Saturday, June 01, 2013

Anti-government protests in Istanbul

by Salman Hameed

This seems like coming. Small things had been adding up and it seems that the ruling AKP party in Turkey finally pushed too much. If you haven't seen the news, anti-gvernment protests have engulfed Istanbul and have reached other Turkish cities as well, including the capital, Ankara. The center point Istanbul is Taksim Square which is not only the heart of the city but also the usual place for political protests. I have been to Istanbul multiple times (I was there at this time last year) and have friends and family there. In fact, on most occasions, I have stayed quite close to Taksim. On the one hand, it is heartbreaking to see pictures of police throwing tear-gas canisters at the protestors and pepper-spraying them. On the other hand, it is also rejuvenating to see throngs of people crossing the bridge over the Bosporus on foot (public transport was suspended to stop the protestors) to stand in solidarity with the protestors at Taksim Square against the increasing overreach of the government. This city is indeed alive!

The trigger for the current "Occupy-style" protests have been plans to replace/modify an old park (Gezi Park) with a shopping mall (on a side note, it is a shame that there haven't been any protests in Mecca, where the Saudi government has been demolishing historical structures to make way for shopping malls! "Occupy Mecca" during the next Hajj?). The police in Istanbul used teargas to disperse the crowd and prevented further protesters to get to Taksim. It seems that the police now has withdrawn from the Square. From NYT:
Violent protests against the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan engulfed this city on Saturday, as thousands of demonstrators took to the streets and alleyways in a second day of civil unrest and faced the tear gas and water cannons of a harsh police crackdown. 
Mr. Erdogan, in a televised speech on Saturday morning, vowed to go forward with a plan

to remake a city park in Taksim Square into a replica Ottoman-era army barracks and mall, the move that set off the initial protests earlier in the week. 
For many demonstrators, however, the protest has moved beyond that project and become a broad rebuke to the 10-year leadership of Mr. Erdogan and his Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party, which they say has adopted authoritarian tactics. 
Mr. Erdogan, in his first comments on the growing unrest, seemed determined to maintain the aggressive police response. His only conciliatory note was to promise to investigate claims of excessive police force against peaceful protesters on Friday that resulted in nearly 1,000 injuries, according to the Turkish Doctors Association. 
“The police were here yesterday, they will be there today, and they will be there tomorrow in Taksim,” Mr. Erdogan said. 
In late afternoon, the police withdrew from Taksim Square and allowed tens of thousands of protesters to gather there unhindered. By evening, no police officers were in sight, and most of the protesters were gathered on the lawns of the square, some drinking beer, others chanting antigovernment slogans.        
If you want to read more about it, check out this excellent article, The Right to the City Movement and the Turkish Summer, from Jadaliyya that first details the unfolding of events at Taksim Square over the last four days and then talks about the broader reasons for the protest. Here is the focus on the latter: 
The entire plan for Taksim Square’s redesign is part of an overall neoliberal turn that Prime Minister Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP) are central to. Istanbul's city center has been undergoing a rapid process of gentrification, especially in the historic neighborhoods of Sulukule, Tarlabaşı, Tophane, and Fener-Balat, which housed the poor, the immigrants, the Kurds, and the Roma. The goal of this so-called “urban renewal” is to make room for more tourist attractions, or to—at minimum—“clean up” the neighborhoods, removing working class urban dwellers who might scare off tourists. The idea is that this new and improved city center will attract foreign investment in Istanbul, which is to be further developed into a financial and cultural hub at the crossroads of Europe and the Middle East.   
Some outlets have linked the Gezi Park protests to the AKP's recent restrictions on the sale of alcohol. Journalists doing so are attempting to portray the Gezi Park occupation as a conflict between Erdoğan's Islamism and the country's secular ethos. The secularist opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) has also taken this stance, and has tried to coopt the uprising by turning the movement into a symbol of culture wars between secular youth and an older Islamist generation.  Attractive as that framing may be to Western media, it could not be further from the truth. While many protesters are without a doubt staunch secularists who are motivated by opposition to the AKP's increasing social conservatism, there is no indication that this is what ultimately brought thousands of people out into the streets. In fact, when CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, came to Gezi Park to speak, protesters sang over him, preventing him from being heard. It is clear that the movement thus far is about a conflict in visions for urban space between ruling elites and the people who actually live, work, and play in the city. In this regard, it is telling that #DirenGeziPari emerged as the original hashtag on Twitter. This connects to protests held in 2009 in Istanbul against the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, which took place under the banner of “Diren Istanbul”—“Resist Istanbul”—cleverly shortened in translation to “ResIstanbul.”  
At the same time, and as the protests appear to spread and take on a more generally anti-government tone, it is not unlikely that general dissatisfaction with Erdoğan will eventually win out as the primary message of the movement. In that case, we can expect to see a rift between the liberal secularist opposition who joined the protest on 31 May and after and the radical protesters who spawned the movement in the first place.
Throughout the Arab uprisings, Turkey remained ostensibly stable. Some commentators proposed Turkey as a model for post-uprising Arab states, most especially Egypt. The mixture of a “moderate” Islamist prime minister and a "secular" constitution made NATO-member Turkey an attractive prototype for a new Middle East in the eyes of Western pundits.  Others, along with myself, have pointed out that Turkey is a poor choice of role model, given its ongoing conflict with its Kurdish minority population as well as myriad other dynamics. 
Today, it seems as though Turkey's internal divisions are surfacing in a way not seen for some time. What we are seeing in the Gezi Park occupation is the sudden explosion of this Right to the City movement, with some general anti-government sentiment mixed in. For now, an Istanbul court has temporarily suspended construction of the park, pending a hearing on the matter. As time goes on, and if this movement continues to grow, rifts are likely to occur and the meaning of the protests will become as contested as the physical space of Taksim Square. But for the time being, between the massive May Day protest and now this nationwide movement less than a month later, we may finally be in for a summer of uprising in Turkey. 

Also, here is a BBC report from last night that shows some of the clashes between the protestors and the police: 


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