By Parisa Hafezi
ANKARA (Reuters) – Ask the younger protesters who have taken to Turkey’s streets over the past two weeks what they are fighting for, and the response is simple: “More freedom”.
It is an aspiration they might just achieve.
Turkey’s worst political unrest in decades has galvanized a wide range of opponents of Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan and his Islamist-rooted AK Party, from anti-capitalist Muslims and gay rights activists to doctors and lawyers, all tired of what they see as his oppressively authoritarian rule.
At the forefront are a generation who, unlike their parents, have grown up in an increasingly outward-looking and fast-growing economy, a new middle class with its material trappings – satellite TV, smartphones and social media connections with friends around the world.
Ironically it is Erdogan who has driven that change, overseeing a near-tripling in nominal wealth over his past decade in power. But for the young protesters in Ankara, Istanbul and other cities around Turkey, he has created a generation whose aspirations he no longer understands.
“We want the world and Erdogan to understand that many Turks are unhappy with his imposed limitations on society,” said Ahmet, 19, sitting in an Ankara cafe near Kizilay Square, which saw some of the heaviest clashes with police.
Days of protest in cities around Turkey were triggered by a fierce police crackdown on what began as a peaceful campaign against government plans to build on Gezi Park, a leafy corner of Istanbul’s central Taksim Square.
For Erdogan’s opponents, the plans to build a replica Ottoman-era barracks on a site that has long been a venue for mass demonstrations epitomized the overbearing nature of his government. Restrictions on the sale of alcohol, advice on what to eat and how many children to have and his ranting about the dangers of Twitter have all added to their resentment.
“We should be able to express our ideas, to stage demonstrations, to drink alcohol, to decide how many kids we want. With Erdogan there is no room for personal rights,” said Cigdem, 18, who took part in protests in the Kizilay protests.
NO GOING BACK
Despite the chants of “Tayyip resign”, a constant refrain during the early days of the protests, and the rattling of pots and pans from residents on balconies in support, many of the young street protesters are realistic about their aims.
One thing they largely agree with Erdogan’s government on is that this is not a “Turkish Spring” like the uprisings in the Arab world two years ago, which unseated dictatorships in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt.
“We wanted them to hear what we had to say. We want freedom. We do not want regime change like Libya or Egypt,” said Cem Yakisan, member of the Carsi football fan club.
“We’re not a political movement. We just want to live and to be respected as human beings.”
Initially labeled by Erdogan as “capulcular”, or “riff-raff”, a moniker proudly adopted by the protesters, who emblazoned it on T-shirts, mugs and even their tents, the protesters hope their show of strength will force Erdogan’s government to think twice before trying to push through any further restrictions on their private lives.
“Young Turks are practical, not ideological. They want the right to live freely without struggling,” said Ayse Ridvan, a 23-year-old student in Ankara. “We do not want regime change or a revolution. Just let us live freely.”
Erdogan has taken a more conciliatory approach to the protesters in Gezi Park in recent days, meeting a delegation at his official residence in Ankara on Thursday and promising a referendum on the building plans.
The protesters have refused to yield, vowing to stay in their ramshackle settlement of tents until the government abandons the plans and releases detained demonstrators.
However the park standoff ends, young Turks seeking a broader change in attitude from the government hope they have already done enough to set Turkey on a path from which there is no turning back.
“We are peaceful people. But Erdogan with his suppressive measures forced us to take to the streets,” said Nergis, a 21-year-old government employee. “No matter how long it continues, we will be there. We want our voice to be heard.”
(Additional reporting by Duygu Erdogan; Writing by Parisa Hafezi; Editing by Nick Tattersall and Andrew Roche)