When Erdoğan and his party participated in 2002 elections, though victorious they were the “underdogs”. Turkey stayed under constant threat of a coup by the ultra-nationalist, ultra-secular, Kemalist Military. Many in AKP, including Erdoğan himself, had been victims of corrupt and elitist Turkish judiciary that was not about justice but protecting the privileges of Kemalist Turks and the Military. We even saw Military’s intervention threats causing a call of early elections in 2007, from which AKP again came out victorious. From then on, AKP was on the rise. Coup plots were exposed, plotters from the Military being tried along with their “friends” in bureaucracy and media; the threat of a Military coup was finally more or less over. All the while, since 2002, AKP has built a strong economy, a rapid development especially in infrastructure and urban areas, a reliable welfare system and a great healthcare service; Turkey now has “healthcare tourists” from Europe.
But you see, AKP has no opposition; the currently most vocal and active opposition is actually the Kurdish movement’s BDP. Other than them we have MHP (ultra-nationalist) and CHP (ultra-nationalist Kemalist). The main opposition party CHP practically gets its votes from Kemalist political identity and its hard-line anti-AKP stance than any real policymaking. Having no real political competition, no real opposition that is actually capable of producing policies, and after successful counter-moves against unlawful political power of the Military, AKP now stands with no competition. In the last elections, out of every two Turkish voters, one voted for AKP. This absolute power has changed the rhetoric of the party and Mr. Erdoğan a lot; it not only became more right-wing but it also became definitely much, much more conservative and authoritarian. Not just the rhetoric either; policies, including some economic policies, have been quite along the lines of a “Muslim” reinterpretation of Neoconservatism.
Gezi protests started as a reaction to demolition of Gezi Park in Istanbul as part of the urban redevelopment project of Taksim Square. Truthfully, this is all in all a middle-class concern; while economy is growing, so is the income gap in Turkey. We have a large proletariat who barely survives thanks to the social safety net but as AKP turns more and more Neoconservative, even that is under threat. Poverty is still very much a reality, even as middle-class widens. So I must admit, urban redevelopment and loss of green spaces is not much of a concern for many ordinary citizens of Turkey from lower classes.* Rhetoric at Gezi protests were also very problematic as well as attendees; though the crowd was pretty diverse, we did see quite a few ultra-nationalists with racist tones.
The singlemost important issue though was the fact that when it was first built, some of the area Gezi Park encompassed** was actually a centuries old Armenian cemetery just a couple of decades ago. Kemalist Republic in its early days forcefully and unjustly seized the property despite the efforts of Armenian communities in Turkey at the time. Some of the tombstones were used as part of the stairs. It was truly a terrifying and shameful injustice. Unfortunately, this very injustice on which Gezi was built, was (at least in their mainstream rhetoric) not part of the protests. So myself and several other friends discussed and criticised how this protest was disregarding historical and racial injustices and was only stuck within the interests of its own class and privileges, even if we agreed on their stances in urban redevelopment and green spaces.
Then something happened.
Around the dawn, police brutally attacked campers in the park; the whole area was drowned in tear gas, canisters of which were thrown at protesters almost as a projectile weapon according to eyewitnesses. Police brutality was everywhere and at a shocking level. This changed the whole course of the protest as well as perceptions of it.
From football fan clubs to solitary cynics, throughout Friday a great stream of people joined the protests in Taksim; the only response of the government was an escalation of police violence. One of the most well known tourist attractions and the most crowded place in Istanbul was turned into a battlefield as police chased down protesters in the historical narrow streets of the area. Photographs of civilians covered in blood, lying around, and of streets and buildings rendered invisible due to tear gas were shared online.
Police brutality is nothing new in Turkey; AKP and its voters know this first hand: a significant chunk of AKP’s voter base themselves were gassed and attacked for years as they protested against discriminative policies of the Kemalist regime. But as political sphere changed in Turkey, now police is the guardian of AKP’s interests. In 2010, in what would become an infamous saying of his, Erdoğan stated: “I will not let my police to be bullied!” - “My” is often a term of endearment in Turkish but here it was especially meaningful. What made this statement more horrible was the fact that it was said after a series of police brutality that had garnered some popular denouncement. Erdoğan’s stance practically gave a green-light to the violence police continuously exerts in every protest.
And this is why Gezi protests are now important: this is not about urban redevelopment or green spaces anymore. It is about how a government due to its immense popularity has been growing more and more intolerant of those minority or criticising voices. It is about how democracy should not be a tyranny of the majority. And most of all it is about police brutality, it is about taking police accountable to their wrong doings, and that the government should learn to respect freedom of expression and assembly (regardless of what they are for) and not crush it with repressive police force.
I sincerely hope that these protests will improve Turkey on these aspects and Mr. Erdoğan will also, may be, remember his old days: when he was jailed and his political rights were forcefully taken away from him, by a very repressive and intolerant regime, simply for reading a poem. He should know very well how precious rights and liberties are, so he should also know how heinous, restricting and repressing them are. A “natural” or “enforced” lack of political competition or opposition does not mean that you will not meet with resistance or opposition Mr. Erdoğan - the last few years of Arab Spring should have taught you that.
Some of you may have heard this so I want to also note at a personal level: many religious and pro-AKP folk in Turkey now (from my observations) have taken an attitude of “if we don’t crush them, they will crush us” and they rather support this using some of the racist and Islamophobic slurs uttered by some among the protesters. As I said before, protesters are a very diverse group and yes there are quite a few racists, Islamophobes, and Kemalists among them. But this does not justify police’s violent attacks on them; nor does it mean all protesters belong to those categories - they do *not*. But even if they did, even if *we* the religious folk who have been oppressed for decades by Kemalists were now under a risk of being crushed again, I want to note that as a Muslim I would and will always prefer to be the one oppressed than to be the oppressor. Allah asked me to be righteous and not an oppressor and if this will cause me to be oppressed, then by God’s will I will be oppressed. What I am afraid of most, is not being oppressed, but to be an oppressor. May God bless us all with a just and merciful heart.
I wanted to clear a few things after some discussions:
* I do not think that any and all urban redevelopment is not a concern for lower classes; actually, some historically lower class neighbourhoods of Istanbul went through urban redevelopment and due to their good locations within the city, actual residents were often mistreated and in practice forced to relocate. This type of urban redevelopment acts have been a concern for lower classes and they did speak out against it at times; Gezi Park was just not one such case. Which class an urban redevelopment project disturbs is very dependent on the locale and the character of the redevelopment project.
** When Gezi Park was initially built it was much larger and within this larger area the Armenian cemetery had once stood. Later on, some hotels and other buildings were actually given parts of the Gezi Park which also happens to be the parts that were mainly the cemetery before. The currently much smaller space of the Park. according to some still covers some of the area of the cemetery (though not much) and according to some it does not cover any of it any more at all. Regardless, it is true that when Park was initially built it was by usurping Armenian cemetery there, and that precious Armenian tombstones were used as stairs in the Park. This very last action I think speaks well to what the “aim” was by usurpation of this land beyond the material gain.