Istanbul United

As a former Istanbul resident I would have never posited that the Park of Excursion would provide the spark for mass riots.

June 5, 2013 21:21
Turkey's Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan.

Tayyip Erdogan with flags 370. (photo credit: REUTERS/Umit Bektas )

As a former Istanbul resident I would have never posited that the Park of Excursion, or Gezi Park as it is widely known in Turkey, would provide the spark for mass riots against Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi – AKP).

Many commentators across the globe argue that the ongoing protests are the initial steps in a Turkish version of the Arab Spring. In light of the AKP’s democratic election and referendum victories, I would like to stress caution in using the term “Turkish Spring.” Unlike the Arab states swept up in the tumult of the Arab Spring, Turkey was and is capable of holding democratic elections. As a result, the AKP and Erdogan enjoy a certain legitimacy that the deposed Arab dictators were never afforded.

However, many in Turkey and abroad strongly believe that Erdogan has accumulated excessive power through the elimination of the Turkish Armed Forces from the political arena and the weakening of the judicial system in favor of executive powers, after the 2010 constitutional reform package referendum.

Having reduced Turkey’s internal check and balances system to a shell of its former self, Erdogan began making radical political moves. Solving the Kurdish question, the demilitarization of Turkish politics and the reduction of the nationalist element in “Turkishness” were long on his agenda and were inevitably among the radical steps he has undertaken.

After the existence of the Oslo talks with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK-Partiya Karkeren Kurdistan) became known, both sides began to agree on certain cease-fire terms that were not clearly explained to the Turkish public and have apparently resulted in a shift toward the reduction of the nationalist element.

As a consequence, Erdogan began to uproot the very prominent symbols and pillars of Kemalist Turkey, for example enacting regulations that restrict celebrating Atatürk Remembrance Youth and Sports Holiday in stadiums and prohibiting celebrations of the most important secular holiday, Republic Day, in the former Turkish Parliament plaza.

Erdogan did not rest on these “achievements.” To quietly de-nationalize the state, without attracting public attention, he erased the initials of the Turkish Republic (Türkiye Cumhuriyeti – TC) from some governmental offices. This resulted in the first important social media trend, as Facebook users added TC to their names.

IN PARALLEL to his political manuevering, Erdogan began acting as the social engineer of the Turkish Republic. While explaining his grandiose ambitions for the Republic’s 100th anniversary in 2023, he openly appealed to Turkish women to give birth to at least three babies. Moreover, he has asked to restrict abortions and make it more difficult to have cesarean sections, a procedure that impedes a woman’s ability to give birth to more than two children.

Erdogan social engineering is affecting young couples as well. For example, just two weeks ago, young couples who were traveling in Ankara’s subway were warned by subway personnel that they must act according to “ethical rules.” Alarm bells quickly rung in the minds of secularists across the country.

The penetration of Erdogan’s social policies into secular Turkish life was only exacerbated by the alcohol regulations recently approved by parliament – banning the sale of alcoholic beverages after 10 p.m. and putting in place many other restrictions on beverage companies and their consumers. In an interview with Habertürk’s Fatih Altaylı, Prime Minister Erdogan called regular wine drinkers “alcoholics.” Moreover, he accused those protesting the new alcohol regulations of being followers of the “two heavy drinkers,” in a reference to Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and his comrade Ismet Inönü, the first and second presidents of Turkey, respectively. Despite the public outcry, Erdogan has not admitted that he targeted Atatürk and Inönü.

One of the most important factors behind the outbreak of the Gezi Park/Taksim Square protests is the project to build a third bridge over the Bosphorus. After the construction of the first and second bridges, Turkish green movements learned that the accompanying highways led to the spread of urban sprawl – hence the protests by many environmentalists against the decision to build the third bridge.

Another element causing public anger is that this bridge has a Neo-Ottoman dimension. Erdogan named it after Selim I, Yavuz Sultan Selim, the first Ottoman caliph. To Turkish Alevis, a minority community, Yavuz Sultan Selim is known as the butcher of 40,000 Alevis.

Indeed, this insensitivity to a minority in the name of glorifying the Ottoman past has caused an outrage amongst the Alevis of Turkey.

Following the bridge issue, Erdogan has continued to act as “mayor of Turkey” instead of its prime minister.

He initiated a project in the Taksim Square area where the main roads were transferred to underground tunnels.

However, by the time this grandiose project could evoke any controversy, it was overshadowed by the decision to destroy Gezi Park.

As a direct consequence of Erdogan’s Neo-Ottomanist tendencies, he wants to destroy Gezi Park, and rebuild an Ottoman artillery battalion fort that was demolished by the secularist Republican People’s Party (CHP) which will be used as a shopping mall.

The green movements organized a peaceful demonstration against the decision, which was brutally suppressed by Turkish police.

This event triggered an outburst in civil society. Many youths, coordinated via Twitter and Facebook, organized shows of support for the protesters in the park. Ultimately, the disproportionate use of force by Turkish police inflated the number of protesters until the green protest was no longer the focal point of contention against Erdogan's government.

The protests have turned into a larger communal protest against Erdogan’s interventions in the daily lives of Turkish people. In other words, his harsh policies, combined with police brutality, created an opposition that no one, not even the opposition, could have imagined.

The green movements, CHP, the Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (Barıs ve Demokrasi Partisi – BDP), nationalists, leftists, socialists, communists, women’s rights activists and the main workers unions (DISK and KESK) furnish a large share of the demonstrations.

Yet the most intriguing party to the protests consists of fans of rival leading Istanbul soccer clubs: Fenerbahçe, Galatasaray and Besiktas.

While clashing with the police, fans organized an alliance, calling themselves “Istanbul United” in an Instragram picture, pointing to a common interest to protect their secular lifestyles and regime, despite their fierce differences of opinion about sport.

Erdogan has yet to soften his stance. He even scolded journalists on his way to Morocco for “a planned visit.”

Many argue that Erdogan’s trip to Africa will give the AKP the time and opportunity to clear the masses from Taksim Square. Time will tell until if “Istanbul will remain united.”

The writer is a doctoral candidate at the Graduate School of History in Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University.

He is a junior research fellow at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies.

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