A Turkish Spring?

A report from one of our members in Istanbul 

“How dare you tell me to dismiss this governor and that police chief? Know your place!” was Recep Tayyip Erdo?an answer to the demands made Tuesday morning by representatives of Taksim resistance, that the people responsible for the brutal reaction against protesters be punished. The PM continued: “From the start, some people, internally and externally, have tried to portray the protests as totally innocent and just, and the police of having systematically used force. Certain media in Turkey were lead provocateurs. The foreign media took part in these operations,” hinting at the use of Twitter to organize and comment the protests, and at a Turkish reporter for BBC and Der Spiegel, accused by AKP of misrepresenting the events.

On May 28, a few environmentalists set up tents among the 600 sycamores in Gezi Park to avoid bulldozers razing it to the ground. Thanks to the violence of law enforcers, media silence and Erdo?an’s vehement speeches, citizens all over the country took to the streets to protest against the lack of freedom of expression and assembly. So far, nearly 8,000 people have been wounded, dozens have been arrested, five have died. After violent clashes, on June 15 the police cleared the park and cordoned it off.

The red-and-white tape is now surrounding one of the last green areas left in central Istanbul and a prime target of PM aggressive gentrification of public spaces. Erdo?an wants to obliterate Taksim square, traditionally a place of protest against the government. Over it, he intends to rebuild Ottoman military barracks, which would harbor a mosque and a shopping mall, in a city already filled with them. But Erdo?an’s dream doesn’t stop here. He also aims at destroying the neighboring Tarlaba?? district, rundown home to Kurds and prostitutes, to build shiny houses for the wealthy; create a third bridge on the Bosporus; the city’s third airport, which would become the biggest hub in Europe; excavate a new canal to the Black Sea; and erect a giant mosque on Istanbul’s highest hill. These plans would have a bigger ecological impact than destroying Gezi, and not once local residents have been consulted. The PM is also pushing Istanbul for the 2020 Olympics, to secure his glory, and build some more. More buildings equal more money for his son-in-law’s construction company, Gap ?n?aat, already awarded the reconstruction of Tarlaba??.

The AKP came into power in 2002, crushing the opposition that has not been able to recover since. In an overwhelmingly conservative and Muslim country, the poor will keep voting AKP because it rewards their loyalty with various goods. Kurds hope to improve their situation after Erdo?an last March was able to negotiate a ceasefire with PKK. Many voters appreciate that he has improved the country’s economy, health care system and infrastructures so much that it seemed that Turkey had a real shot at becoming part of the European Union. Other people cherish the switch from Atatürk’s Westbound foreign policy, to one concentrating more on the Middle Eastern neighbors, proposing Turkey as an example of democracy and stability in the area and a mediator between Europe and the Arab world.

Elected with a program to stop secular Kemalists’ interference with a religious lifestyle, the AKP government started doing the same, imposing an Islamic behavior on its citizens. Since 2002 media freedom in Turkey plummeted from 99th place over 179 countries to 154th, reaching the nadir during the protests: the first weekend of June CNNTürk aired cooking shows and documentaries on penguins, while CNNInternational showed the police ferociously repressing the Istanbul manifestation. At the end of 2011, an Internet filter was introduced for the whole state. On May 24, the parliament ruled new restrictions on the sale of alcohol and banned its advertisement. LGBT situation worsened: Turkey is near the bottom of ILGA-Europe (International Lesbian and Gay Association) index and AKP is refusing to recognize gender identity and sexual orientation in the new Constitution. Last February, Erdo?an hinted that he wanted to lift the ban on headscarves in public places, after his unsuccessful attempt in 2007. A month ago came another AKP’s controversial move: with the aim of restricting the 1983 liberal abortion law, Erdo?an has ruled that the morning-after pill can no longer be bought in pharmacies without a prescription. The Prime Minister is known for urging Turkish women to have at least three children each.

When images and tales of police brutality against the peaceful protesters in Gezi Park surfaced in the social media, Turkish people decided to let Erdo?an know what they think of his authoritarian turn. In the history of the Republic, it’s the biggest and longest spontaneous protest and it’s gathering a very mixed crowd: politicians and football fans, LGBT and middle class, famous actors and high schoolers. Many carry the Turkish flag with a portrait of filo-Westerner and secular Atatürk, but it’s not a battle between Muslim and laics, both fighting together against an abuse of power.

Confronted with the first manifestation of dissent under his rule, Erdo?an first dismissed it, and then violently attacked it, hinting at foreign forces and lying media behind it. He rallied his supporters; he censored and insulted the press, arresting journalists and photographers; he willfully ignores the main issues behind the destruction of Gezi; and brushed off the European Parliament and UN concerns about the “disproportionate and excessive use of force by Turkish police to break up peaceful and legitimate protests”.

The PM needs to protect his strongman image, because he plans to become president, after introducing a new Constitution that would transform Turkey in a presidential state. But the protests turned the tables and now the greatest risks for him come from inside the AKP. The lira keeps hitting new all-time low versus dollar and euro, while tourists and foreign investors (who represent a sizable part of Turkish revenues) are wary. Those who supported Erdo?an because he improved the economy could now turn to the less charismatic but moderate Abdullah Gül, who kept a conciliatory tone toward Occupy Taksim. Or they could turn to the Islamic preacher Fethullah Gülen.

This imam is a powerful businessman who commands a shadowy empire worth between $ 30 and 50 billion. Applauded in the West for outwardly preaching religious tolerance and a moderate Islam (Time nominated him one of the 100 most influential people of 2013), Gülen is also the worldwide founder of hundreds of Turkish schools and no-profit organizations, a Muslim version of Opus dei. Despite living in voluntary exile in the US since 1998, Gülen is a major player in Turkish politics: his followers occupy key positions in the government, judiciary system, army and, especially, the police. His recent criticism to the PM’s handling of the protests and overtures to Kurds may be a move to discredit Erdo?an as a leader.

Defined terrorists and marauders, gassed, hit, censored, repressed by their government, Turks are showing resilience, humour and creativity in their fight. Another kind of non-violent opposition started in Taksim, with people standing for hours on end. Even if Gezi is off-limits, the resistance goes on with nightly meetings in various green area of Istanbul. As they say: “The PM did not kick us out of the park, he made everywhere a Gezi Park”.

Valentina Navone 

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