ISTANBUL: When demonstrators rocked Turkey in June, their message was clear: An increasingly authoritarian government needed to learn to listen to dissenters and compromise.
But a new round of protests set off by the death of a man in a tense border region near Syria appears more complex, sectarian and volatile.
The latest unrest shows the grievances that prompted tens of thousands to protest Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government in June have not faded. And his government has been hurt by those protests – for instance, losing the chance last week to host the 2020 Summer Olympics partly due to Turkey’s damaged international image.
But this round of demonstrations was sparked far from Istanbul and in a very different way – the death of 22-year-old Ahmet Atakan, killed under disputed circumstances during a protest Sunday in the southern city of Antakya.
Thousands of protesters in Istanbul, Ankara and Antakya, many chanting Atakan’s name, have clashed with police every night since then. Young, liberal protesters, the focus of the June demonstrations, have joined, but the epicenter of this week’s protests has shifted to Antakya and has been swelled by grievances of minority groups.
The galvanizing factors seem to be anger at Erdogan and a call for greater civil liberties.
“The government has sought to divide us but has succeeded in bringing a lot of different people to the same cause,” says Oyku Akman, 21, a student at the Middle East Technical University, who has participated in both rounds of demonstrations.
The June protests were larger, but she said the latest demonstrations have taken on a harder edge, as protesters have been launching fireworks and throwing projectiles to provoke police tear gas and water cannon. They are also increasingly using burning barricades.
Atakan, the face of the protests, came from a family of Alevis, a Shiite sect that comprises Turkey’s largest religious minority in the mostly Sunni country.
Shunned as heretics by many Turks, Alevis have long-standing grievances about discrimination and religious freedom. To complicate matters, they are close to Syrian Alawites and tend to back the Syrian government of President Bashar Assad, an Alawite. A big part of their current grievances is Erdogan’s strong stance against Assad.
In an interview with the Associated Press this week, Zafer Atakan outlined his brother Ahmet’s grievances, blaming Erdogan’s AK Party for egging on outside powers to intervene in Syria.
“Ahmet’s aim was to stop AKP’s fascism and the imperialist interventions all over the world,” he said.
Meanwhile, the armed wing of the Kurdish PKK rebels, noting Atakan’s death, has called for followers to join the demonstrations. The call comes as the group is suspending a pullout from Turkey as part of talks with the government about ending a nearly three-decade conflict that has killed thousands. The government says it is preparing a package of democratic reforms to meet some of the Kurdish demands.
Protesters say the police have continued the aggressive tactics that turned a local Istanbul protest in late May against the government’s plan to demolish a city park into a national expression of dissent.
But the government has changed one tactic: Instead of having Erdogan intervene directly with blunt comments praising the police and deriding protesters, so far he has remained silent on the latest protests, which have also received relatively little attention in the Turkish press.
Asli Aydintasbas, a columnist for the Turkish daily Millyet, says she expects the protests to continue:
“The current situation is not sustainable. Turkey is either going to get more democratic or more authoritarian.”