By Tia O'Brien
ISTANBUL, Turkey - The violent drama playing out in fits and starts on the streets of Istanbul - and across the country - is more than a distant news headline for me. It's a personal story come full circle.
On Dec. 4, 1945, a government-inspired mob of 10,000 wound their way through Istanbul's cobblestone streets, swinging pick axes and sledgehammers. Their mission was to silence my grandparents, owners of Turkey's second-largest newspaper. In broad daylight as the police watched, they destroyed Zekeriya and Sabiha Sertel's publishing house, knocking down the door, breaking apart printing presses, and heaving rolls of printing paper into the streets.
The Sertels were the only ones arrested and put on trial. Their alleged crime: slandering the government, charges tied to their call for an end to one-party rule. They were acquitted, but as friends were either imprisoned or mysteriously murdered, they fled into exile, where they continued pressing for a full-fledged democracy.
More than 60 years later and a short walk across town, a similar scene keeps playing out in Taksim Square with one striking difference. This time, it's a diverse swath of free-thinking Turks marching through the streets, demanding personal freedoms. The government, led by conservative Islamist Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has answered with clouds of tear gas, water cannons, and rubber bullets. What's stunning is that so little has changed. The same fight for civil liberties and a vibrant democracy still is being waged today.
A couple of weeks ago, I landed in Istanbul to research a book about my revolutionary grandparents and immediately found myself witnessing this crossroads in Turkish history. My husband and I flicked on CNN International in time to watch wall-to-wall coverage of a raging war between police and demonstrators. Such scenes puzzle many Westerners. Turkey is showcased as proof that a secular democracy can thrive in the Middle East, serving as a model for Arab Spring nations. I was just as puzzled as a child growing up in America, asking my Turkish mother, "Why were our grandparents punished for demanding freedom if Turkey is a democracy?"
The ugly standoff between a new generation of young Turks and a prime minister they accuse of increasingly authoritarian rule reveals the messy answer. Freedom ebbs and flows, depending on who's in power. It's democracy, Turkish-style, a very different model from what we understand in the West.
From the republic's founding, the military served as an odd form of checks and balances, charged with protecting the fledgling secular democracy with brute force. Over the years, it staged four coups to oust regimes that the generals deemed were straying from the path. During the first coup in 1960, they hanged the premier. The last coup in 1997 toppled the Welfare party, the first Islamic-led government, but Erdogan and other party members soon regained power. It's no wonder that Prime Minister Erdogan has reined in the military. Claiming they were unlawfully plotting against his regime, Erdogan's government has locked up a host of generals, along with other perceived conspirators, including lawyers, intellectuals, and journalists. More journalists are behind bars in Turkey than in any other country. "We need the military," said one relative, longing for the old days of intervention.
So violent clashes in the name of democracy are nothing new. What's unusual is the resilience of these protesters. The son of a friend said simply, "They tear-gas us, but we're not afraid." But those who've lived through coups and repressive regimes are afraid for them.
One night last week, a veteran journalist translated for us as we watched live coverage of riot police forcibly removing activists in Gezi Park, ground zero of the resistance movement. "I hope no one dies," she said like a worried mother. The brutal scene must have flooded her with memories of the two years she'd spent in prison, enduring rounds of torture. The crime according to the generals? Her politics. "The party you work for is legal today and not tomorrow," she explained matter-of-factly. And that, in a nutshell, is how Turkish democracy often works.
If they were alive today, my grandparents would be cheering on these young activists with front-page coverage. They seem free of the fear that paralyzed those who lived through coups. Will the demonstrators continue to face down their prime minister, or will tactics such as Erdogan's vow to hunt down "one by one" protesters who "terrorized the streets" ultimately teach them the Turkish lesson - that even the boldest freedom fighters are eventually silenced?
No one knows if Turkey has reached a tipping point. These demonstrators represent the nation's future - a fast-growing number of well-educated, technology-savvy professionals from an array of backgrounds who have benefited from Erdogan's economic policies. Armed with Twitter, they've put democracy, Turkish-style, on display for all the world to see. Even as the government threatens to crack down on social media, it may prove hard to put this genie back in the bottle.