Turkish protesters see themselves protecting freedoms

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Protesters in Turkey say they are safeguarding liberties that are increasingly threatened under Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

“This protest is very important,” said Asgi, a leftist activist who joined the protests in Taksim Square.

Like other activists, Asgi has been sleeping at the protest epicenter for days, and is ready to stay for as long as necessary.

“One year, two years, three years, we don’t know,” she said when asked how long the sit-in and protests at the square will continue.

Erdem Yoruk, sociology professor at Koc University in Istanbul, has been participating in the demonstrations from the start.

He described the protest movement as an important turning point in Turkey’s history, because it “crosses class and ideology,” Yoruk said.

“Secularists are protesting against the government, but it is not the final character of the movement. This is a move against political oppression.”

Erdogan has won two consecutive elections since 2003.

“The frequency of these attacks [against freedoms] has escalated significantly,” Yoruk said. “This is an uprising against Erdogan.”

Protecting future generations

The protests are seen as a way of protecting liberties for future generations.

“I’m here for our future, for my children,” said economics student Alper Egor, who described the protesters as “Ataturk’s soldiers.”

Mustafa Kemal Ataturk was Turkey’s first president, from 1923 to 1938, and founder of the secular republic.

While Ataturk has become a major symbol of secular protesters, those taking part are not limited to his followers.

“The way the government cherishes religious values, many Turks also treasure their republican values, and they’re frustrated because some of the leadership, including Erdogan, attack these values,” said Sinan Ulgen, chairman of the Edam Center for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies.

People fear that their lifestyle is threatened, Ulgen added. “There’s a lack of balance between what the government holds dear, and what the protesters hold dear.”

Taksim Square

Taksim Square receives around 2 million visitors a day, and is considered the beating heart of Istanbul.

It hosted the country’s protests until 1977, when they were banned following the killing of 34 demonstrators by the authorities. Erdogan restored the right to protest, but has withdrawn other liberties and cracked down on the media.

Erdogan crackdown on media

The media crackdown has irked protesters.

After two car bombs killed at least 40 and injured 100 in May in the town of al-Rihaniya near the Syrian border, there was an unprecedented news blackout. Police visited newsrooms, and a court banned reporting of the incident.

Despite an increase in news outlets in Turkey, the media has been “suppressed” in recent years, said Hugh Pope of the International Crisis Group, a non-governmental organization that works to prevent conflict worldwide.

“The pressure on media has been lifted a bit in the last week,” Pope added, possibly reflecting change brought about by protesters.