Why the Gezi Park Protests Do Not Herald a Turkish Spring (Yet)

occupy-gezi-protests-erdoganProtester sports image of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan styled as a vampire (Source: http://occupygezipics.tumblr.com)

From the start, the Turkish government’s plans to develop Gezi Park near Istanbul’s central Taksim Square raised a number of concerns.

Like all Prime Minister Erdogan’s recent gentrification projects, development plans for Gezi Park were meant to enrich companies tied to the ruling AKP party, and to maintain Turkey’s GDP growth by stimulating consumption fueled by a credit card, rather than, real income boom.

On May 28, 2013, a small group of people gathered to protest the development project and demolition of Gezi Park. By May 31, the demonstration had significantly escalated and grown in size, thanks in large part to a heavy-handed police response.

Using its usual methods of violent repression, beat-downs, and pepper spray filled water cannons, the Turkish police proved unsuccessful in quickly dispersing the crowd. Instead, its actions attracted more youth to the Taksim Square area, and increased support for the demonstrations.

Turkish mass media – which has increasingly been under AKP control since the party’s rise to power in 2002 – remained silent about unfolding events. By contrast, on social media sites, like Twitter, #OccupyGezi quickly became a trending topic around the world.

Themes like Turkish Spring‘ and ‘Taksim = Tahrir’ were manifest in the many analyses and expressions of solidarity with the Turkish protesters.

These comments, however well intentioned, reflect a poor understanding of Turkey’s political economy under the AKP government, as well as the main driving force behind the Gezi Park protests.

These realities make recent developments in Turkey fundamentally different from protests that broke out in Egypt and Tunisia in 2011.

One simply needs to look at the youth attending the protests and, more importantly, at the youth who are absent from these demonstrations to realize that unlike the ‘Arab Spring’ uprisings this is not a mass popular movement supported by broad segments of society.

Mass labor protests, like those that preceded and directly influenced the April 6th movement in Egypt, are largely absent from Gezi Park. Disenfranchised, jobless youth from the slums have generally stayed away from the demonstrations so far. Pious girls with headscarves who want more liberties are also absent.

As long as these girls in headscarves, mechanics, poor vendors, construction workers, and jobless Anatolian youth are not protesting in Taksim Square, a comparison with Egypt’s Tahrir Square is misplaced.

Upper Class Revolt

The youth demonstrating in Gezi Park and in solidarity protests in secular bastions across Turkey hail from several groups opposing Erdogan. Nevertheless, young people from the country’s mainly upper-class, secular ‘white Turk’ social strata are the key driving force.

In this sense, these demonstrations represent one of the last convulsions of the old ‘secular’ elites, who have been waging, and losing, a bitter battle against the rising Anatolian nouveau-riche that make up Erdogan’s AKP.

The fact that protesters did not remove representatives from the main opposition party, CHP, who were present at yesterday’s Gezi Park demonstration is telling

CHP is just as neoliberal and autocratic as AKP and has a similarly dismal governing record when it comes to human rights. In contrast to the Erdogan government, however, CHP represents Turkey’s old ‘secular’ elite. In fact, the party had approved and ratified the Gezi Park development plans, a fact that went without mention by people who welcomed its attempt to piggy back on the protests.


OccupyGezi protests (Source: http://occupygezipics.tumblr.com)

So what are the Gezi Park protests about? They are in essence a cultural backlash against the AKP government’s increasingly authoritarian and polarizing style of politics.

After the 2011 elections, when the AKP won a third consecutive landslide victory, Erdogan saw an opportunity to fully consolidate his power. The ‘moderate’ or accommodating stance he adopted during the first years of his government disappeared. From the military to the judiciary, Erdogan successfully moved to jail or remove ‘secular’ forces from positions of institutional power.

The Prime Minister has also continued Turkey’s long tradition of muzzling dissent. As was the case in the 1990s, the Erdogan government has actively prosecuted journalists and intellectuals, jailing students and children.

New forms of oppression have come to the fore under Erdogan’s watch. These include efforts to curb internet freedom, which target a variety of speech including political dissent, as well as websites discussing the scientific concept of evolution. Whereas previously, Turkey’s secular ruling regimes targeted religious dissent, the AKP government has primarily focused its repression on secular critics.

For Turkey’s Kurdish population little has changed under Erdogan, beyond superficial gains on issues of self-determination and human rights. As one friend at the Human Rights Association (IHD), an independent grassroots NGO working on human rights abuses in Turkey, once told me, “The AKP is the CHP with turbans.”

Religious conservatism and accompanying social pressures to conform to Islamist morality have been steadily fueled by Erdogan’s populist speeches and policies. In recent months lip-stick ban controversies, anti-lewdness campaigns, alcohol restrictions, and the demolition of cultural bastions of the old elites have added to secular anger.

Turkey’s privileged youth were primed by an already-existing social consciousness to take these grievances to the streets. In Turkey, any self-respecting member of the young elite has gone through a phase of commitment to Trotskyism, Anarchism or Environmentalism. With a conservative, religiously oriented party like the AKP in power, these youth were highly motivated to act on their discontent. Blatant disregard for the environment in all of Erdogan’s megalomaniac building plans only added more fuel to this youthful, secular fire.

In Gezi Park, this fire finally burst out onto the streets.

“At least Erdogan gives us some crumbs”

Erdogan’s vision of Turkey is one full of citizens who piously pray in the country’s ubiquitous mosques and then go shopping at one of its equally ubiquitous malls, which are frantically being built in urban areas.

As long as the imports, credit card, and debt-driven Turkish economic bubble remains intact, the government will continue to pursue these and other neoliberal policies to the great praise of western think-thanks, private equity firms, and politicians who all repeat the fallacy of the ‘Turkish [success] model’.

Notwithstanding these neoliberal economic policies, Erdogan is still extremely popular among Turkey’s poor and working people in both urban and rural areas.

Most western observers have missed this crucial fact and are, therefore, quick to enthusiastically compare the Gezi Park protests with the ‘Arab Spring’.

One has only to speak with blue-collar workers in Turkey to understand popular attitudes toward the government.

Whenever I am in Istanbul, I engage in political small talk with people from various walks of life, including waiters, construction workers, and young men working on the ferries crossing the Bosporus. I also frequently visit my family members, who are from a poor Anatolian background.

In my conversations with these people, I have heard nothing but firm support for Erdogan. When asked about Turkey’s unemployment rate or the Prime Minister’s nepotism, most of these individuals do not hesitate to say, “I know that Erdogan is also ‘siphoning the cash’ (hortumluyorlar). But good for him (helal olsun). At least he is leaving us some crumbs. The previous bastards never gave us everything.”

Memories of many decades of economic and political oppression by secular elites are still fresh for many Turks. Because of the AKP, these people now have access to things like privatized health care, credit card use, and unprecedented infrastructure development.

Most of these benefits are indeed ‘crumbs’ – for example youth unemployment and household debts are rising at alarming rates –  and financed by an ultimately untenable growth in speculative consumption. It is, however, more than the Turkish masses have ever been given by their government since the neoliberal turn began in 1980, and Erdogan is well aware of this.

It is true that he did not expect ‘Occupy Gezi Park’ to attract so many people and become a rallying cry against his government. He also did not expect the protesters to be as brave and adamant as they have been in the face of extremely brutal police repression. But Erdogan knows that the protesters do not pose a real threat to his power, which is buttressed by the masses that have remained at home and firmly believe his message of a better future for all Turks.

Like any power-hungry autocrat would do, Erdogan defiantly lashed out against the peaceful protesters in a live TV address on June 1. His message, in short, was that he would not budge on the demolition of Gezi Park.

Instead, he spoke of “illegal organizations provoking naive protesters” and said “if they can gather 100,000 we can call a million people onto the streets.” Predictably, he also referred to the failures of previous secular regimes, “Have you forgotten how you didn’t have clean water in Istanbul? How garbage was left on the streets?”

This rhetoric of “Don’t forget how bad everything was when they were in power” has a kernel of truth to it and resonates strongly among his supporters.

For many Turks, anger against an arrogant, urban, ‘secular’ oligarchy – or moncheris as Erdogan likes to call them – that never considered the people of Anatolia to be real human beings is very much alive.

Conclusion: No Turkish Spring

Erdogan is no Mubarak. The AKP is a populist party that was voted into power in free and fair elections, and has been successful in appeasing and expanding its base.

The Gezi Park protests do not herald a ‘Turkish Spring,’ at least not yet. Instead, the protests and Erdogan’s violent defiance are likely to further divide an already extremely polarized country.

A mass popular uprising in Turkey will only occur when the bubble economy bursts, which is bound to happen sooner or later. Perhaps, then, the ‘Turkish Spring’ will be upon us.


*Zihni Özdil is a junior lecturer and PhD candidate at Erasmus University Rotterdam. He teaches courses on the history of the Middle East and North Africa. His PhD research focuses on the early secularization process in the Turkish Republic.




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