Turkey’s Urban Uprising: The Struggle for Democracy Against Inequality, Oligarchy, Oppression & Tyranny

Barack Obama’ Turkey: A “Model Democracy”?!

It began innocently enough, it seemed, when a plan to turn Istanbul’s Gezi Park – located at Taksim Square – into a shopping mall spurred a small group of environmental activists to occupy the park in protest in late May of 2013. Within a week, a wave of urban uprisings had spread across the country, involving hundreds of thousands of protesters, in dozens of cities, met with massive state repression and violence, resulting in a few deaths and thousands of injuries and arrests. The world is now watching Turkey – the connecting landmass between Europe and Asia – once home to the Ottoman Empire and now home to a profound lesson for the world’s people in a struggle for democracy against inequality, oligarchy, oppression and tyranny.

The Spark in the Park

Small protests began on May 26 attempting to prevent bulldozers from destroying Gezi park in Istanbul after plans were announced to turn the small park – one of Istanbul’s lone green areas – into a shopping center. As Bloomberg explained:

Gezi Park itself is small. Imagine if Manhattan had no Central Park, and authorities decided to cut down the few trees in Union Square to build a mall on it. New Yorkers might have something to say. They might even protest and try to stop construction. And they would probably be upset if President Barack Obama told them that what they thought was irrelevant and sent in riot police to clear them.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, head of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), has led the country since he was elected in 2003, and is himself a former mayor of Istanbul. As the occupation and protests about the planned destruction of the park continued, Erdogan expressed his sentiment toward the actions and ideas of the protesters, saying on May 29 that, “Whatever you do, we’ve made our decision and we will implement it.”

That day, protesters at Taksim Gezi Park set up tents and engaged in a sit-in, even getting support from opposition politicians in the Turkish government, braving the advances of riot police and tear gas. On top of the plans to build a shopping center, the government was proposing plans to rebuild an old Ottoman barracks on the land. As protesters entered their third night of occupying the park on May 30, riot police were sent in with tear gas to disperse the crowds, removing tents and sleeping bags. The number of people in the park had swelled to thousands.

The courage of the occupiers inspired more to come down to support them, as one Turkish citizen stated, “I saw it on TV last night, saw that there were people, young people taking ownership of the environment. I wanted to support them, because I think not supporting them is inhumane.” A 21-year old architecture student commented on the government response to the protests, “Gas, gas, gas, it is the only way they deal with problems.” Demonstrators in the park began chanting, “this is only the beginning, our struggle will continue,” and Michelle Demishevich, an activist member of Turkey’s Green Party commented: “This is an uprising, a protest against the increasing bans,” referring to the recent upsurge of restrictions imposed by the government, “Perhaps just like we saw the Arab Spring, this will be the Turkish Spring.”

A week prior to the protests, the Turkish parliament rushed through legislation that would place restrictions on alcohol sale and consumption in the country, worrying many retailers and small business owners, among many others. As one resident of Istanbul’s busy Beyoglu district (largely known for its night life) commented, “If Turkey really is a secular state, then the government should not have the right to tell me when and where to drink alcohol… As long as I don’t harm others, drinking is a matter of my own personal freedom.”

Haydar Tas, the owner of a bar in the district commented: “The AKP government wants to control what Beyoglu looks like, and who can be here. In the future, there will be no room for alternative places like ours. All leftist opposition groups, associations and cultural spaces will be rooted out, and the only place to get a drink will be expensive luxury hotels and restaurants. It will be the end of Beyoglu as we know it.” His bar is not merely a place to drink, but also serves an interesting social function, with postings and flyers supporting LBGT rights and environmental issues scattered on tables next to a stack of feminist magazines. Tas stated, “Places like ours do not fit in the AKP’s vision of Istanbul… And restrictions on alcohol consumption will make things harder for us.”

On May 30, as police dispersed protesters at the park with tear gas and water cannons, they even began setting fire to the tents put in place to facilitate the popular occupation. Construction workers immediately moved in to begin work, tearing down trees – some of which were torn down a few days prior, but re-planted by the protesters. One protester even stood in front of a bulldozer to prevent its advancement into the park.

On Friday 31 May, the protests reached a new level, with thousands of people coming out into the streets as Gezi Park sparked a wider general opposition to the government. Thousands of people protested in Istanbul’s main Taksim Square, where there was “an assortment of tear gas canisters everywhere.” As police moved in and began arresting dozens of people, an Al-Jazeera reported stated that, “the protesters are saying that this is not about trees anymore.” As protests continued throughout the day, several people were hospitalized with head injuries, over 100 more were subjected to other injuries, some even lying unconscious on the ground.

In the Turkish capital of Ankara, solidarity protests erupted with over 5,000 people gathering in a park only to be met with riot police and tear gas. Many of the protesters chanted, “Everywhere is resistance, Everywhere is Taksim,” referring to Taksim Square in Istanbul as the main center of protest. One reporter noted that in Istanbul, “We saw a lot of tourists running to different directions. People are trying to take refuge at coffee shops and the homes around the area. Police have been firing tear gas in different directions,” also adding that several protesters were throwing rocks back at the police, though, “the predominant complaint here is that police are firing teargas indiscriminately.”

At Taksim, police used tear gas and chemical spray to disperse the thousands of protesters. What was just days prior an environmental protest had “become a lightning conductor for all the grievances accumulated against the government.” Protesters brought home-made gas masks and called for solidarity protests across the country, while police surrounded the park and enclosed it “under clouds of gas.” The ruling AKP party with Islamist roots represents a “conservative Muslim bourgeoisie” which rose to prominence since the continued neoliberal economic reforms of the 1980s onwards. After having spent more than a decade in power, the AKP has accelerated neoliberal reforms and privatizations which have “led to accelerated inequality, accompanied by repression.”

One protester who attended the 31 May demonstrations in Istanbul commented, “I’ve been in the protests since yesterday afternoon, it has been a long couple of days for us. Now we’re protesting not because of some trees, but because we’re sick of this oppression and this police brutality against people.” Critics began to compare the Taksim Square protests to those that took place in Egypt’s Tahrir Square in 2011 leading to the fall of long-time dictator Hosni Mubarak.

A former Turkish diplomat who is now with the American think tank, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace stated, “The movement in Tahrir targeted removal of the regime, whereas the reaction in Turkey is against the government’s ruling method. The similarity is the sense of self-empowerment. Until today, ruling as it wished didn’t have any consequences for the government because it kept thinking it can override the opposition, but these protests might be a turning point.” Thousands continued to call for Erdogan to resign in what the Wall Street Journal called the “fiercest antigovernment protests for years.”

Koray Caliskan, a political scientist at Bosphorus University stated, “We do not have a government, we have Tayyip Erdogan… Even AK Party supporters are saying they have lost their mind, they are not listening to us,” and added: “This is the beginning of a summer of discontent.”

A local court in Istanbul suspended the project to uproot the trees of Taksim’s Gezi Park, but as images and word reached wider Turkish society regarding the use of excessive police force, thousands more poured into the streets to protest the increasingly authoritarian nature of the government. The protests spread to over a dozen cities across the country. The U.S. State Department issued a statement declaring: “We believe that Turkey’s long-term stability, security and prosperity is best guaranteed by upholding the fundamental freedoms of expression, assembly and association, which is what it seems these individuals were doing.”

Within Turkey, there was very little television media coverage of the protests, reflecting the “self censorship” exercised by the media, with journalists also being targeted by riot police at the protests. The head of Turkey’s lawyers’ association, Metin Feyzioglu, stated: “The people are demonstrating against the government’s intolerance toward demonstrations… The government must display understanding and immediately stop the violence against the demonstrators.”

As many Turkish journalists complained that they were being pressured to censor the news, one local journalist stated, “Gezi Park is the new Tahrir of the region.” Another journalist tweeted, “Occupy Gezi is the explosion of anger against the hubris of one man whose ambitions for power are unmeasured.” Adding to the anti-government anger were plans announced in the same week to build a new $3 billion bridge over the Bosphorus named after the 15th century Ottoman Sultan Selim. Erdogan stated, “There might be some petty unpleasantness but our security forces act proportionately.”

An architecture historian participating in the protests told the media, “The real problem is not Taksim, and not the park, but the lack of any form of democratic decision-making process and the utter lack of consensus. We now have a PM who does whatever he wants.” Sparking further anger on Friday, one politician from the ruling AK Party tweeted, “It looks like some people needed gas… If you go away, you will have a nice day. One has to obey the system.”

Amnesty International issued a press release which demanded that the “Turkish authorities must order police to stop using excessive force against peaceful protesters in Istanbul and immediately investigate alleged abuses.” Observers from Amnesty International who were at the protests were even gassed and hit with truncheons, prompting an Amnesty director to state: “The use of violence by police on this scale appears designed to deny the right to peaceful protest altogether and to discourage others from taking part… The use of tear gas against peaceful protestors and in confined spaces where it may constitute a serious danger to health is unacceptable, breaches international human rights standards and must be stopped immediately.”

Turkey: The World’s Worst Jailer of Journalists

In December of 2012, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) released a report which accused Turkey of being “the world’s worst jailer” of journalists, with 49 behind bars for writing or publishing pieces the government dislikes. Turkey was ahead of both Iran and China, with worldwide imprisonment of journalists reaching a record high in 2012, “driven in part by the widespread use of charges of terrorism and other anti-state offenses against critical reporters and editors,” tallied at 232, an increase of 53 from 2011. An Istanbul-based editor commented that, “the government does not differentiate between these two major things: freedom of expression and terrorism.”

A special CPJ report on Turkey noted: “Authorities have imprisoned journalists on a mass scale on terrorism or anti-state charges, launched thousands of other criminal prosecutions on charges such as denigrating Turkishness or influencing court proceedings, and used pressure tactics to sow self-censorship.” As the Guardian commented in 2012, “modern, secular, western-oriented Turkey, with its democratically elected government, has locked away more members of the press than China and Iran combined,” with nearly 100 journalists behind bars, according to numbers from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). And it wasn’t just the press which was a major target: “students, academics, artists and opposition MPs have all recently been targeted for daring to speak out against the government of prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his mildly Islamist Justice and Development Party.” An Al-Jazeera journalist visiting Turkey was harassed and detained by police, who went through his possessions and, while reading a news transcript, voiced their objections to describing Turkey as having an “increasingly authoritarian government.” As the journalist later wrote: “Who says that Turks don’t do irony?”

Press freedom continued to decline into 2013, and despite rhetoric from the government years earlier to allow for a more “open” society, Turkey’s respect for freedom of the press and freedom of expression has declined under the rule of Erdogan. Internet freedom under Erdogan has also “largely disappeared,” with the government passing legislation to facilitate “mandatory filtering of content.”

In an interview with the German publication Deutsche Welle in early May 2013, Turkish journalist Ragip Duran commented on the decline of press freedom in his country: “In the past, our colleagues were killed, newspaper offices were bombed out, the military used repression, there was censorship. Today, journalists are no longer killed. But while in the past we had to go to our colleagues’ funerals, we now have to visit them in prison or attend trials in court. There is a lot more censorship, self-censorship and pressure on media outlets and on journalists in comparison to 20 or 30 years ago.”

Students, Scholars and Dissidents

Scholars and academics have also come under extensive repression. As one journalist noted: “the number of people charged, mostly under anti-terrorism legislation, for some ‘crime’ that has a political angle, be they journalists, elected deputies, protesting students, human rights activists or environmentalists — with many languishing in prison — almost matches the number of people in a similar situation under military rule in Turkey in the past.” One Amnesty International researcher referred to the number of intellectuals imprisoned in Turkey as “staggering.

In December of 2010, hundreds of students protested Prime Minister Erdogan as he met in Ankara with officials at the Middle East Technical University. Turkish police used batons and tear gas to disperse the student protesters, arresting roughly 50 students at the demonstration. As students then protested against the excessive use of force by police, the police responded by pepper spraying them. One female student who threw an egg at a State Minister during a protest in Ankara was facing up to two years and four months in prison as “an attack on a public official’s honor, pride and prestige.” Among her immense crimes was that she apparently ruined the left shoulder of the minister’s jacket.

In 2010, when three students attended a public meeting help by Prime Minister Erdogan, they unveiled a banner reading, “We want free education, we will get it.” Two of those students were then sentenced to two years and eight months in prison for “membership of a terrorist organization” while the third was sentenced to two years and two months in prison for “spreading terrorist propaganda.”

In 2013, an internationally renowned Turkish pianist was sentenced to ten months in prison for a Tweet which the government considered a violation of the law against “publicly insulting religious values that are adopted by a part of the nation.”

In August of 2012, the Turkish Ministry of Justice revealed that there were 2,824 students who had been arrested since the beginning of the year, with over 1,700 of them charged with a crime, and over 600 of which were charged with “being a member of an armed terrorist organization.” A month earlier, the Solidarity with Arrested Students Platform reported that there were 771 students in prison across the country. As one university academic commented: “None of the students have exerted violence against anyone. Most of them are not members of any illegal organization, although they are charged with making propaganda for them. The issues they are charged with are asking for free education or education in Kurdish. According to a decision by the Supreme Court in 2008, one can be charged with making illegal propaganda for participating a protest held by an organization.”

Politically active students had been subjected to dramatically increased state repression under Erdogan. The Turkish Minister of Education reported that in 2010 and 2011, “a total of 7,043 college students have been subjected to disciplinary investigations at their colleges. 4,602 of them have received suspensions while 55 have been expelled.” A group of university faculty even set up a white board outside a prison in Northwestern Turkey as a symbolic lesson to the students held captive inside, with one participating professor beginning the lecture by saying, “We came here for our students under arrest. This is not their place, they should be at their classrooms.” As students were increasingly detained under draconian anti-terror laws put in place by the Erdogan government, students and other members of society held solidarity protests with the imprisoned youth.

As Erdogan was advancing his program for the privatization of university education, over a thousand students protested in the streets in late December of 2012, met with over 3,000 police officers using tear gas, water cannons, and rubber bullets.

In recent years, Turkey has imprisoned thousands of political prisoners for associating with the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democratic Party (BDP), which the Turkish government considers to be a terrorist organization because it advocates for the rights of Kurdish citizens. Among the thousands arrested under anti-terrorism measures for associating with the BDP were writers, academics, parliamentarians, mayors, and students. Some academics were arrested simply for delivering speeches to the BDP, prompting Amnesty International to condemn the government.

In January of 2013, the Turkish government arrested 15 human rights lawyers “known for defending individuals’ right to freedom of speech and victims of police violence.” Amnesty International’s researcher on Turkey, Andrew Gardner, noted: “The detention of prominent human rights lawyers and the apparent illegal search of their offices add to a pattern of prosecutions apparently cracking down on dissenting voices.” Gardner added: “Human rights lawyers have been just some of the victims in the widespread abuse of anti-terrorism laws in Turkey. The question to ask is: who will be left to defend the victims of alleged human rights violations?

Human Rights Watch also spoke out against the arrests, with the lead researcher on Turkey commenting, “Police raids against lawyers at 4 a.m., their arrest and imprisonment are part of a wider clampdown on those who oppose the government.” The researcher, Emma Sinclair-Webb, added: “What makes the latest arrests particularly disturbing is that these lawyers are well-known for acting on behalf of those whose rights have been violated by the state.” Official figures revealed in May of 2012, Sinclair-Webb said, “suggest that many thousands are in prison for terrorism offenses, many of them political activists, students, journalists, and human rights defenders… Most have committed no offense that could or should be described as terrorism under international law.”

Turkey: A “Model Democracy”?

When Barack Obama spoke to the Turkish parliament in 2009, he referred to Turkey as a “strong and secular democracy,” and that the country was “a critical ally” of the United States, emphasizing his “commitment to our strong and enduring friendship.”

In an article for Christian Science Monitor, Reza Aslan, a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote that following several constitutional reforms in 2010, Turkey had taken “another step toward solidifying its position as the new superpower of the Middle East: the shining model of what a modern, Muslim-majority democracy can achieve if given the opportunity.”

As Hosni Mubarak, the military dictator of Egypt, was facing immense opposition in the streets of Tahrir Square and elsewhere across the country in February of 2011 – as the Arab Spring was spreading across the region – Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan stated, “No government can remain oblivious to the democratic demands of its people… There isn’t a government in history that has survived through oppression. Know that governments that turn a blind eye to their people cannot last long.”

As Time Magazine noted, with the unrest spreading across the region in early 2011, many commentators were pointing to Turkey’s “successful melding of a largely Muslim population with an officially secular and working democracy as a role model for what might come next.” In September of 2012, Erdogan declared that, “We called ourselves conservative democrats. We focused our change on basic rights and freedom… This stance has gone beyond our country’s borders and has become an example for all Muslim countries.”

In light of the Arab Spring, Hugh Pope of the International Crisis Group stated that, “Turkey is the envy of the Arab world… It has moved to a robust democracy, has a genuinely elected leader who seems to speak for the popular mood, has products that are popular from Afghanistan to Morocco — including dozens of sitcoms dubbed into Arabic that are on TV sets everywhere — and an economy that is worth about half of the whole Arab world put together.”

On May 24, 2013, a few days prior to the current protests and police repression erupting across the country, the Deputy Prime Minister of Turkey, Besir Atalay, spoke at the 38th Congress of the International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH), declaring: “We enhanced suspect and defendant rights and custody conditions. We based our solutions for all problems, including terror, on more democracy, freedom and pluralism. We have lifted the legal barriers on free expression of non-violent and non-threatening thoughts. We have made great efforts to normalize Turkey.” He also explained that Turkey “used to have problems” in regards to human rights problems, but the country has “changed a lot.

Apparently, two days later, it changed back.

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