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For a park and a few trees

The urban riots have exposed the unpleasant face of the ‘Turkish model’

In J.R.R Tolkien’s Middle Earth, Ents are tree-like creatures, known for their patience. However, when their leader Treebeard finds out that the wicked wizard Saruman felled thousands of trees, he leads a horde of his race to destroy the wizard’s stronghold in the “Last March of the Ents”.

In a replay of Tolkien’s story, thousands of members of Istanbul’s urban middle class descended on Taksim Square on June 1 and occupied the European centre of this humongous city. What took elderly women, white-collar workers, teachers, lawyers, engineers, gay people and students to the streets was a common desire to stop government plans to demolish the Gezi Park next to Taksim Square. For months, the Turkish prime minister and former mayor of Istanbul, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, had been repeating his determination to rebuild a replica of the Ottoman army barracks, torn down in 1940 to create space for the park. On May 28, a handful of protesters organised a sit-in at Gezi Park to prevent further felling of trees. Police violence against peaceful protesters triggered clashes in the downtown area and spiralled out of control.

Demonstrations after June 1 were not just about the park and trees any more. Protesters now turned against Erdogan’s heavy-handed rule, and his attitude certainly didn’t help. During that weekend, the PM appeared live on TV to address the crowds: gone was the brash and self-assured leader; Erdogan looked angry but visibly shaken. Unfortunately, he further fanned the flames by calling protesters “looters” and threatening to dispatch a million of his supporters.

Urban riots of such intensity and scope are a first in modern Turkish history. Although the protesters do not want to change the system, they are fed up with Erdogan’s top-down style of decision-making and his monopolisation of power. Protests are not led by a single leader. There are many environmentalist, women’s, LGBT and political platforms speaking for a variety of groups. The truly striking phenomenon is the predominance of the youth — the so-called “1990s Generation” — who are politically non-affiliated. The typical faultlines of Turkish politics, which have pitted Kemalists against conservatives, secularists against Islamists, nationalists against Kurds, left-wingers against right-wingers, do not seem to capture the essence of the riots.

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