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Turkey Special: A 4-Point Guide to the Protests

Protesters on the Bosphorus Bridge en route to Istanbul's Taksim Square


The immediate catalyst for this weekend's mass protests, fuelled by an attempted police crackdown in Istanbul's Taksim Square on Friday, was the Erdogan Government's plan to demolish Gezi Park, one of the last significant green areas in the city.

Anger over the plan to build a shopping mall and condominium residences, housed in a replica Ottoman-era military barracks, was bolstered by the awarding of contracts to companies seen as tied to Erdogan's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).

Last Tuesday, a small group of people gathered in protest.

However, this is only the latest episode in a gathering challenge to the Government over its approach to development since 2011, before general elections, including the effective razing of Gezi Park. 

The redevelopment plans, including the reconstructed barracks/shopping mall, were approved by the High Commissioner for the Preservation of Natural and Cultural Artifacts in March 2012. Architects and urban planners criticised the project for reducing the presence of people in Taksim Square, affecting political and social life.

In December 2012, the first significant change in Taksim Square came with the eviction of the Inci Pastry House, a symbol of local business since 1944. Three months later, the adjacent Emek Theater — an independent cinema in operation since 1924 and home to the Istanbul Film Festival — was demolished. Kamer Construction, with close business ties to the ruling AKP in Istanbul, was given a contract to build a ten-story shopping center and movieplex on the grounds of the demolished building.

Last Wednesday, a parallel event raised the political temperature, as Erdoğan inaugurated the construction of a third bridge across the Bosphorus Strait. The project  has been challenged for uprooting between 350,000 and 2,000,000 trees. The Government has also been provocative by naming the bridge after Yavuz Sultan Selim, noted for his massacres of Alevis inside and outside the Ottoman Empire.

At the ceremony, Erdogan laid down a challenge: “It does not matter what you [the protesters] do. We made a decision......We will follow through with that decision.”


While the Government's insistence on re-development of Gezi Park is an important social and economic catalyst, this has galvanised and links protest on a range of issues. These include environmental concerns, opposition to the policy on Syria, repression such as the detention of journalists and dissidents, the ongoing Kurdish issues, opposition to the Government's neo-liberal economic policies, and resistance to social measures such as restrictions on alcohol.

These disparate challenges are linked by a resistance to Erdogan's attempt to centralise power, simplistically labelled as "authoritarian". Many see the making of a new Constitution --- likely to move Erdogan from the Premiership to the Presidency --- as a consolidation of the AKP's dominance rather than a document for the long-term political development of Turkey.


While it would be mistaken to make any generalisation about the make-up of the demonstrations, sharper observers have noted the prevalence of youth. Zihni Özdil goes farther, portraying this as members of the "mainly upper-class, secular ‘white Turk’ social strata". Özdil summarises, "In this sense, these demonstrations represent one of the last convulsions of the old ‘secular’ elites, who have been waging, and losing, a bitter battle against the rising Anatolian nouveau-riche that make up Erdogan’s AKP."

Both Amberin Zaman and Özdil note the paradox that, while the protesters are denouncing the AKP's authoritarianism, they have embraced the participation of the opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) --- which was far from democratic when it was in power. Özdil writes, "CHP is just as neoliberal and autocratic as AKP and has a similarly dismal governing record when it comes to human rights."

This leads Özdil to the caution that the protest may be narrow in its reach to have impact:

Mass labor protests, like those that preceded and directly influenced the April 6th movement in Egypt, are largely absent from Gezi Park. Disenfranchised, jobless youth from the slums have generally stayed away from the demonstrations so far. Pious girls with headscarves who want more liberties are also absent.

In contrast, however, Agnes Czajka and Bora Isyar see a spontaneous diversity that overcomes Özdil's analysis of protest via long-standing groups:

Defying the expectations of many, the Gezi Park protests are garnering an unprecedented level of support. The show of solidarity between groups previously unwilling to share a platform has been extraordinary. Protesters have come from various age groups, cities, religious and political convictions, and income groups. Some have reached Taksim on foot or by chartered buses; others are sailing towards Taksim on their private yachts.

Pro-Kurdish groups are standing in solidarity with Kemalist youth associations. Fans of rival football clubs are coordinating efforts to support protesters in various areas of Istanbul....Tweets from Taksim tell stories of bus drivers parking their vehicles at the entrance of streets making them inaccessible to police water tanks; of public and private theater companies providing food and beverages to protesters; of luxury hotels opening their lobbies to those running away from tear gas; of taxi drivers and bus companies carrying protesters from surrounding towns to Istanbul and the injured to hospitals; of shop owners sharing their wireless networks with protesters to increase organizational efficiency.

In solidarity, residents of various cities in Turkey, including Ankara, Izmir, Adana, Diyarbakir, Hatay, Mersin and Eskisehir, are gathering in public squares to voice their dissent—the most democratic of all rights—with the government.


Amberin Zaman and Zihni Özdil, knocking back the simplistic comparison of Taksim Square with Cairo's Tahrir Square in the 2011 Revolution, note that Erdogan --- unlike Egypt's deposed Hosni Mubarak --- has established genuine support at the ballot box despite the charges of authoritarianism. Zaman writes:

Turkey is not on the brink of a revolution. A Turkish Spring is not afoot. Erdogan is no dictator. He is a democratically elected leader who has been acting in an increasingly undemocratic way.

Özdil's view:

Erdogan is no Mubarak. The AKP is a populist party that was voted into power in free and fair elections, and has been successful in appeasing and expanding its base.

The Gezi Park protests do not herald a "Turkish Spring", at least not yet....A mass popular uprising in Turkey will only occur when the bubble economy bursts, which is bound to happen sooner or later. Perhaps, then, the "Turkish Spring" will be upon us.

The caution against a replica of Egypt 2011 is necessary. Yet both analysts may be risking simplicity from the other side --- this weekend's events should be seen not just as an immediate rising which will succeed or fail, but as the start of a series of events that will change the Turkish political landscape.

In other words, the contest --- which will take in not only social issues like Gezi Park and the Bosphorus Bridge, but the Government's economic approach and perceived favoritism and the broad political issues like the Constitution and Erdogan's power --- is one for the longer-term.

A valued EA source, who supports the protesters, summarises:

We need to maintain the momentum which requires lots of work. This cannot be just a political rally --- we have to organise and direct crowds with a solid strategy, which will not exacerbate the conflict but established the rightful conditions of a legitimate counter-violence.

We need escalation and bigger voices. Without this, we can't win.

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