The police seem to have won this round. Following dramatic and violent clashes two nights ago and the brutally violent clearance of Gezi Park Saturday evening, last night saw remarkably little action. Does this mean the protests are over?
Probably not. Thousands are still voicing their grievances about the government as pots and pans protests continue, and organizers are now looking for another spot to occupy. It seems Taksim is out of the realm of possibility. Police continue to occupy the square and park. Pedestrians can enter on foot, but those protesting are immediately detained following warnings from police, and bags are being searched on entry, arresting those carrying in what looks like protest gear. Police are also stationed in adjacent streets over a wide area, making it very difficult to approach the square.
Even despite this, Turkish performance artist Erdem Gündüz has invented a new form of protest, the “standing man”. Protesters are entering the square, stopping where they are searched and standing silently for hours, staring at the Turkish flags and portrait of Ataturk hung on the Ataturk Cultural Centre (AKM). Though Gündüz was eventually arrested, he has spawned eager imitators.
Politically, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has continued his broad and at times bizarre criticisms of opponents. He has criticised the EU for their lack of “respect for democracy,” arguing that Turkey and the EU have “different opinions on freedom” — something I think most will find it hard to argue with.
This aggression from Erdogan may seem like ill-timed hubris, given that his government have spent the past decade repeatedly bending over backwards for international institutions in an effort to secure EU membership. This latest spat may throw the whole process out the window, if the EU has a long enough memory.
More likely, however, is that, with election in November and membership unlikely for several years, Erdogan knows he is playing the long game internationally and the short game domestically. He can risk the EU bid for now to galvanize his base in time for the election, which loves the motif of plucky little Erdogan taking on the international institutions that have ravaged Turkey’s poor with austerity (instituted by the AKP, but who remembers that).
After winning the presidency, he’ll probably go back to kissing the feet of the EU, economically speaking, which in the end is all that ze Germans really care about so long as people aren’t getting gassed on CNN. A couple years of iron-fisted stability as president, and Turkey will be back on the EU watchlist.
The threat to utilize the army from Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc is met with skepticism by almost all the Turks I have spoken to. A section of the army, the gendarmerie, operates as a national police force and is under the control of the interior minister. It was this that shocked protesters after being deployed in some places, including Istanbul, to support flagging police.
But the army army it is not. The gendarmes are armed with much the same equipment as your ordinary robocop, and without the proper army, controlled by the generals, it would be impossible to impose curfews or checkpoints that would be demanded by martial law.
To declare martial law would probably require significant support within the armed forces, not just among the top brass, and this, according to what I’ve read, the AKP does not have. So for now, it remains a scary possibility, if an implausible one.
- In ongoing revelations from the clearance of Gezi and subsequent clashes, videos and images show police aiming rubber bullets above ground (where they can be lethal), firing tear gas into hospitals, and beating protesters. Amnesty International reports detainees were being held in unknown locations without access to due process, and denied toilets, water, and food. Bianet reports 450 missing, still in detention but yet to be able to contact relatives or lawyers.
- It may have been all communist party flags that littered Taksim’s monument, but the top 1 per cent evidently doesn’t like the AKP any more than the communists do. The Ekonomist (with a “k”), a Turkish business magazine, interviewed more than 100 Turkish CEOs and found that almost half had personally visited the Gezi Park protests and 90 per cent supported the demands of protesters. I was at a very fancy dinner party yesterday and heard the story of a fabulously wealthy CEO leaving his six year-old daughter’s birthday party to join protesters during the worst of the fighting. Even at this fancy party, when 9 o’clock rolled around, everyone clanged their plates and glasses for a few minutes in a miniature pots and pans protest.
- The AKP government is drafting scary new laws that will restrict social media and prevent “crimes over the internet.” Erdogan and his party have at several points criticised social media for its powerful organizing capacity, accusing it of spreading lies and propaganda. Twitter has become famous both for being the target of government criticism during protests, and for being notoriously difficult to censor, as in the Egyptian revolution, when government attempts to shut down the internet were mitigated by ingenious efforts to record, transcribe, and translate Egyptian tweets over shaky cell phone connections. That might not work in Turkey, though — the government cell phone provider, Turkcell, has shut down communications in protest areas several times already.
- Greece and Brazil have seen similar, wide reaching anti-government protests this weekend. In Greece, protesters occupied the public broadcaster, threatened with closure under new austerity measures, and has kept it going until now, drawing support from European broadcasters. In Brazil, hundreds of thousands are taking to the street in a protest that began over a 10 cent raise in public transit, but has since become the largest protest Brazil has seen in 20 years. Grievances include the generally poor quality of services, economic nepotism (also a common grievance in Turkey), police brutality, and recent spending sprees on international sporting events (Rio is hosting the World Cup in 2014 and Olympics in 2016). A friend told me an anecdote that in Sao Paolo, the centre of the protests, protesters were chanting, “This is Turkey now.”
- Fareed Zakaria at CNN has this terrible piece called “Why Turkey protests are a good thing,” in which he resorts to the cliches of referring to protests as a “culture war” and Turkey as an “immature democracy.” CNN hilariously eschewed live coverage of the protests on their Turkish affiliate while amping their coverage in the US media as a “Turkish Spring.” Now they’ve come under fire from Erdogan for mistakenly labeling aerial footage of Istanbul’s AKP rally as an anti-government protest. Don’t worry, Erdogan, it’s not an attempt to overthrow you, it’s just terrible journalism.
- For an excellent article on who the AKP support base is in Turkey, read this op-ed by Semih Idiz in Hurriyet. According to Idiz, many AKP supporters believe Erdogan will get a boost from having handled protests so well. Confused how this is possible? Read pro-government Sabah’s coverage.