Three summers ago, the chant "Tayyip Istifa!" ("Tayip, resign!") boomed throughout the neighborhoods surrounding Taksim Square in Istanbul. Thousands of citizens flooded Istiklal Boulevard to demand that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan step down. The people knew full well at the time that this was a long shot.
But now, three years later, a faction of the Turkish military has tried to make Erdogan's removal a reality.
On May 31, 2013, I arrived in Istanbul to sight-see and research the food and art scenes for some freelance writing assignments. No less than an hour after getting into town, a Turkish friend brought me to Gezi Park, where an increasingly growing crowd of protesters assembled peacefully to proclaim their resistance to Erdogan's plan to raze this shabby but charming patch of sycamore trees and playgrounds in order to make way for a mall. The scene was young and inspired. It reminded me of the early days of the Occupy movement in Zuccotti Park in downtown Manhattan.
By midnight, the protesters had taken to the commercial thoroughfare of Istiklal Boulevard, and their numbers had soared to the many thousands. It was not long before the police and tear gas arrived. By morning, the Gezi Park protest had matured into a political awakening for secular Turks finding their political voice under a socially conservative and increasingly repressive Prime Minster Erdogan. Right from the start, Turkish friends told me that while the park was important, this was really all about standing up to the regime.
I spent the next few days reporting for The Week on the daily events that were unfolding rapidly. (You can read my dispatches here, here, here, and here.) Like the Occupy movement, the protesters used social media to organize people from all over the city. They quickly claimed Gezi Park as their own, fending off police encroachment. It was only a day before a kitchen, first-aid tent, and communication outpost were set up to support the movement.
Wandering around the park and weaving through direct confrontation with police barricades, I met a diverse contingent of citizens supporting the movement: the self-proclaimed "anarchist" soccer fans of the Besiktas FC who provided the muscle and experience battling police tear gas; the college kids finally able to express their frustration of feeling censored by Erdogan policies; gay rights activists; and middle-aged professionals simply there to support to kids on the front lines.
Not everybody in the park wanted Erdogan gone. Many chafed at his overreach with the plan to demolish the park, and a common refrain was for increased freedom of speech and the right to live the secular and urban life citizens of Istanbul are accustomed to, like having beer at a cafe or wearing a skirt on the street. However, these same people made a point that they did not seek the violence they saw in the Middle East during the Arab Spring. They wanted their process of reform, and possibly regime change, to be calm and orderly.
They surely did not want it achieved with soldiers in the street.
When I returned to New York, I followed the Gezi movement in the news and through friends' reports on social media. The protesters eventually won the preservation of the park, but many felt that the real goals of sustained freedom of speech and expression, let alone a leadership change, were not met. Erdogan, now the president, in turn embarked on a campaign clamping down on journalists and dissidents. A friend confided to me over email a year later that things in Istanbul were not good, and that she had become disillusioned with any progress made at Gezi. She said that she had begun to self-censor and dress more conservatively after increased harassment on the street.
A lot has happened in the last three years: the ascent of ISIS in neighboring Syria, turmoil throughout the region, an immigration crisis, and devastating bombings in Ankara and Istanbul. As I write this, details of Turkey's attempted coup are incredibly sketchy and contradictory. We will learn more of the future of Turkey's leadership in the next few hours, days, and weeks. Let's just hope that the experience of Gezi — its hope, its tolerance, and its desire for something harmonious in a divided country — was the first act in this drama, and that the delayed second act will carry on that same spirit.