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Originally published Thursday, June 20, 2013 at 5:24 PM

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Turks in Seattle watch, worry about protests

Turkish citizens living in Seattle are keeping a close eye on protests in their home country that have turned into a widespread challenge to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s rule.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Turkish citizens living in Seattle are keeping a close eye on protests in their home country that have turned into a widespread challenge to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s rule.

UW doctoral student Esra Bakkalbasioglu, 30, who has been in the U.S. for two years, said she will return to Turkey in less than two weeks to visit her family for the summer.

“I’d like to be part of this whole process,’’ she said.

While Turkey is a democracy with a thriving economy, some basic freedoms have eroded during Erdogan’s 10 years in office, Bakkalbasioglu and others say.

The protests started last month over building a mall in one of Istanbul’s rare green parks. But the standoff turned violent when police cracked down on demonstrators in an attempt to force them from Gezi Park near Istanbul’s Taksim Square.

Rather than squelch the opposition, the protests grew and spread to Ankara, fueled by the simmering anger over what many secular Turks see as Erdogan’s attempts to force his conservative religious Islamic views on them.

Bakkalbasioglu was worried about the overall violence across the country and how it might affect her parents and brother.

The protests have made for unusual partnerships, she said. Turkish nationalists and Kurds, Muslim women in headscarves, Muslim anti-capitalists, gays and lesbians have are joined forces.

How long the protesters can remain unified in opposition is questionable, said Reshat Kasaba, director of the Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington. Kasaba, 58, came to the United States for graduate school in 1976 and has dual citizenship.

He visits Turkey several times a year and has a niece and nephew involved in the protests.

In his family, the young people are very active in protests.

“For the rest of the family, people are really apprehensive” about participating, he said. “There are these deep divisions in society now and it will make it very difficult to heal them.’’

Erdogan has been in power for 10 years “and that does create a vested interest for him and those around him that makes it difficult to move and respond in creative ways,’’ Kasaba said.

Erdogan’s style of leadership “is gradually moving away from a democratically elected prime minister ... in a secular state to a more dictatorial one,’’ said John Gokcen, a Boeing employee and the Turkish honorary consul general in Seattle.

Gokcen is currently in Turkey teaching Boeing’s Turkish Air customers about structural engineering. He is concerned over the changes in the past decade.

Erdogan has changed the judiciary to eliminate court rulings against him, and his family now runs major TV channels and newspapers, Gokcen said. Erdogan has also called Twitter a “menace’’ because protests have been organized through the social media platform.

In the meantime, the government has started to issue more and more laws that intervene in people’s lives, Bakkalbasioglu said.

For example, the government backed laws to curb the sale of alcohol and Erdogan has said every family should have three children, women shouldn’t work and abortion is against Islam.

“People feel this is the real reason the protests are happening now,’’ Bakkalbasioglu said.

Erdogan has called the protesters terrorists and dissidents intent on destroying Turkey’s financial stability. Since the protests began there have been several huge drops in Turkey’s stock market which is “dangerous for Turkey,’’ with its plans for economic growth based on attracting short-term loans from outside the country, Kasaba said.

About the protests, Kasaba said, “In a way, it is very inspiring. But the sadness is this brutal reaction — the tear gas, the rubber bullets.’’

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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