming of the military attracted wide support until it emerged that some of the cases against hundreds of generals now behind bars were based on trumped-up charges. The law has been used as a battering ram against journalists and dissidents.
But the overarching point about this disparate and dizzy civic uprising is that a cross section of a plural society rejects both the suffocating embrace of Mr Erdogan’s paternalism and the limp grip of Kemalist and nationalist hierarchies living in the past, which in no way reflect the vitality and diversity of Turkey. Turks did not shake off the doctrinal rigidity and social regimentation of Kemalism to be expropriated by Mr Erdogan’s variety of neo-Islamism.
“People are saying they will not accept another straitjacket after all these years” says Yavuz Baydar, columnist on the conservative Today’s Zaman newspaper. “They are sending a clear signal to the established opposition that it is not up to the job.”
Mustafa Akyol, a Muslim liberal writer who hitherto supported the AKP, says the party hierarchy’s reflex comparison with the 2007 crisis is plain wrong. “In 2007 it was mainly secularists who despised the AKP. This time it’s not just secularists, it’s much, much wider.”
Online polling by Istanbul’s Bilgi university indicates that almost two-thirds of demonstrators are under 30, more than half had never protested before and few had any party affiliation. What they do have, says liberal columnist Kadri Gursel, is the support of their parents.
The spread of this disquiet has become Erdogan-specific rather than the earlier rejection by metropolitan elites of the AKP as pious backwoodsmen from rural Anatolia. The prime minister, barred by AKP bylaws from seeking a fourth term, wants to slip into the presidency, with enhanced powers under a now stuttering constitutional review. Adored by loyalists he has empowered but insulated by his courtiers and intolerant of criticism, Mr Erdogan, a Turkish official says, now “feels like a father who is betrayed by his family”.
“Our understanding of democracy is not participatory,” the official adds. “We don’t include the right of protest.” Differences of ideology aside, the AKP and its ineffectual adversaries partake fully of a winner-takes-all culture of politics. The paradox about Mr Erdogan is that, after building a deep-rooted mass movement across Turkey, this crisis is really about him – and his wilfulness risks splitting the AKP. “I don’t have a better alternative to vote for but I don’t want to contribute to the further maximisation of Erdogan’s power,” says Mr Akyol. “There is a lot of thinking going on inside the AKP,” says one of Mr Gul’s supporters, “certainly enough to survive the narcissism of Tayyip Erdogan.”
Mr Gul, who said this week that “democracy is not just about elections”, praised the Gezi park activists and engineered an apology for police brutality, could emerge as an obvious rival to Mr Erdogan. Followers of Fethullah Gulen, the US-based imam of a powerful but shadowy Islamic movement that has been skirmishing with the prime minister for more than a year, are keeping their distance from him and may scent blood.
“Initially, I thought there was no risk whatsoever to Erdogan’s rule,” says Sinan Ulgen, head of EDAM, an independent liberal think-tank, “but now I can see a scenario in which, if he continues unrepentantly defiant, he will split the party.”
Mr Erdogan insists he will bulldoze ahead and build a replica of an Ottoman artillery barracks in Gezi park. The original, demolished in 1940, was a stronghold for a proto-Islamist insurrection against the Young Turks in 1909, put down by, among others, Mustafa Kemal, giving Mr Erdogan’s stubbornness a patina of revenge against the Kemalist republic Ataturk established later.
President Gul and AKP elders may tell him unless he finds a way down from this position, his alternative is to retake Taksim Square by force – a devastating outcome for Turkey and his reputation.
Mr Erdogan secured his pre-eminent position by being a shrewd judge of power and a pragmatist. But the prime minister grew up in Kasimpasa, a tough neighbourhood a stone’s throw from Taksim. “He’s a street fighter, he likes fighting and he just lost a fight in the street,” says Mr Gursel. “That is dramatic for him. Whatever he does from now on, he will do it as a beaten-up guy”.
Get alerts on Recep Tayyip Erdogan when a new story is published