Taksim Square awakes each morning like a hangover. The young ones, as always, are the first to bounce back — at 10 or 11 in the morning, only the teenagers and the hardcore protesters, wearily unzipping their tents after a few hours of sleep, are milling about the “free zone”, where early-morning street vendors and sympathetic capitalists sell merchandise, supplies and food.
Right now, the biggest risk for the government seems to be the growing sense of permanence surrounding the protests. By now, Istanbullus are used to the periodic chants that ring through the metro, and it’s become a daily hobby for many to pop down to Taksim after work for a bite to eat and a scene to watch.
Despite Erdogan’s heavily documented triumphant return yesterday, Taksim, and neighbouring Besiktas, remain police free, and even in Ankara reports of police violence have slowed. That’s a good thing; so far, a police officer has died in the protests; 4,785 are wounded, among them 14 journalists; and 48 are in critical condition, according to the latest numbers from the Turkish Doctors’ Union, sympathetic to the protests.
Right now, the scariest and in my mind biggest risks come from supporter violence. What the police are seemingly unable to do, the legion of AKP supporters might. Erdogan has previously threatened that it is all he can do to keep them in their homes. The thousands that greeted him at the airport chanted violent slogans: “May the hands of those who harm the police be broken,” and “Let us go and we will crush Taksim.” To his credit, he said they should all go home.
His return certainly indicated the strength of support he still enjoys, due in large part to his strong organization and successful use of identity politics. His response to criticism highlights his constituency. His speech on his return was rife with religious language — “Only Allah may stop Turkey’s rise,” “May Allah make our brotherhood last forever,” and so on — and struck out at every oppositional body without sympathy or moderation. Since the protests began, Erdogan has blamed communists, the PKK, foreign governments (including Syria), the European Union, the international and national press, international banks, Twitter, a broad “interest rate conspiracy“, and, of course, “marauders“.
What remains is the AKP voter base — the politically and religiously conservative, pro-development new bosses in Istanbul, those who view this confrontation as a test of Erdogan’s authority by former powers. Gezi Park is, in their minds, a combined effort by members of the armed forces, the Istanbul elite, communists, nationalists, and foreigners to undermine what is a vast and wide reaching popular movement that swept the AKP to power 10 years ago. They elect to speak legitimately through ballot boxes, and not illegitimately through street protests, the argument follows.
Of course, not everyone shares their view. Joining their critics (finally) is the European Union, long the club which Erdogan has most longed to join. EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fule criticized Erdogan’s hardline stance to media criticism and protests, threatening Turkey’s long-fought bid for EU membership.
Unfortunately, this evidently only played into Erdogan’s hands. Turks are at best lukewarm on EU accession. Fule’s criticism allowed Erdogan to fire off charges of hypocrisy against the EU and US for their employment of similar police tactics to end Occupy protests, and play the Turkish “little man” finally standing up to international organizations which have had the AKP government by the political and economic balls over the past ten years (see the IMF; though interestingly, the EU has been relatively mute on social [i.e., human rights] criticisms until now).
And given that the US and EU members have employed brutal police tactics in the past, it’s a fair point. But in the eyes of most of the world, it fails to justify Erdogan’s unnecessarily severe stance. Once again, he has reiterated that the development project, including the controversial demolition of the Ataturk Culture Museum (AKM) for a mosque, museum, and opera house (one already exists in the AKM), will go ahead as planned (though evidently without a mall), and called for an immediate end to the protests with no negotiations. He is unwavering in this respect.
At least, for now, the risk to Istanbul’s protesters seems fairly low. One journalist friend of mine pointed out that even if the AKP supporters wanted to mount an attack on Taksim or sympathetic protests, they are unlikely to have the same tolerance for tear gas and street violence as communists, Kurds, and the supporters of Besiktas football club, who have endured it for years. The only danger, and it is a real one, is if police become complicit in the act — then it would seem a more widespread state failure is possible.
In addition to scary and escalating news from Turkey, there’s also scary and escalating news from Syria, Kurdistan, and Egypt. But first:
- In an ongoing effort to represent religious alongside secular Turks, the Gezi Park protests held their first Friday prayers by a group of “anti-capitalist muslims,” among others.
- Simultaneously, John McCain made some slightly islamophobic remarks about Erdogan, criticizing him for “push[ing] towards Islam” a “very modern nation and democracy,” and relating the long-established self-censorship of the press to the AKP’s islamist policies, calling the protests a “rebellion.”
- Speaking of self-censorship, one Guardian reader spotted no less than seven Turkish newspapers with the same flattering headline on the day of Erdogan’s return (roughly translated as “we will die for democracy” or something like that). I spent the day myself in Hurriyet’s newsroom watching CNNTurk and NTV play on endless repeat Erdogan’s journey through throngs of loving supporters. Sadly, EU Commissioner Fule’s criticism was woefully feeble on the issue of media censorship — evidently it’s not a priority. (Interesting side note: The Hurriyet style guide says beside is entry on the AKP, “Note: It’s okay to call them conservative.”)
- In possibly bad news for the protests, imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan has weighed in in favour of the protests. Though I’m sure it was good-intentioned, it will probably lend fuel to Erdogan’s argument that terrorists and Kurds are behind these protests
- One AKP member of parliament, Mehmet Soyuk, has resigned over the allegations of police brutality. He is the first AKP member to leave the party over the Gezi Park protests.
- The Turkish army has deployed to the eastern border in an effort to contain a deteriorating situation in Syria… or, if you’re the government of Bashar al-Assad, an improving situation. The Syrian army recently captured important points in Golan, which will probably turn the heat up on the Israelis involvement. The US and EU, led by Britain and France, are continuing to subtly build the case for military intervention in Syria.
- In nearby Iraqi Kurdistan, protests against the central Iraqi government have led to the withdrawal of national forces. They’ve been replaced by Kurdish peshmerga militia, whose ranks are probably bolstered by the recent withdrawal of similar militias from Turkey under the PKK peace process. According to the Iraqi government, they are taking control of key oil fields, which is just not on. Iraq’s interior ministry has demanded all forces “loyal to the Kurdish government” withdraw, reports Hurriyet.
- In Egypt, millions are facing food and fuel shortages due to a deteriorating economic situation. Egypt is totally in the shitter — its only house of government capable of passing legislation at the moment, the Shura Council, was just ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Constitutional Court (SCC), as was about everything else. Ongoing battles between the presidency, the SCC, Islamist allies of the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Shura Council are paralyzing the Egyptian state just when it needs to do something about impending shortages and a possible economic collapse.