Three days of rioting in Istanbul and Ankara have caught Turkey’s government off-guard, with police arresting close to a thousand people on public disorder charges.
The riots mark a growing frustration with the 10-year reign of Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan and his Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party, the AKP.
These are the fiercest anti-government protests in a decade as protesters lit fires and police responded with tear gas, water cannon and pepper spray.
At first glance, the protests erupted over government plans to build a replica of Ottoman-era barracks to house shops and apartments on Taksim Square. For the protesters, Taksim remains a potent symbol of Kamal Attaturk’s secularism that is enshrined in Turkey’s constitution — one that symbolises the very notion of the republic free from religious influence.
While Erdogan has overseen a transformation of the Turkish economy, he is under fire for his authoritarian style and perceived religious conservative meddling in mainstream Turkish society. These underlying concerns are mixed with more immediate fears that Turkey is being slowly dragged into the dangerous conflict in neighbouring Syria.
Erdogen’s history of exercising tight control over the media has also fuelled popular anti-AKP sentiment. The emotions around Taksim mean that Erdogan should treat this popular anger with care, using his economic success to overcome the trouble.