The celebrations were laced with an edge of protest. Many of those who had gathered at the bottom of Istiklal for the start of the afternoon rally waved banners poking fun at the widely maligned Prime Minister. Two teenage boys carried a placard bearing a cartoon that depicted Erdoğan as Hitler. At the bottom it carried a simple, and universal, statement: “Dictator.”
The police had prepared for trouble, and from the early morning had lined the side streets along Istiklal and positioned their water cannons in a determined show of strength that has become a regular ritual in the city. “A year ago I would have been shocked to see water cannons on the streets,” one resident told me. “But since Gezi Park it’s become normal.” And sure enough, shortly after the rally began the volatile atmosphere exploded. A plastic bottle hurled by a protester towards the police lines provoked a swift, and by now familiar, response. The police fired pepper spray, and the crowd fell back. For the rest of the afternoon they faced each other in a series of tense standoffs along Istiklal.
Meanwhile, Erdoğan himself was just a few kilometers away on the other side of the Bosporus presiding over the opening of the Marmara Tunnel. The tunnel will, it is hoped, ease the chronic traffic congestion that clogs up the city’s two bridges over the Bosporus. Its Japanese designers claim that it can withstand an earthquake of magnitude nine. The railway’s passengers will certainly hope so, because the tunnel’s path runs parallel to one of the world’s most seismically active fault lines, just 11 miles away.
Eight years in construction, it is the first rail tunnel to link Europe and Asia: a project originally dreamed up by an Ottoman Sultan 150 years ago, and finally executed under the jurisdiction of a prime minister who stands accused by those protesters on the other side of the river of ruling Turkey like a Sultan himself. And this is just one of a number of large scale infrastructure schemes planned for Istanbul over the coming years.
Preparations are already underway for the construction of a third bridge over the Bosporus, scheduled to open in 2015, and a third international airport. Both projects will require hundred of thousands of trees to be cut down in a city that is already lacking in green spaces. The most audacious scheme, and the one that even Erdoğan refers to as his ‘crazy project’, is the Kanal Istanbul, a 26 mile man-made waterway that would link the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara and turn the European side of the city into an island.
“There are very serious consequences to this,” said Mahir Ilgaz, an environmental activist with global pressure group 360.org. “We need to know how much research has been done into the environmental effects of a new canal, and what will happen if there is a major earthquake. The government has not made any of this type of information public.”
Yet to date there have been no indications that these projects will provoke the kind of mass opposition that the proposed redevelopment of Gezi Park did in the summer. According to Ilgaz, the core environmental movement in Turkey is still small and it may be harder to mobilize ordinary people against projects outside the city center. “I think people will protest against the things that are happening in the city itself, the things they can see,” he said. “I don’t see these things having the same potential for outrage as Gezi Park.”
For now, Erdoğan will be basking in the glow of the successful completion and opening of the tunnel. It’s a rare moment of good publicity for him in a year that he will not look back on fondly. It will give him renewed confidence, too, in the success of his future projects. But, however diminished, the spirit of Gezi Park lived on on this Republic Day. And in a corner of his mind, he must be wondering whether, and when, it will come back to haunt him.