5 Things to Know about the Protests in Turkey


An updated version of this article has been published in the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs. Read the post here.

Many good English-language analyses of the mass protests taking place across Turkey against Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan have been published since the unrest spread in earnest last Friday, May 31. Drawing on these analyses, as well as less cited Turkish language sources, I summarize below five things to know about the protests.

1. The protests are not just about a park.

The initial protests started Tuesday, May 28 when a group of a few hundred peaceful protestors who had camped out in Gezi Park – a small patch of nature located in the heart of downtown Istanbul, Taksim Square – to prevent the uprooting of hundred-year-old trees were attacked by riot police using tear gas and excessive force. By the weekend, protests in solidarity with those in Gezi Park and against the harsh police crackdown against them spread throughout Istanbul and at least 60 cities across the country. Thus #occupygezi was born.

For the original protestors, organized by the Taksim Solidarity organization and other civil society groups, the planned destruction of Gezi Park to make way for a replica of a former Ottoman military complex including a shopping mall was just the latest in a series of actions by Erdoğan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) government to drastically transform Istanbul’s landscape with little input from the public and apparent disregard for the city’s environment and history.[1] Yet even for these protestors Gezi Park served a symbol for broader disapproval with Erdoğan’s paternalistic and authoritarian governing policies and style.  In the words of city planner Ceyda Sungur, the “woman in the red dress” (see photo above) who herself has become a symbol of #occupygezi:

“It’s clear that every citizen defending his right to the city, every worker who wants to exercise his most basic democratic rights, every student or academic who defends his university and science is at every moment face to face with the police violence that I was subjected to yesterday, and even worse…So one should see yesterday’s events as a small detail in the ruling party’s repression that aims to silence all opposition voices in Turkey, and should not oversimplify the over one-year struggle for Gezi Park into one issue.”[2] [author’s translation]

Sungur is referencing the large number of journalists, students and (especially Kurdish) political activists who have been arrested under broadly interpreted anti-terror laws, particularly during the later half of Erdoğan’s now 10-year rule: according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Turkey is currently “the world’s worse jailer of the press.”

 In addition to concern over restrictions on the freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, the protests are also in response to Erdoğan’s attempt to legislate the lifestyle choices of the Turkish public in line with his own moral beliefs, including recent restrictions on the sale and consumption of alcohol and access to abortion, as well as his and his government’s perceived interference with everything from the outfits and makeup of Turkish Airlines stewardesses to TV series that are critical of the government.

2. The protestors come from diverse segments of the Turkish public that are united in opposition to Erdoğan, but not necessarily on other issues.

As reflected in the flags present at the protests and the testimonies of those on the ground, the protestors represent various ideologies, professional backgrounds and interests, including but not limited to: Anti-Capitalist Muslims, Kemalists (supporters of Turkey’s secular founder Mustafa Kemal Atatürk), Communists, Kurds, LBGT advocates, women’s rights groups, businesspeople, football clubs, artists, celebrities and labor unions.[3] It is thus incorrect to characterize the protestors solely as “secular Turks.”[4] For example, singer and former AKP supporter Nihat Doğan, criticizes Erdoğan by drawing on Islamic concepts and terms.[5] The uniting factor of these often opposing groups is better understood by their shared rallying cry than by any particular ideology: “Resign Tayyip [Erdoğan].”

In fact, while Erdoğan has dismissed the protestors as “ideological,” Turkish media commentators and preliminary research suggest that the majority of the protestors is unaffiliated with any particular political party or ideological agenda. [6] Although members of the main, secular opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) are participating in the protests, dissatisfaction with the CHP among some opponents of Erdoğan’s government is a more important factor in understanding the #occupygezi movement. At the same time, the leaders of Turkey’s other opposition parties, the rightist Nationalist Action Party (MHP) and the Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), have largely remained on the sidelines, with BDP Chairman Selahattin Demirtaş initially voicing concern about the nationalist bent of some of the protestors.[7]

In short, while the grassroots protestors are unlikely to agree on the way forward for many of the key issues confronting Turkey today, they are united in their opposition to Erdoğan. Noting that calls for a military coup (which Turkey has experienced four times in its history) have been absent among the protestors, columnist Cengiz Çandar describes #occupygezi as a “post-modern resistance” movement for Turkey. Or as journalist Andrew Finkel puts it: “Now there is another Turkey.”

 3. The police are using disproportionate force, while the protestors are largely peaceful.  

Erdoğan has now infamously labeled the protestors as “looters,” or “çapulcu” in Turkish. (A satirical send-up video referring to Erdoğan’s use of the term has since gone viral on Facebook and Twitter, and the label has been embraced by #occupygezi supporters as diverse as linguist Noam Chomsky and Cem Boyner, the CEO of one of Turkey’s largest companies.) Erdoğan also claimed that “some terrorist groups” have infiltrated the protests. And a few international media outlets have referred to the confrontations between the police and the protestors as “riots.”

Yet while some police vehicles, public buses and media vans have been burned and vandalized during the course of the protests, and some protestors have thrown rocks at the police, the protestors have overwhelmingly remained peaceful and are victims of disproportionate police force.[8] It is estimated that over 4,000 protestors, mostly in Istanbul, the capital Ankara and the Aegean coastal city of İzmir, have been injured as a result of the tear gas (the canisters of which have often been shot at rather than above crowds, causing blunt force trauma injuries), water cannons, pepper spray, rubber bullets, and beatings with batons.[9] As of June 5, three men in their 20s –  Abdullah Cömert from Turkey’s Syrian border province of Antakya, Mehmet Ayvalıtaş from Istanbul, and Ethem Sarısülük from Ankara – have died in the protests, and the US, EU, and UN have all expressed concern over the police crackdown.

There are some exceptions to this police brutality: in the Mediterranean city of Antalya, police handed out flowers to protestors, and on June 5 police used tear gas to disperse anti-#occupygezi protestors in the conservative Black Sea town of Rize. Furthermore, in Istanbul, the police have recently pulled back from certain districts as the protests have taken on a festival-like atmosphere. Yet overall the police’s use of disproportionate force continues, and violence by the police against protestors in Ankara and Antakya has in fact intensified.

4. While it is highly unlikely that Erdoğan will resign, the protests represent an unprecedented challenge to his rule, and his mismanagement of them has damaged his credibility both at home and abroad.

While Taksim Solidarity and other organizations involved in the protests have repeatedly issued (largely headed) calls through social media for protestors to refrain from violence, vandalism and provocative behavior (such as drinking alcohol while protesting) [10], from the beginning of the protests Erdoğan has made statements that have stoked rather than alleviated tension. Perhaps the most egregious of these were his declarations that “where they gather 100,000 people I’ll gather 1 million,” and “right now we’re restraining with difficulty the 50% of the people in this country who are at home, telling them to be patient and calm.”[11]

 The 50% of the country Erdoğan is referring to is those who voted for the AKP in the most recent June 2011 elections, in which his party became the first in Turkish history to win three consecutive elections while increasing their victory margin. However, AKP voters in previous elections were part of a coalition not just of observant middle class Muslims, but also of secular businesspeople who supported the party’s neoliberal economic policies and liberals who backed its democratic reforms regarding the military and minority communities. It appears that the current protests reflect significant erosion of Erdoğan’s support amongst the latter two groups, and perhaps (to a lesser extent) among the former.

It is still premature to predict what impact the #occupygezi movement will have on the political fortunes of Erdoğan and his party. According to Turkey scholar Henri Barkey, “if the government held elections [now] it would win, [although] it may lose votes.” Yet the protests have also showcased once again the split between the styles and outlook of President Abdullah Gül (who has made conciliatory statements) and Erdoğan. In the context of the protests, this split, coupled with apparent dissension of others in Erdoğan’s circle, could have implications for Erdoğan’s initiative to change Turkey’s political system from a parliamentary to a presidential one, allowing (if elected) his continued rule for another decade.

Erdoğan’s response to the protests has also damaged his credibility abroad. His blaming of Twitter and “foreign connections”[12] for the unrest and his insistent mischaracterization and belittling of the protestors have made him the target of criticism by the same international media outlets that previously praised him for Turkey’s democratic reforms, its strong economy, and its potential to serve as a “model” for Arab countries. At the very least, when Erdoğan touts the AKP as “progressing democracy” in Turkey to foreign audiences he will be met with more skepticism, as it has become apparent that his current understanding of democracy begins and ends at the ballot box.[13]

5.  This is not a “Turkish Spring,” but the Arab Uprisings, particularly the Syrian civil war, are a factor in the protests.

Images of citizens of a Muslim-majority country protesting their government in a square with a name sounding a bit like “Tahrir” led some international observers to overeagerly label #occupygezi as a “Turkish Spring.” Social media has played a crucial role in Turkey’s protests as it did in some of the Arab Uprisings, and some Turks have drawn parallels between Erdoğan and former Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak.[14] However, despite faults in its democratic system, Turkey has held mostly free and fair multiparty election since 1946, far from the case in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and Syria. #occupygezi is not a “Turkish Spring,” and calling it as such obfuscates the unique dynamics driving it and the other Arab Uprisings.

Rather than a part of the Arab Uprisings, the #occupygezi movement should be understood in part as a reaction to Erdoğan’s involvement in them, particularly in Syria. While Erdoğan has been praised by the US and other international actors for his outspoken opposition to Bashar al-Assad’s regime and Turkey’s hosting 300,000 Syrian refugees, polls indicate that the vast majority of Turks (including AKP supporters) are against any Turkish military intervention in Syria.

Tension over the AKP’s Syria policy reached a breaking point on May 11, when 51 people (including 45 Turkish citizens) were killed in a car bombing in the border town of Reyhanlı. Although the government immediately accused the Assad regime of being responsible for the attack, many Turks blamed the AKP’s Syria policy, for example in their view its lack of proper security screening of the refugees. Erdoğan was further criticized for not declaring a day of mourning for those who lost their lives, and for traveling to the U.S. a few days after the incident. The hanging of signs bearing the names of those who died at Reyhanlı on the trees in Gezi Park is just one indication of the role dissatisfaction with the AKP’s Syria policy is playing in the protests.[15]

 Looking Ahead

Erdoğan is set to return from a trip to Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia (on which he departed in the midst of the protests) tonight. Unfortunately, during his trip he has continued to mischaracterize the #occupygezi protests and to insist on the demolition of Gezi Park.

At some point in the future, the diverse group of Turkish citizens making up the #occupygezi movement will return to their homes, the banners hanging from Atatürk Cultural Center in Taksim will be pulled down, the graffiti erased, the barricades swept away, and the sounds of people banging on pots and pans no more. Gezi Park may very well be demolished and turned into an Ottoman military fortress (with or without a shopping mall), as Erdoğan wishes. But this past week marks a turning point in Turkish politics that will likely have repercussions long after Erdoğan is out of power. At the moment, Erdoğan has become an obstacle more than a facilitator in Turkey’s long-term democratization process – even of his own party’s democratization initiatives. At the same time, the ultimate implications of #occupygezi for Turkey’s democracy are yet to be determined.

[1] Some of these initiatives include the building of a third bridge over the Bosphorus strait; a new bridge next to the historic Galata Bridge on the Golden Horn; skyscrapers interfering with the silhouette of the famous Sultanahmet district; a canal connecting the Black Sea with the Sea of Marmara; and the demolition of Emek Theater and İnci Profiterole café in Taksim.

[2] Tear gas and pepper spray were used on May 1 demonstrations in Istanbul, prompting a self-proclaimed “marginal group” to make this satirical video instructing passengers on Taksim’s nostalgic tramway on how to protect against the effects of tear gas. The sign at the end of the video reads, “Taksim is Ours!”

[3] To get an idea of the diverse profile of the supporters of the #occupygezi movement, watch this video of upper class Turks in the upscale mall Kanyon (located in one of Istanbul’s financial districts) spontaneously protesting Starbucks, whose Taksim branch had reportedly closed its doors to protestors, and this one of lower/middle class Turks protesting on the streets of Istanbul by banging pots and pans and honking their car horns.

[4] For example, one banner in Gezi Park reads, “We are no one’s soldiers, nor will we ever be,” likely in response to the chant popular among Kemalists of “We are Mustafa Kemal [Atatürk]’s soldiers.”

[5] In reference to Erdoğan’s restrictions on the sale of alcohol, Doğan tweeted, “To perform repentance is enough to be forgiven for the sin of drinking, but not for the sin of infringing on the rights of man” [author’s admittedly imperfect translation; the original Turkish: “İçkinin Günahına Bir Tövbe Yeter, Kul Hakkının Günahına Bin Tövbe Yetmez.”]

[6] On June 5 representatives of Taksim Solidarity met with Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç and presented the following six, notably non-ideological demands: Gezi Park should remain as a park; Atatürk Cultural Center should not be demolished; those governors and police chiefs responsible for the violence against protestors should be dismissed; the use of tear gas bombs and similar materials should be banned; those protestors who have been arrested should be released without being charged; and peaceful protests should be allowed in all of Turkey’s public spaces.

[7] BDP Istanbul parliamentarian Sırra Süreyya Önder was one of the first and most active politicians involved in the movement.

[8] One notable exception was the burning of the AKP office in İzmir.

[9] Some protestors have lost their eyes after being hit by rubber bullets and tear gas canisters.

[10] See, for example, the following message from the Taksim Platform, Anti-Capitalist Muslims, and the football fan group Beşiktaş Çarşı, which organized a celebration for the Muslim holiday of Miraç Kandil on June 5 in Taksim that occurred without incident. This was despite an ominous and unfounded story in the pro-AKP Yeni Şafak daily newspaper, which claimed on Tuesday night that #occupygezi protestors were planning armed attacks against Kandil worshippers.

[11] He also announced that he would demolish Atatürk Cultural Center and build a mosque on Taksim Square.

[12] 4 Erasmus students were detained by the police and threatened with being expelled from the country.

[13] According to Henri Barkey, Erdoğan was not always like this: “There is a big difference between the Erdoğan who won the first election and today’s Erdoğan. The first Erdoğan was someone who worked with others in a very harmonious way, today he doesn’t listen to anyone anymore.”

[14] On a lighter side note, while I have not come across any graffiti or banners mentioning a “Turkish Spring,” this slogan has been widely shared on social media: “Tayyip, winter is coming” (in reference to the popular HBO series Game of Thrones).

[15] Signs with the names of the 34 Kurdish Turkish citizens who died when the Turkish military bombed them in Uludere (or Roboski) on the border with Iraq in December 2011 are also hanging from the trees in Gezi Park. The military mistook the smugglers for PKK militants.

Photo credit: Osman Orsal (Reuters)


One comment

  1. please make known: führer made people chant “let us go, let us crush taksim”

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