With silent protests now in hundreds of public spaces across Turkey, those opposed to Erdogan show little sign of disappearing. But a movement that last week briefly showed signs of coalescing around a common set of demands from Muhcu’s Taksim Solidarity group has instead atomized. The change may make Erdogan’s opponents harder to stamp out, but it may also diffuse their power, leaving both sides hardened against each other with no end to the conflict in sight.
“Our friends had removed the barricades with their own hands. Many of the tents were already taken down. We were taking down the banners. We needed only one more day,” said Muhcu (pronounced MOOH-choo), a co-founder of the group and the head of Turkey’s architects guild, whose office window overlooks the sparkling Bosporus.
Muhcu, 50, is more than twice the age of many of the thousands of protesters who encamped for two weeks in Gezi Park, and though he has two smartphones, he says he still turns to younger officemates for advice about Twitter and Facebook, which have played a key role in getting protesters to the streets.
For two years, he led small protests against Erdogan’s plans to turn chaotic Taksim Square into a pedestrian plaza and to raze Gezi Park to build a replica of an Ottoman-era barracks.
Taksim Square “is a place of democracy for the republic,” he said. “It’s where happiness and sadness is shared.”
But the rallies were peaceful and drew little notice. Despite Muhcu’s long struggle, the biggest protests in recent Turkish history kicked off only after excavators in late May started to dig up a corner of Gezi Park, tearing out trees and reducing one small stretch to rubble. Police used tear gas on a small group of environmentalists who were trying to block construction workers from doing anything more.
Within hours, the number of protesters in the park had mushroomed, quickly expanding beyond concerned urbanists to include a wide swath of Istanbul that was mostly, but not exclusively, professional, middle-class and secular. Then it spread across the country. Protesters complained about encroachments on personal liberties and voiced a feeling that Erdogan’s rule was becoming ever-more authoritarian.
Almost two weeks later, Erdogan agreed for the first time to meet with representatives of the protesters. Muhcu and one other person were tasked with representing Taksim Solidarity, part of a delegation that also included a broad group of artists.