By FOX News Radio’s Emily Wither in Istanbul, Turkey:
The only people occupying Gezi Park now are the police. In large groups they shelter from the midday sun under the shade of the trees, dozing, smoking and cracking jokes.
Next to the park, in Taksim Square, groups of workers furiously paint, scrub and repair the damage caused by more than two weeks of deadly battles between protesters and police. In a hurried attempt to wash away evidence of the unrest, the changes taking place are only cosmetic.
The protests, initially about saving this city-park and square from redevelopment, are now the largest anti-government demonstrations the country has seen in decades. The government’s brutal police crackdown on demonstrations has opened a wound of long-suppressed resentment towards the establishment. The 50% of the electorate that didn’t vote for Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan want their voices heard. The government’s response with brute police force and numerous arrests has increased the protesters’ anger.
However, here in Istanbul the city still continues to buzz with life. On the main shopping street leading to the square, tourists and locals causally window shop unfazed by the reflections in the glass of riot police squads passing behind them. Street peddlers still hawk their wares but they’re also pushing protest essentials, everything from whistles to tear gas masks.
The demonstrations are well into their third week across Turkey. The police may have cleared the focus of the protests but they haven’t cleared the streets. On Monday, a number of trade unions rallied in towns and cities after calling for nation-wide strikes.
The group I spoke to was smaller than previous demonstrations and some people were visibly tired, but many of the protesters vowed they would continue; “This is a fight for our freedom, we are not under a single flag or ideology, we are from all different sections of society and we are just trying to get the government to listen to us. I’m not expecting a revolution, just democratic reform,” one man told me.
Many of the protesters felt nervous giving me their names; many of their friends have been arrested since the unrest began.
“Everyone here is afraid of tear gas, we are all afraid of the police yet we are still here, we have all the equipment needed now to push back the police,” another woman said. She pointed out we were currently in a bottleneck and the lack of swift exits if things got nasty was making her uncomfortable.
Another young man complained to me about the government’s double standards, “The other day when there was AKP Party (the Prime Minister’s party) rally, buses were put on, there was free food and water…while our demonstration is shut down and the police attack us, this is not a democracy,” he said.
Another woman told me this was her 18th day of protesting, “We are civil people here trying to protect our rights, I’ve never been an activist before but right now Turkey is not a democracy.”
Ask anyone where this is going and they’ll tell you they don’t know. Hundreds have been arrested, four people have died and over 7,000 have been injured.
The Prime Minister is likely to survive this but his reputation as a role model for the Muslim world probably won’t. Human rights groups, the U.S. and other Western governments are condemning Erdogan’s response to the demonstrations. The international community is nervously eyeing the unfolding chaos aware that with the conflict in Syria playing out on Turkey’s border, they cannot afford further instability in the region.
Erdogan’s efforts to portray the protesters as extremists and thugs are further isolating a huge proportion of the electorate, many of them young and the ones who will shape the future of the country.
Like the fresh paint drying on Taksim Square, it won’t take long before the cracks begin to show again.
LISTEN to FOX News Radio’s Emily Wither reporting from Istanbul, Turkey: