To understand the national significance of the protests that have spread through Turkey this weekend, it’s critical to look beyond Istanbul.
The mass demonstrations first took off in the country’s cultural capital when police used tear gas and forcibly broke up a peaceful protest against the demolition of a popular park to make way for a shopping mall. For the rest of Turkey, and presumably those people in Istanbul, the anti-government protest movement that has emerged now has little to do with the park or the mall.
In Antakya, a small city of about a quarter of a million people in the southeastern corner of Turkey, most people rarely go to Istanbul. Located on the opposite end of the country, the city occupies a different ecosystem, with most residents working and visiting other nearby cities, and only going to Istanbul as much as someone in Lincoln, Nebraska might visit New York City. In other words, most people here could care less about urban development plans in Istanbul.
Yet for the past two days hundreds, if not thousands of people have marched through the streets chanting anti-government slogans challenging Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and expressing solidarity with those in Taksim Square, the center of demonstrations in Istanbul.
In discussions about the political situation here in Antakya, the first issue to come up is usually the alleged police brutality in Istanbul that most people say is emblematic of authoritarian behavior.
There’s also much concern about the increasing influence of conservative Islamic politics in the government. Erdogan’s recent remarks that anyone who drinks alcohol is an alcoholic that coincided with laws restricting the sale and marketing of alcohol have prompted much criticism from Turkish people who say he is trying to control their personal lifestyle choices.
The protests in Antakya have yet to reach the same intensity as those seen in Istanbul or Ankara, but they remain unprecedented for this small town. Among those who came out to protest on Sunday, young people tended to dominate the crowd, but sizable numbers of people from all ages participated. All along the march, people lining the road cheered on the protesters and hung off balconies, shouting their support or clapping. Hours after the protest began and the main demonstration had disbursed, people continued driving through the streets honking horns, banging pots, and chanting protest slogans.
While Antakya is far from a bellwether city, the spark set off here by a protest movement on the opposite end of the country is testament that the political challenges now facing Turkey have little to do with a public park and everything to do with major social and political policies.