The fight was already emerging as a bigger symbol for secular Turks who felt increasingly boxed in by the ruling party of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The government-backed plan called for building a shopping mall inside a reconstruction of a long-demolished army barracks remembered by progressive Turks as a place where, in 1909, religious conservatives sought to stage a coup against reformers.
The plan followed what Zihli and others called a pattern of Erdogan’s Islam-tinged and ever-more authoritarian government. Erdogan had railed against birth control while his ruling party floated curbs on legal abortions. Journalists critical of the government have been arrested. Just last month, Turkey’s parliament passed sweeping new restrictions on alcohol, banning night sales and liquor advertising. In a country that once prided itself on its secular identity, Erdogan suggested ayran, a salty yogurt, replace raki, an anise-flavored alcoholic beverage, as Turkey’s national drink.
As security forces moved in to clear Gezi Park, Zihli — more used to gallery receptions in fashionable Istanbul circles — suddenly found himself engaging in running battles with police. The government response went ignored or underplayed by cowed segments of the Turkish media, leaving word to spread through Facebook, Twitter and other social media, with rage against official repression drawing massive new support for the still-ongoing civil unrest.
Shot by a rubber bullet and doused by water cannons, Zihli kept coming back, feeling more and more empowered. Protesters grew more enraged as Erdogan took to national television, denouncing them as foreign-sponsored rabble-rousers.
“I’m not a very political person, but for the first time in my life, I felt I could understand what was lacking in our democracy,” Zihli said. “Democracy isn’t just about having elections. It’s about respecting the points of view of all your citizens; it’s about freedom and not forcing your will.”
Repeatedly, Erdogan, addressing his faithful, sought to paint the protesters as debauched and morally bankrupt, claiming they had entered a mosque near the protest site and drank alcohol there. The allegations were quickly denied by a mosque official, who was then promptly hauled in for six hours of questioning by Istanbul’s antiterrorism police.
“All Erdogan does every day is prove our point with his actions,” Zihli said. “This is about our love for our country and our love for freedom, and no, we’re not going to stop.”
Faiola reported from London and Moura reported from Sao Paulo. Juan Forero in Bogota, Colombia, contributed to this report.