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.
Erdogan was calm at the beginning of the late-night meeting at his home in Ankara, Muhcu said. But by the end, he was agitated by protesters’ challenges, and he walked out before it was over, leaving the delegation with a collection of less-powerful officials, Muhcu said.
Still, the group left with concessions. No action would be taken on Gezi Park while a court ruled on the legality of the effort to build a replica of the barracks that once stood on the site. And even if Erdogan prevailed, he would put the decision to a referendum in Istanbul. Muhcu and others left to sell the proposal to other protesters. And though Muhcu’s reserved manners and salt-and-pepper hair set him apart from the boisterous crowds of young people in Gezi Park, he felt he and other leaders of Taksim Solidarity could pull it off.
“This is a social movement. No one can stop it. The government cannot stop it. We could not have said, ‘Okay, everyone go home’ and made it happen,” he said. But the reprieve for Gezi Park was “a very important victory,” he said.
The bargain was enough to persuade political groups, trade unions and many social organizations on Saturday to agree to disband in Gezi Park and unite behind Taksim Solidarity to do their negotiating for them. Muhcu and other leaders were set to head the ongoing discussions with the government, though many of the mostly middle-class, mostly secular protesters said that they had no intention to leave and that Taksim Solidarity did not speak for them.
But the argument became moot when the surprise warning to clear the park crackled over police loudspeakers. Tear gas and water cannons came soon afterward. Within hours, Taksim Square and Gezi Park were cleared, and Taksim Solidarity was left without an anchor.
At a Taksim Solidarity coordinating meeting, held Wednesday in a small, stuffy auditorium at the Turkish Chamber of Engineers building, the stresses of the past few days were clear. A member of the Alevi ethnic minority asked everyone to participate in a march commemorating the 20th anniversary of attacks on Alevis. A member of a lesbian and gay rights group passed out fliers. One of the secretaries of the group was frustrated about a lack of coordination.
“If everyone is going to act independently and write their own declarations, that’s fine, but then let’s disband,” said Mucella Yapici, a member of the Istanbul Chamber of Architects, who stormed out of the hall. She said afterward that she had simply gotten in the habit of acting like a water cannon.
Muhcu said that Taksim Solidarity could hardly claim to lead the protests.
“We can be considered as representatives, but other people are representatives too,” he said. The protests “are spread out. That’s what gives them power.”