ISTANBUL — In his Istanbul liquor store, shopkeeper Menderes Yildirim is worried — not so much about the recent nights of riots and tear gas, but about the stacks of beer in his fridge.
Like the protesters themselves, he is furious at one of the government reforms that threatens to put him out of business by banning him from selling alcohol at night.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a practising Muslim, further enraged protesters at the weekend when he branded people who drink “alcoholics”.
He has told Turks that instead of beer they should adopt a traditional yoghurt drink, “ayran”, as their national beverage.
The suggestion does not impress Yildirim, who thrives on the crowds of foreign tourists and locals criss-crossing the giant Taksim Square — the symbolic heart of the recent protests.
“What am I going to sell to people, to tourists — ayran?” he huffed.
He says Erdogan’s proposal to ban sales of alcohol between 10:00 pm and 6:00 am, as well as restricting advertising of alcoholic drinks, will ruin his livelihood if it is ratified.
“That is exactly the period when I sell alcohol,” he said.
The law is one of several measures that have made protesters brand Erdogan a “dictator”.
They say he wants to impose conservative Islamic reforms on Turkey, a country peopled mostly by Muslims but with a strictly secular constitution.
Discontent has boiled over into days of deadly clashes, sparked last week when police tear-gassed a peaceful protest against a construction project.
Since then students have swamped the park nightly, dancing and singing with beer bottles in their hands. Many of them cite the alcohol law among their grievances.
“It is a very strict restriction and we all want to break it,” said Tarik Ozkan, a young man strolling around the park.
“It is not just about alcohol,” he said. “This is about freedoms.”
– ‘I don’t want my people to be alcoholics’ –
Erdogan and his AKP party, supported largely by conservative Muslims, has won three elections in a row, gaining more than 50 percent of the vote in 2011.
“But there is the other 50 percent, whose rights and wishes for freedom are being completely ignored,” said Ekrem Yumlu, who runs a liquor shop a few feet from the square.
Public drinking has long been a part of social life among a section of Turkey’s population.
In the culturally polarised country, which sits at the crossroads of east and west, it is a way of telling people’s social and political leanings.
Despite the protests and the outbursts of anger on social media, Erdogan has vowed to push on with the law.
“I love my people, I do not want them to be alcoholics,” he said.
His remarks prompted many Turks to add tags to their Twitter and Facebook messages sarcastically identifying themselves as “Alcoholic”.
The government says the law aims to protect children, some of whom it says start drinking at 13. It says alcohol is one of the top causes of Turkey’s many traffic accidents and cases of domestic violence.
Some critics say they are angered as much by the regulation, which is similar to those of some Western nations, as by the way it is being pushed through.
They see it as one in a series of increasingly conservative Islamic-leaning reforms.
Dogan Murat, a 35-year-old tradesman, says he voted for Erdogan in the last election but has since been angered by what he calls the leader’s uncompromising approach.
“Everything fell apart because of all this bullying. He just says, ‘I am going to ban alcohol,’ end of story,” Murat complained.
A recent study by the OECD economic grouping indicated alcohol consumption in Turkey is proportionally low.
It showed that 3.5 million of the country’s 75 million people were drinkers, with consumption among adults of four litres a year per person on average.
A private poll in 2011 showed that just under 70 percent of Turks said they had never drunk alcohol.
But many Turks, notably around Taksim, earn their living selling it to the millions of tourists who frequent the historic and commercial spot every year.
Liquor shop owner Yumlu, 46, said he expected he would have to fire all of his four employees if President Abdullah Gul, Erdogan’s ally, signs the bill into law.
“We are going to have a serious loss of business,” he said.
Alcohol companies are also bitter, taking out sentimental good-bye advertisements in newspapers — which the law will prevent them from doing.
“Commercials are over. May we be excused?” a major Turkish distiller, Yeni Raki, said in one ad, showing a hand holding an intentionally blurred glass of raki up for a toast.
Beer brand Efes Pilsen, one of the leading Turkish drinks companies, placed a full-page advertisement showing its classic fat brown bottle with the label symbolically removed.
“We are a free country and we choke on restrictions,” said Murat. “They should know that by now.”