Aslihan Agaoglu
Last updated: 4 June, 2013

Uncertainty awaits Turkey’s new movement

Our Istanbul-based contributor Aslihan Agaoglu takes a step back and wraps up the events that took Turkey by storm.

Lets remind ourselves how it all began: a group of young people were protesting against the demolition of Gezi Park, one of the last green spaces in central Istanbul. The government wanted to build a tahlimhane, a replica of an Ottoman building, with shops and residences inside. They were protesting this by occupying the park, playing guitars, singing, reading books and dancing.

But things changed last Friday: at 5 am police attacked the protestors while they were asleep, without any prior warning, using excessive force. They used large amounts of tear gas, expelled protesters from the park and burned their tents with their belongings still inside.

This awoke something within the public. With the help of social media, people heard what had happened to the protestors, and they rushed to Taksim square, right by the park, to protest. There was no provocation from the opposing parties; this was not an ideological or a political movement but a social one. It was not pre-planned, it happened spontaneously, as a reaction to the behaviour of the police forces. And it snowballed into something bigger, protests spreading nationwide, and the numbers kept growing. Even tough Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan agreed that the police was indeed using excessive force, the tear gas and the beating continued.

ALSO READ Return of The Empire

But as the crowds grew, people with different agendas who sought to provoke the protesters for their own purposes joined the fight. The original protesters, who aimed to protect the environment, used social media to spread the message that this is a peaceful protest and that it should remain so. They urged all who wished to join the protest against violence and repeatedly stated that they do not want the support of those who are not protesting peacefully. But despite all this, vandalism took place. Damage to public property and shops on the streets was apparent and there was even a police car, upside down and burnt, right at Taksim Square.  

It is safe to say that there is no trouble when the police are not involved

I have stated, from the very beginning, that this was not a Turkish Spring and that Taksim is not Tahrir. The AK Party government came to power with fair elections, the majority of the public are mainly pleased and satisfied with their administration. They have done a lot for the country: the economy is better than ever, there are major improvements in education and health care.

However, the government has a tendency of interfering with private life, such as the new arrangements of alcohol consumption and the discussions on the abortion issue. Many feel like their voices are not being heard, their opinions do not matter and they want the government to listen, even if they do not belong to the majority who voted them into power. The Gezi Park has become a symbol of a resistance against this oppressive approach. This is not a Turkish Spring because this was not a planned movement to overthrow government or change the system, there was no political element behind it. This was a social movement, joined by people from different backgrounds, classes and ideologies coming together for a common cause. It began as an environmental protest and evolved into something much bigger.

Media behaviour during this period was also a reason for rage. For the first three days, major news channels in Turkey showed documentaries on penguins or cooking shows while tens of thousands were protesting and being attacked by tear gas bombs that the police shot directly towards them, instead of aiming towards the sky like they are supposed to. Understandably, this caused people to turn to social media for news, which was almost the only way to learn what was actually happening on the streets. But this created a different problem, there was a lot of unreliable, false information floating on Twitter, causing more damage than good from time to time.

Could this have been avoided? In my opinion, yes it could have. If the police did not intervene with such excessive force, if those peaceful environmentalist protestors were able to find someone other than the police in front of them, someone they could talk to, someone to discuss and negotiate with, this wouldn’t have happened.

The crowd is still there, protecting the Gezi Park. During the day, when the police are not there, it almost gives you the feeling of a festival rather than a protest. People sing and dance, offer food to each other and many grab a trash bag to keep the park clean, there is not a single cigarette butt on the ground. But there’s another scene: when the night falls and the police come out and the clash begins, the streets turn into a battle zone. It is safe to say that there is no trouble when the police are not involved, however, when they are, the use of force on the protestors create scenes of violence that are hard to forget. There are many arrested, wounded and one man was reported dead, only 22, last night in the city of Antakya.

Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan says that there will be an investigation about the police using excessive force on protestors. But he also says the Taksim project will go forward as planned, his tone has not softened. Abdullah Gul, President of the Republic, is using a milder approach but it doesn’t seem to be enough for the protestors. Gul stated that the “Message is heard. Democracy is not limited to elections.”

Erdogan, who left Turkey for a visit to Morocco yesterday, said he does not know what Abdullah Gul meant with his statement. How this will all end is still a question asked by many but however it ends, one thing is certain amid all this uncertainty: the Turkish youth have risen and they are determined to be out on the streets until they are convinced that their voices are heard.

EDITOR’S PICK Mohamed Hemish: On Turkey’s new alcohol law