Istanbul, Asharq Al-Awsat—The streets of Istanbul were once again swathed in pepper spray yesterday as street demonstrations to mark the 90th anniversary of the founding of the Turkish Republic took a violent turn. Demonstrators and supporters of the CHP, the party of the Republic’s founder Mustafa Kamal Ataturk and a nexus of opposition to the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyep Erdogan, clashed with police near Sishane Square as they attempted to march towards Taksim Square up Istiklal, the center of the city’s shopping and tourist district.
Shouts of “We are the soldiers of Mustafa Kamal Ataturk” went up in the crowd as the police pushed the protesters into the backstreets.
Tensions ran high in the city ahead of the event, the first large scale demonstration in the city since protests erupted over the planned redevelopment of Gezi Park in May this year. There was an extensive and visible police presence on the streets from the early morning, with Taksim Square, the symbolic heart of the Gezi Park movement, surrounded by lines of riot police and a number of water cannons.
“This is meant to be our nation’s day of celebration,” said a young man who joined the demonstration. “But these people are also here because they are against the Islamic policies of the party that is running the government. They are angry about the Gezi Park events, and the rule of the AKP government.”
While the plans to redevelop Gezi Park have now been shelved, many Turks are angry about Erdogan’s Democracy Package, a swathe of laws introduced at the end of September which grant the police powers to detain people they think may be at risk of organising a protest. Many also fear that Erdogan and his party of moderate Islamists are trying to chip away the secularism of the Turkish state through measures such as restricting alcohol sales.
As the violence erupted, Erdogan was just a few kilometers away, presiding over the official opening of the Sancaktepe-Üsküdar Metro tunnel. Meanwhile, protests continued along Istiklal and towards Taksim Square as Asharq Al-Awsat went to print last night.