Tayyip Istifa

June 5, 2013

by Amit Basole, Sanhati

In Anakara and Istanbul, tear gas hangs over very large parts of the city.

Istanbul, Turkey – It has been one week since the anti-demolition protests started in Gezi Park, near Istanbul’s famous Taksim Square. Taksim Square, located in the “European” part of Istanbul, has traditionally been a space for protests. Most recently, there was a May Day Rally in Taksim; it too was targeted by the city’s special riot police with pepper spray.

The current round of protests have expanded in a matter of days, starting with a small group of activists opposed to the demolition of the only green space in the heart of the city. The nine-acre Gezi Park, which the AKP (Justice and Development Party)-led government is proposing to replace with a shopping mall, soon spread to include tens of thousands of people all over the country. Hundreds have been arrested and two are reported dead.

Clearly, this is not just about a park anymore. But then what is it about? Different views have emerged: a secular response to Turkey’s slow islamisation, the vote of the street against the government’s neoliberal policies, etc. One thing is clear: anger against the responses of the police and Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan is a central part of the unfolding story.

On June 1st, Cumuhuriyet Caddesi, normally a major traffic artery going towards Taksim Square (Caddesi is Turkish for Road. In Turkish, the letter C is pronounced as a J. Therefore, Cumuhuriyet, which means Republic in Turkish, is the same word as Jumhuriyat, which we use to mean Democracy in Urdu) was taken over by protestors, some in cars, the majority on foot. Chants of “Tayyip Istifa” (Tayyip Resign!) filled the air. Shop windows stood smashed and grafitti was everywhere. In Taksim Square thousands of people gathered, shouting slogans, dancing, singing. The Independence Monument in the square was covered with Turkish flags and with people launching fireworks. Istiklal Avenue, a road ordinarily famous for its shops and restaurants, a major tourist attraction near Taksim, which according to guidebooks sees millions of visitors, was at 11pm completely covered by masses of people marching to or from Taksim. There was no traffic of cars, only people everywhere, and once again a plethora of flags.

Turkish flags, generally, have been plentiful in the protests so far, an indicator of a fairly large presence of the “Kemalists” or Turkish Nationalists in the movement. This presence also suggests a problem or limitation of the movement, because the radical left sees little difference between the AKP (Tayyip Erdogan’s party) and the principal opposition, the nationalist, Republican People’s Party (originally Ataturk’s party).

It is hard to take a walk in the Taksim-Dolmabaceh area without coming across hastily put-together barricades to prevent the police from advancing. Anti-police and anti-government graffiti is everywhere. By and large the protests, marches, sit-ins have been peaceful. The protestors have not initiated violence but the police has retaliated brutally with beatings, water canons, pepper sprays. We stepped out for a late night snack around 10pm last night in a residential area about a mile from Taksim Square and were immediately stung by remnants of pepper-spray. Eyes, throat, nose, everything burned. The police have used unprecedented amounts of gas (pepper and tear) in the last three days. In Anakara and Istanbul, gas hangs over very large parts of the city. On television, every clash between protestors and police is engulfed in a gas haze.

Meanwhile, as Istanbul burns and the center of the country’s capital city of Ankara witnesses pitched battles between the police and ordinary citizens, the Prime Minister is away on a trip to Morocco and at least for the first two days after the crackdown started, the news channels on TV were silent on the matter. There was a big disconnect between what was happening on the streets of Istanbul and then Ankara, Izmir and other cities, and the manner in which the protests were being discussed on TV. Even the 24-hour news channels gave scant coverage, referring to the protests as “fringe” and “vandalism.” An amusing Facebook photo showed two TV screens side-by-side both running CNN, one being in Turkey and one in the US. While CNN in the US showed live images from Istanbul, CNN Turk was showing something about penguins.

In some ways, the escalation on protests has been fueled by PM Erdogan’s nonchalant response to the situation. He has become the focus of the protestor’s ire. Although one sees graffiti such as “Hukumet Istifa” and “Katil Polis” (Government Resign! and Murdering Police!), it is far more common to see and hear “Tayyip Istifa” being chanted and honked. Little kids in school uniforms shout it as do middle-aged women.

The AKP government came to power ten years ago with support from a large section of the electorate, and still claims to represent half the country. In Erdogan’s narrative, he represents the “conservative majority” who was silenced during the previous regimes. It is true that secular parties, in their eagerness to secularize the country, made the mistake of confusing Islam for Islamism. Measures such as banning head scarves from schools and offices may have backfired in the end. In response, Erdogan’s crowd turned up the volume on Islam (not just metaphorically, but literally: a friend here says the azaans or call to prayers from the mosques have become louder in recent years).

Some writers, commenting on the recent incidents, have warned against reducing the current protests to Islamic AKP versus secular opposition rhetoric. While it is most likely true that the protests are about more than this, the Islamic Turkey – Secular Turkey struggle, is certainly part of it. An equally important dimension is likely to be growing anger against the government’s authoritarian approach to dissent. Readers may recall several petitions in the past few years to release this or that intellectual, journalist, student, etc., imprisoned by the government (see here for one example/).

It is also worth noting that Turkey’s Kurdish minority has long experienced the State repression that was visited upon the majority Turks in the past few days. For them, pepper gas and police beatings have been part of life for decades. This point has also been raised by Kurdish activists in the past few days as they participated in the protests. In turn, Turks are saying they now understand what the Kurds have been going through.

As I finish writing this at 1 am in the night local time, there are chants outside: Taksim everywhere, Resistance everywhere. It is too early to say where all this will go. Unions are calling for strikes and this will of course make the struggle more broad-based. It is currently dominated by the middle-classes and the Turkish Nationalists (Kemalists) have been trying to take it over. But it contains many other strands.

Unfortunately, it is not clear that the left parties are in a position to lead the struggle. But one thing is now certain. PM Erdogan, either due to complacency or high-handedness or both, has miscalculated the extent of resentment against his regime. Turkish politics will change as a result of the “Turkish Summer.”

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