Derek Stoffel: Inside the new, divided Turkey

Demonstrators in Istanbul say Prime Minister Recep Erdorgan runs Turkey like a dictatorship, but his supporters say he has built an economically flourishing country. CBC's Derek Stoffel has more from the streets of Istanbul.

Protests continue in Turkey for 7th consecutive day

Burak Sofuoglu, a lawyer who studied at the University of Toronto, says he will not leave Gezi Park. 'If [the Turkish government] wants this park, they will have to kill us here,' he says. (Derek Stoffel/CBC)

If you are a tourist in Istanbul and you wandered into Gezi Park this afternoon, you’d be forgiven if you thought you’d arrived right in the middle of a music festival. Guys with their girlfriends and guitars in their arms singing. Old friends snapping photos to post on Instagram. Free food and water handed out at makeshift kiosks.

But what’s happening here in Taksim Square is, in fact, an expression of the growing anger many Turks are feeling toward their government; their prime minister in particular.

Ask the students, the union members, the professionals — those who have come to the square for the last week now — what their beef is and they’ll tell you Recep Tayyip Erdogan runs Turkey like a dictatorship. They accuse him of ignoring the 50 per cent of voters who cast their ballots for his opponents during the last election.

And they’ll say his plan for Gezi Park was simply too much to take.

Erdogan and his government sent in bulldozers last week to do away with the sycamore trees and replace them with a shopping centre and a mosque.

Burak Sofuoglu was one of the first people to come to Gezi Park to try to stop them. A lawyer who studied at the University of Toronto, he told me that he will not leave this park. "If [the Turkish government] wants this park, they will have to kill us here."

The demonstrations have grown into more than just a protest against changing a park. People in the square say they’re against what they see as the transformation of Erdogan from prime minister to dictator.

They cite changes he’s backed that would stop the sale of alcohol after 10 p.m. (though I have yet to tell them that back in Ontario the LCBO is often shut by then). They’re worried he’s going to restrict access to abortion. They say he’s got too much control over the media.

But one thing I’ve learned from covering protests and revolutions is the demonstrators that attract the attention of foreign reporters don’t tell the whole story. Our cameras and microphones love the sound and pictures of chanting protesters. But beyond the squares, there are millions more who are quite happy with the status quo.

That’s why I got on a ferry for a short ride across the Bosporus to visit the Asian side of Istanbul. And in a very working class neighbourhood, I heard a very different viewpoint.

"I don’t support the protesters," Erdogan Arr told me. "I do back our prime minister. He’s built up our country — he’s built a new Turkey."

Arr sells cherries in a busy market. He says Erdogan and his government worked to clean up Turkey’s cities. They grew the economy and built an airport nearby.

It’s this kind of support that Erdogan is banking on. And it helps explains why he’s taken a hard line against the demonstrators — calling them "looters."

The cherry seller is right: there is a new Turkey these days. But it’s one that is becoming more divided.

Turkey’s economy has flourished under Erdogan’s leadership. But his tough talk against the protesters has sent the stock exchange tumbling.

Back in Taksim Square, Erdogan’s uncompromising approach has many demonstrators digging in. Some enterprising young men have started selling rudimentary gas masks to cash in on the growing likelihood that the violent clashes between protesters and tear-gas-wielding police will start anew.


Derek Stoffel

World News Editor

Derek Stoffel is a former Middle East correspondent, who covered the Arab Spring uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya and reported from Syria during the ongoing civil war. Based in Jerusalem for many years, he covered the Israeli and Palestinian conflict. He has also worked throughout Europe and the U.S., and reported on Canada's military mission in Afghanistan.