Thursday, June 20, 2013

Protests in Turkey: Resistance to the Arbitrary Rule of the Elected

- Hanifi Barış

I will start with the answer of the most important question: no, what is happening in Turkey is not a revolution. I say that it has some revolutionary aspects to it, though.

It is not a revolution because the protestors are not organized left or right, they have no specific or shared political demands, they do not fit into a category of anti-government phenomenon which is trying to overthrow the government and seize political power, they do not put forward specific political demands regarding the change of regime or anything as such, and they do not demand radical change in current social, economic or political order; they are not the conservatives, they are not the nationalists – secular or Islamic, they are not labour unions, and they are not students. They are “no one”, but they are “everyone”; it has revolutionary aspects because of the same reasons that do not make it a revolution: they are simply “the people” fighting for more democracy: expanding civil and political freedoms such as freedom of speech and expression, freedom of association, freedom of assembly and demonstration (social and economic rights or demands are not articulated, for instance). The protests are a historic resistance to the police violence, the arrogance of the Prime Minister and the curtailment of freedoms.

As some of the commentators have also put, the protests are the kind of demonstrations that one would witness in economically “developed” parts of the world: it is not about bread, but about dignity. People are taking to the squares and streets because they want to see that their voice count. They are simply trying to tell the government that “everything is not money” and they will not let their freedoms be trumped in exchange of business and economic development.


The protests are revolutionary in terms of the participants involved in demonstrations, because, for the first time in modern history of Turkey (not “Turkish history”, because “Turkish” is the name of one segment of the population in Turkey, and therefore, it does not address the whole population in its diversity), people of every age, activists from each and every political organization/political party on the political spectrum, from the radical left to the radical right, including members and sympathizers of the governing party, environmentalists, students, apolitical youth and youngsters and football clubs’ fan groups, who mostly have no idea about grand political narratives in the country and in the world, and also who do not have any intention to be involved in politics per se, are the “heroes” of those extraordinary protests. People of all ethnic backgrounds and religious communities, LGBT associations, women organizations, labour unions, employers’ associations, capitalists, communists, socialists, conservatives, anti-capitalist Islamists and nationalists have been participating, although in varying numbers. Besides, the protests have spread to more than half of the cities in Turkey in the course of less than two days after the police crackdown upon the demonstrators on May 31,another extraordinary aspect that makes the protests unique.

40% of the protestors are between the ages of 16-25, and 60% of them are between the ages of 16-30. They are young, and most of them have not seen another government than the current one. They are widely (84%) attached to social media through computers and smart phones. They are not fond of authority and are fed up with authoritarian attitude of the Prime Minister Erdogan, who sounds more like a king in some of his speeches. 44% are participating in a demonstration for the first time in their life. More than 60% would not vote for any party.

When asked why they are there, two answers come forth: witnessing excessive use of violence by the police and the attitude and speeches of the Prime Minister. 60% think that their freedoms are being threatened by the PM and the government (the government has been, it is said, imposing its own “conservative” life style trough legislations like restricting alcoholic drinks and calling the people who drink alcohol as “drunkards”). They have grown up in a relatively democratic decade, which means that they know the value of freedoms and democracy, and they want to have more, or at least they do not want the freedoms they enjoy being curtailed by the current conservative government, which has been progressively becoming more and more oppressive, intrusive and meddlesome in the last four years (Turkey is one of the top countries in jailing journalists and locking up members of opposition parties, be it the Kurds or Kemalists). Unlike their fathers and older siblings, this generation does not think that the well-being of the state is more important than their freedoms.

They believe that the state exists to ensure freedoms, and not to impose a certain and conservative life-style upon the whole society that the current government is indulging in. They are outraged that the Prime Minister labelled peaceful environmentalists as marginal, ignorant people, whose strings are being pulled by “interest lobbies”. They do not like the idea of government messing with their privacy. The Prime Minister seems to like to control every aspect of social life; from drinking to abortion, from naming bridges to the number of kids a woman should have, and this generation does not like such an intrusive figure like their “father”, who tries to control all the moves they make. They are not revolutionaries, but they are not obedient sheep either.


In the first three days of the protests, about forty activists from the Taksim Dayanışma (Solidarity for Taksim), a platform of environmentalist organizations, were present at the Gezi Park, who would sit in the park, read books and make sure that the diggers would not cut the trees in the park. Some media covered the protests especially after a deputy of the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP- Barış ve Democracy Partisi), Sırrı Süreyya Önder, joined the activists and stopped the digger that was cutting the trees. On the fourth day, May 31, the police stormed the park and attacked the protestors at 5:00 am, using teargas and pressurized water to disperse the activists, setting their tents on fire in order to purge them from the park. The protestors numbered about 50 or 60 activists. The very same day the BDP deputy was hit in the back by a teargas capsule, wounded, and taken to the hospital, along with Lobna Allami, an Arabic student at the Middle East Technical University, who was hit in the head and is still in coma ever since.

The brutality of the police was not covered by the mainstream media, but because of the symbolic importance of the park, as being the last green spot in Beyoğlu district, and because that particular area of the city is the busiest district of the city of Istanbul, police brutality in the Gezi Park was exposed to tourists and ordinary citizens. They shared images and news of the brutality in social media, people flooded the streets on the evening of May 31. Police violence continued through the night and the next day, which terrorized people and pulled them out of their homes and workplaces, filled the streets around the Gezi Park and other squares in other cities with “the people” in the coming days. As is obvious, the magnitude of the demonstrations was not organized by anyone; it was totally spontaneous and social media is to be given the credit for spreading the information.

However, one must not forget the contribution of the Prime Minister as an “organizer”, because nothing was as inspirational as his arrogance, which forced even the most apolitical people to support the protests. He addressed the activists as a bunch of “looters” (üç-beş çapulcu), and told that he is going to build that building, that he does not have to ask anyone what he is going to do there because he was elected by the 50% of the constituency and has the power to do it. Then, the people brilliantly took up the name and called themselves “çapulcular” (the looters).( Wikipedia opened an entry under the name of chapulling, derived from the word çapulcu in Turkish the suffix –ing in English, which means “looting”).


The government issued a city development plan and intended to construct a building that was destroyed 70 years ago, in the Gezi Park, a green spot next to the Taksim Square and in the heart of the city of Istanbul. The building would include a shopping mall and luxury residences. The purpose of the initial protests was saving the Gezi Park. The protests started on May 27 with the participation of the BDP deputy, who said that it is one of the few places that poor people can come and sit under the shadow of the trees in the park without having to pay great deal of money by sitting in the expensive cafes around the park. However, as protests expanded to the whole city and the whole country, people accentuated their frustration with the arrogant stand of the Prime Minister and authoritarian policies of the government. No specific demands were put forward, though, apart from stopping police violence and suspending the aforesaid city plan. People took to the streets in order to protest police brutality, and help the environmentalists who were beaten and gassed, to save the last green spot in the district. The slogans and graffiti on the walls are very creative and rich in humour, mocking the police and the government, especially the Prime Minister.

There are no grand demands about radical changes in state policies, but especially the young generation demands that the government should stop being authoritarian, and they want to be heard and listened to when they are protesting against certain policies. The leftist participants chant the slogan “solidarity against fascism”, “no autocracy, we want democracy”, but for sure, democracy does not mean the same thing for the nationalists, the pro-military Kemalists, the conservatives, the left wing in general, the youngsters, the republicans and the Kurds, who all are making their presence in demonstrations.

Each and every group that participate in the protests have developed their own agendas, forming a spectrum from “asking the government to step down from power” to “releasing imprisoned generals who have committed crimes against humanity” in Kurdish cities in the 1990s. However, the main and the most common demands, which everyone would agree with, are suspending the city development plan and sparing the Gezi Park, releasing all protestors who have been under custody or arrested, accounting for the crimes committed by the police, and the resignation of statesmen like governors and chief of the police in some cities.

No one knows what will happen next, but it is a point that there is no return. In the long run, I believe that these protests will have a positive impact on further democratization of Turkey. Although the government has 50% percent of support, it became obvious that a landslide victory in elections does not mean that authoritarian ambitions will be tolerated. And it also became clear that democracy does not only mean “free and fair” elections: people want to be active and to be listened to, when it comes to policy making.


In particular, the Kemalist urban rich and the republican elite (the army, the civil and military bureaucracy, the state-sponsored capitalists and businesses) demand the government to resign, because they think the current government is going to destroy secular gains of the republic. Indeed, most of these rich elites are worried because they think that the government is religious and they will become more repressive in time, until they finally declare sharia law. Moreover, this elite has always been positioning itself as the true owner of the Turkish state, and seeing that the government and the conservative bourgeoisie is gradually becoming sovereign scares the Kemalist elite, because they think that they will lose all the privileges they have had so far. Therefore, they are trying hard to sustain demonstrations so that the army will be convinced that without their intervention the country will not find peace. The resignation of the government or a coup d’état is what the Kemalist elite hopes to get from the demonstrations.

On the other hand, the rest of the protestors, with the exception of a small group of other ultra-nationalists, want to push for more democracy and the complete recognition and implementation of human rights. Therefore, the Kurds, the democrats, the liberals and the leftists are wary of the fact that the ultra-nationalist Kemalist forces are trying to derail the protests from their true course, thus, weaken and overthrow the government to gain the political power they lost in 2002. Most of them do not demand the resignation of the government, but demand the continuation of democratic reforms and drafting of a new constitution that would institutionalize democracy, guarantee freedoms and ensure the implementation of human rights treaties. The co-chair of the pro-Kurdish BDP said in one of his speeches that they are participating in the protests, but that they are aware of the intention of the fascist, ultra-nationalist and Kemalist extremists. He notes that they “will not participate in protests with racists and fascists” and that they “will not allow the events in Gezi Park to turn against the peace process (for further details see this article by Mutlu Çivriloğlu).” However, these lines were mere warnings to the public opinion and as well as to the extremists, in order to make it clear that the Kurds do not share the agenda and aspirations of the Kemalist elite, although they support the demands of the protestors and they join them in the Taksim Square and elsewhere, and that their presence at the Park and in demonstrations is an insurance for the protests not to turn to a racist and fascist movement.

Besides, a peace process started between the Kurds and the current government in March 2013, which is fostering the hope to reach a peaceful solution to Kurdish Question. Kurdish guerrillas are withdrawing from the Turkish Kurdistan and Turkey, and going to their camps in Iraqi Kurdistan. The withdrawal is the first phase in peace process, which is almost completed. The Kurds are awaiting the government take further steps to do what the government has promised to the Kurds, namely recognizing cultural and political rights of the Kurdish minority in Turkey, whom make up about 20% of the population and have been deprived of basic human rights since the foundation of the republic in 1923. Thus, it is not possible that the Kurds will, in any way, allow or support the Turkish Kemalist elite to regain power from the current government. The Kurds are urging the government to listen to the protesters, accept their environmentalist and democratic demands, and make Turkey a better place for everyone living in it. In short, democratic forces are aware of the dangers and risks, but they are careful about not to let those risks be realized.

Consequently, the idea put forth by some observers that “the protests are fueled by well entrenched Kemalist-Secularist oligarchic rich because they are not able to tolerate the emergence of Islamic neo-rich and neo-powerful under the rule of Erdogan" (I would like to thank Bonojit Hussain for drawing my attention to this aspect) seems to hold some truth. but it misrepresents the protests, its meaning and direction. However analyzing the protests only from this perspective would led only misrepresentation of the protests' meaning and direction, and a misreading of what is happening on the ground. It is true that the ‘oligarchic’ bourgeoisie in Turkey is unhappy with the neo-bourgeoisie of Anatolia which carried the current government to power. The Kemalist-Secular rich and the Turkish army, who have been the backbones of the Kemalist regime, would do anything to gain the political power back and push the newly emerged conservative and Islamic bourgeoisie away from the “centre” to the “periphery”, where they were until ten years ago. However, the protests, both in depth and scope, are way beyond the imagination of the supporters of the old Kemalist regime, the regime that was established by the army and sustained by a state-led rich and powerful elite.

The voices of the Kemalist regime and ‘oligarchic’ bourgeoisie, the CHP (People’s Republican Party-Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi) and other smaller Kemalist establishments, institutions and political entities have nothing to do with the emergence and popularity of demonstrations. Nevertheless, they are supporting the demonstrations now in order to get rid of the current government. But they do not have the power to carry their agenda any further, if the government decides to stop harassing and attacking the protesters. And also, the involvement of such political groups in protests does not change the reality that all the opposition parties are taking their places on the streets and squares. The protests are, for the majority of the participants, surely not about overthrowing the current Islamic conservative government which has made most of democratic reforms in the last decade, but about furthering and strengthening these democratic reforms, and consolidation of the country’s democracy.

I would not be worried about the Kemalists and the oligarchic rich to derail the protests, but only if the government stops harassing, humiliating, attacking and “marginalizing” the protestors. If the government continues to do what they have done so far, well, everything is possible, including the restoration of a more fascist Kemalism. But, it is not likely, and I believe that the whole society in Turkey is far ahead of the political parties in terms of valuing freedoms and democracy. I do not think that any political force would be able to establish a more repressive regime in the country, because, as the protests show, people have reached to a certain degree of democratic maturity, which inspires more optimism about the future of the country.


94 Percent of Gezi Resisters Participate Individually, Poll Says

A recent poll conducted by KONDA with 4411 participants on Gezi Resistance revealed that Gezi protestors are on average 28 years old with 79 percent not affiliated with any political organization and 45 percent attending a protest for the first time.

The poll has been conducted with 4411 participants on June 6 and 7, news website T24 said.

The results of the poll are as follows:

* How did you hear the protests?
69 percent: Social media
8 percent: Via internet
7 percent: Via TV

* What are you demanding?
34 percent: Protection of freedoms
18 percent: Prevention of right violations
9 percent: Confronting oppression
9 percent: Urging the government to resign

* Why did you come to Gezi Park?
15 percent: Because the trees were cut
49 percent: To protest police violence

* Are you currently a member of any organization/party/association?
79 percent: No affiliation with any association
94 percent: Participated protests individually

* Did you vote on the last elections ? Will you vote on the upcoming elections?
37 percent: Never voted
18 Percent: Won’t vote
29 percent: Undecided
47 percent: Thinks there is no party to vote

* Are you working or student?
52 percent: Working
37 percent: Student
56 percent: University degree/masters degree

* Father’s education?
39 percent: Has a father with university degree/masters degree

* Average age

* First protest?
45 percent: Yes 
Hanifi Barış is from Turkish Kurdistan. Currently he is a Doctoral Candidate at the Centre for Citizenship, Civil Society and Rule of Law, University of Aberdeen, Scotland, UK. He can be contacted at


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