Will a Shopping Mall Be Turkey's Tahrir Square?

Marc Champion writes editorials on international affairs. He was previously Istanbul bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal. He was also an editor at the Financial Times, the editor-in-chief of the Moscow Times and a correspondent for the Independent in Washington, the Balkans and Moscow. He is based in London.
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In 2011, protesters in Egypt occupied Cairo's central Tahrir Square to call for the downfall of the government and clashed repeatedly with police. Now, in Turkey, police have been fighting running battles to eject protesters from Gezi Park, which is attached to Istanbul's central Taksim Square.

This isn't about toppling the government, though. It's about plans for a shopping mall.

The protesters have been trying to stop bulldozers from razing the park for construction since May 26. Police swept in at dawn this morning for a second time to force the occupiers out, deploying tear gas, water cannon, pepper spray and batons. They set tents on fire.

An opposition legislator is in intensive care after being shot at close range with a tear gas canister. According to Turkish media, another opposition legislator was hospitalized; hundreds were treated for injuries at the scene; a student underwent surgery after police injured him in the ears and genitals; and another protester had a leg broken.

Again, this was about a shopping mall, but the brutality of the police response is making it something bigger.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan responded to the violence in a way that can only fuel the impression that he is becoming a popularly elected autocrat: "Whatever you do, we've made our decision and we will implement it," he said on May 29.

There's some history here that needs to be understood. Erdogan used to be the mayor of Istanbul. He was a good one. Over the years, though, the ruling Justice and Development Party has gained a well-deserved reputation for paving over the city, which has a population of somewhere between 12 million and 15 million, leaving pitifully few green spaces.

Gezi Park itself is small. Imagine if Manhattan had no Central Park, and authorities decided to cut down the few trees in Union Square to build a mall on it. New Yorkers might have something to say. They might even protest and try to stop construction. And they would probably be upset if President Barack Obama told them that what they thought was irrelevant and sent in riot police to clear them.

In Turkey, the legal deck is stacked in favor of the government, which can do more or less as it pleases. On the same day that Erdogan dismissed the protestors' concerns, he was at the groundbreaking ceremony for construction of a third suspension bridge over the Bosporus strait, which splits Istanbul into its European and Asian halves.

Named after Yavuz Sultan Selim, this will be one of the widest suspension bridges in the world. The project will involve building a super highway through the remaining forest north of Istanbul, where it is hemmed in by the Black Sea coast. There were many opponents of the plan on environmental grounds, but it was quickly approved. Erdogan has also announced plans to build a new tanker shipping canal, parallel to the Bosporus, plus new cities on the outskirts of the megalopolis and Europe's largest airport. So long as he can finance these projects, they will happen.

Istanbul needs a third bridge, but you can see why ordinary Turks feel concerned -- a bit suffocated -- under the weight of Erdogan's ambitions. There's no overriding public interest in building yet another shopping mall in central Istanbul. Turks have a right to protest against the destruction of Gezi Park. For the government to turn this issue into a Tahrir Square-style confrontation is both unjustifiable and downright unwise.

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To contact the author on this story:
Marc Champion at mchampion7@bloomberg.net