Resistanbul: the beginning of the end of an era?

  • June 2, 2013

People & Protest

A Turkish academic reflects on the ongoing protests in her country, sketching an ambiguous image of a curious coalition that may yet bring a new era.

To my foreign friends:

We have been breathing tear gas in Istanbul for three days now, as the police were spraying tons of gas and water, or shooting gas pistols at protesters. People got hit in the leg, back, and head. On Saturday evening, crowds in Izmir, Ankara, and several other cities were also clashing with the police.

Hundreds of people are being treated in hospitals. But folks opened up their houses, offices, and restaurants to cure the injured – although the police also chased protestors into the buildings to gas and beat them.

In Ankara, tweets and two very brave television channels reported the police have been using rubber bullets. The injuries are said to be severe. We kept on communicating (mainly through the social media) to know what was happening.

In Istanbul, crowds took over Taksim Square on Saturday afternoon after a day of being sprayed. The police retreated, but there was a tense lull since protestors were still being sprayed in other neighborhoods throughout Istanbul, mainly Beşiktas.

The prime minister declared that he would not back down on his plans for the transformation of everything under the sun into malls and upper-class residences.

There seems to be a tension between the president and the prime minister, since the former is reportedly close to the Gülen sect. Led by Fethullah Gülen, this religious group with a modern facade controls part of the media and has schools across the globe, including the United States. President Abdullah Gül called for calm and criticized police violence, but PM Recep Tayyip Erdoğan gave the impression that he was turning this into a contest of the will, since at the strikingly demagogic talk he gave on Saturday he declared that the protestors are a bunch of “provocateurs”. They are preparing the ground for a new coup d’état against his civilian-democratic government, he said.

Indeed, the number of Turkish flags at the Gezi Park on Saturday evening was alarmingly high. This is a curious coalition. The Kemalist-nationalist fanatics of yesterday are now occupying the same park as the Kurds, the left, the anarchists, and the LGBTT groups.

Also, football fans were instrumental in the victory over Gezi Park. There are have three Istanbul football teams, the supporters of which were out fighting the police throughout the day. When they are in their stadium, they act as hooligans. But many people here admit that they know how to fight and aren’t afraid of the police. How all this will combine into a meaningful statement against the government is still uncertain.

So things are all very ambiguous, and—in any case—the fighting has not ceased other than in Taksim. This is not a protest to save trees. The government has gone too far. Gezi Park was the last straw, but we had to bear several other things in the past few months: arrests of Kurds and activists on absurd charges; changes in school curricula imposing religion courses on children; attempts to ban abortion; the bombing of Kurdish civilians crossing the Turco-Iraqi border (mistaking them for the armed guerrillas); the tug-of-war with Syria; the mysterious bomb that killed fifty at Reyhanlı on the Syrian border; attempts to limit the consumption of alcohol; giant projects to change the whole face of Istanbul; naming the third Bosphoros bridge after an Ottoman sultan who nearly annihilated the Alevi population (the main non-Sunni Muslim sect in Turkey); and lastly the Gezi Park project.

Meanwhile, the Kurds gathered 500 Turkish intellectuals, journalists, and civil society leaders in Ankara last weekend to draw up an alternative peace plan. How people began to take control of their lives, and started avowing their crimes vis-à-vis one another (e.g., the Kurds participated in the Armenian Genocide, and LGBTT groups are reviled by the Marxist left) was impressive indeed. They drew up concrete demands to impose their will on the government’s reductionist view of peace.

In short: this may be the beginning of the end of an era. A portion of the population feel the need to bring down this government, but what will come in its place is the most important question today.

Zeynep Gambetti

Zeynep Gambetti is Associate Professor of Political Theory at Bogazici University, Istanbul.

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Magazine — Issue 11