“Tear gas is coming.” The manager of a trendy new restaurant in Istanbul’s Galata district smiles at us as he ushers us off the street and back inside his door. “Tear gas is coming,” he repeats, still smiling reassuringly, even though his eyes are now streaming. About a kilometre away in Taksim Square, police are dispersing hundreds of protesters who have gathered there and tiny particles of the gas are floating on the night air.
This was the scene three weeks ago when protestors were demonstrating against a new bill that would give the state greater control over the internet. But despite their efforts this bill was signed by president Abdullah Gul last week and is now on the way to becoming law. Critics believe there is only one reason for the new legislation: to stop further allegations of corruption against members of the government from coming to light.
Over the past month these allegations have poured in. They involve prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development party, his business allies and even his own family. The government apparatus has reacted quickly, firstly denying the charges, then replacing hundreds of officials in the country’s police and judiciary. Critics claim the internet law is the next line of defence. Erdogan, however, says it is to stop “blackmail and immorality”.
What’s striking, however, is the ability of Istanbul residents to get on with life. In recent years the city has become a vibrant world capital with plenty of young entrepreneurs, restaurateurs and creative types flocking in from all over. The political upheaval that began last summer with the protests in Gezi Park has hardly dampened the buzz that surrounds the city’s hip districts. For many, like our restaurant manager, business just goes on as usual.
Before he leaves us to our meal, the manager comes over to say goodbye and invite us to breakfast the next morning. Then, still smiling, he opens his rucksack to reveal a gas mask that he has bought online. It doesn’t seem to bother him much that this has now become a necessary piece of kit in his hometown. He shrugs and laughs before stepping out into the street.
Matt Alagiah is a researcher for Monocle.