Turkey’s Space-Time Protest Continuum
- Olivia Walton
- 31 Mar 2014 12:25 (South Africa)
How does one write about a political system that is changing daily? Turkish politics is like Salome. One after another the veils drop, and we still do not know what will be offered on a plate at the end. What follows is not a prediction but a look back at the past year, to see how Turkey’s political powers – apparent and hidden – got to where they stand today. By OLIVIA WALTON.
Another week, another tape. This time, a man alleged to be Ahmet Davutoğlu, the foreign minister, is heard discussing plans to start a war with Syria, with an unidentified aide. The tape was released days after the Turkish military shot down a Syrian fighter jet that had crossed into Turkish air space on Sunday 23 March. Erdogan was at a rally for his Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Istanbul. He announced the incident to the thousands gathered: “If you violate our border, our slap will be hard.” Other tapes this week also implicate Erdogan in plotting the sex-tape scandal that knocked former Republican Peoples’ Party (CHP) leader Deniz Baykal out of politics in 2010. Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the current CHP leader, told Al Monitor, “This is worse than Watergate. He must resign.”
But, before there is time for such a fate to be decided, there are elections. The stakes are high. On Sunday March 30 Turks will vote in the first local elections since the Gezi Protests, the graft probe that began in December 2013, the deaths of protesters, laws extending the reach of the state over the Internet, the shaking-up of the Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors (HSYK) in favor of the AKP, the ban on Twitter and, now, YouTube, the shot-down Syrian jet and the falling lira.
How does one write about a political system that is changing daily? Turkish politics is like Salome. One after another the veils drop, and we still do not know what will be offered on a plate at the end. Right now, social media – or what’s left of it – is exploding with outrage. There is also a sense of bewilderment. Is this not enough? Police brutality, corruption, changes to the country’s laws on the whim of its leaders? Who draws the line – the prime minister, or Fetullah Gülen’s Cemaat (“community”), or the public? Or none of these?
Sunday’s municipal elections will go some way in answering that: they will give at least an indication of how much support has shifted away from the AKP, and where to. The main contestant is the secular, centre-left CHP. The Istanbul candidate for the party formed out of the Gezi Protests, the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), Sırrı Süreyya Önder, is a very popular man: he was one of the key figures in the protests, and is widely thought to be trustworthy and principled. But his party is unlikely to win any significant municipalities. There is a sense that to vote strategically – against the AKP – those who would prefer to vote for HDP will vote for the CHP, the only party likely to seriously threaten the AKP’s position.
That position was extremely strong, but is now much harder to gauge: things have been happening too fast. Though AKP polls show support is still high, in light of the corruption allegations, these are treated with more skepticism. Perhaps we should expect no better from those in power or perhaps we should let them get on with their messy games and we’ll get on with our own – but that is no good either. The death of Berkin Elvan on March 11, 2014 was a reminder that these things have a bodily impact. They happen in tapped phone calls and spy agency dossiers, but they also happen to and on the bodies of people. The bones of the state are laid bare. That is the sense one gets walking amongst protesters here: they have seen enough. In South Africa there is an expression for this – gatvol. Enough is enough.
What follows is not a prediction but a look back at the past year, to see how Turkey’s political powers – apparent and hidden – its government and its people got to where they stand today.
In his 11 years of rule, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has not faced an election as troubling as this one. In the past year the Turkish public has expressed its increasingly vehement rejection of AKP policies, and of the başbakan himself. Already seen by many secular Turks as too keen on the Islamisation of Turkey, both social and political, Erdogan is now implicated in widespread corruption, and also has police violence, restrictions on freedom of expression and the destruction of public space without the consent of the public to account for. The man is in a bind.
Since the formation of the Turkish Republic in 1923 out of the ashes of the Ottoman Empire, secularism has been the keystone of Turkish politics, part of the definition of what it has meant to be Turkish. (The implications for what this meant for those who did not fit the bill – Kurds and Armenians, for instance – continues to breed animosity and violence.) Mustafa Kemal Atatürk was the architect of this new country and is still its symbol - the face on every living room wall. His signature is painted onto motorbikes and the arms of teenage boys, alongside Fenerbahçe or Beşiktaş; his blue eyes have watched me pour whiskey into shot glasses and have seen hundreds of people march chanting past Dolmabahçe Palace on their way to Taksim.
In 2002, almost eighty years after the formation of the republic, the AKP came to power mostly on the votes of conservative Muslims, many of them rural, who wanted a change. As one friend put it to me: "We were the secular White Turks. We had the privilege. Now things have switched; they want a turn." After its formation in 2001, Erdogan’s AKP joined forces with the Muslim cleric Fetullah Gülen, whose shadowy network of supporters is now blamed by the prime minister for the corruption probe that broke in December 2013, an attempt – in Erdoğan's language – to destroy the country.
What followed the AKP’s win was a decade of economic prosperity and growth. Neoliberal capitalism has driven privatisation, foreign investment and foreign debt, massive construction projects and gentrification. Coupled with this was the gradual Islamisation of Turkish society – via laws such as the ones restricting the sale and consumption of alcohol, passed in early 2013, but also more subtly in the language of the ruling party and its loud-and-proud emphasis on Islam as central to Turkish identity.
At the same time, the AKP broke the back of the Turkish army, for decades the "protector" of secularism. Whenever any political party fell out of line, the army stepped in: there were coups d’état in 1960, 1971 and 1980. In 1997 there was a “post-modern coup", an ultimatum presented by army leadership to the incumbent Welfare Party (RP) government. The RP was sidelined, but the parliament was not dissolved: hence the name "post-modern coup". They were in, and then – just like that – they were out.
The AKP dealt with this latent threat in the Ergenekon trials, which began in 2008. The trials revolved around a number of alleged coup plots by senior army staff, and were initially seen by the West – Turkey's fair-weather friend – as a good thing. The West does not like generals to step in every ten years or so and bugger up any semblance of democracy, especially in a Muslim country. However, it now seems that the trials had less to do with a sense of democratic justice than with ensuring the military would not be such a pest. In 2014, a number of army officials imprisoned in the Ergenekon trials – including former army chief Basbug – have been released. An Istanbul court found that Basbug’s constitutional rights had been compromised, as the judge prosecuting the case had not released the written justification for his verdict, issued in August 2013, something required under Turkish law.
Part of the collateral damage of the Ergenekon trials was another persistent (and probably annoying, for the government at least) fact of Turkish politics – the free media. Journalists were imprisoned for allegedly being part of the coup plots. Organisations such as PEN International and Human Rights Watch have criticised the AKP government for its restrictions on media freedom. The problem has become ingrained in the ownership structure of the media: most newspapers and channels are owned by a handful of powerful companies with links to the various factions bickering with each other for power - the AKP supporters versus the Gülenists versus the secular nationalists. Turkey has one of the highest numbers of imprisoned journalists in the world. These are not good conditions for a critical and vibrant press.
And so these things had been going on for years - the gradual Islamisation of a population used to the liberties of a secular society, the privatisation and development of swathes of land without public consultation, including plans for a third airport, a third Bosphorus bridge, Kanal Istanbul and the high-level machinations of those truly in power – the government, its friends-in-high-places, its former ally Fetullah Gülen, and the military. Below is a timeline connecting the key events in all this, leading up to Sunday’s elections.
On January 19, 2007, Hrant Dink, Turkish-Armenian journalist and editor of bi-lingual Agos newspaper, is assassinated outside the paper’s offices in Istanbul. A minor, Ogün Samast, is found guilty, but it is widely believed that the state – or the deep state, whichever you prefer – was responsible for his death. Hrant had been critical of the Armenian genocide, and was an advocate of minority rights in Turkey. The next year the Ergenekon trials begin.
On December 28, 2011, 34 youths are killed in a Turkish military air raid in Roboski, Uludere District, near the Iraqi border. They were apparently mistaken for guerrillas of the banned Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), whose leader Abullah Öcalan is currently in prison. No investigation has been conducted.
On the first of May, 2013, protestors are prevented from taking the annual May Day protest walk to Taksim Square by the police. On May 28, a small group of people gathered in Gezi Park and pitched tents, a quiet refusal to accept the park's destruction. This does not draw much attention. On May 31, at five in the morning, police go into the tent camp and tear it to shreds, set it on fire and kick the people out. On the weekend after the camp at Gezi is destroyed, there are thousands of people on the streets of Istanbul. Images of police violence do nothing to deter protestors, and in fact only make them angrier and more determined. The police respond with teargas, water cannon, pepper spray and beatings. In total, over 8,000 people are injured and six are killed. (This is the widely accepted number: other estimates go up to eleven.) They become known as the Gezi Martyrs: Mehmet Ayvalıtaş, Ethem Sarısülük, Ali İsmail Korkmaz, Abdullah Cömert, Medeni Yıldırım and Ahmet Atakan. No investigations into these deaths have been made. On June 15 fourteen-year-old Berkin Elvan is shot in the head with a teargas canister on his way to buy bread in the Alevi neighbourhood of Okemydanı. He goes into a coma.
At no point does the AKP back down from its rejection of the validity of the protestors. Erdogan and President Abdullah Gül play good-cop, bad-cop: Erdogan makes a wild and jingoistic statement, and the next day Gül apologises, says he supports the ideas of the protestors. After the first weekend of violence, the police withdraw from Taksim. For almost two weeks the square is untouched: it becomes a site of protest and party, with forum discussions, film screenings, debates, food and medical tents, a library, a campsite, and a community of Istanbul’s beloved street animals.
The protests brought many Turks – especially young people – to a political consciousness they had not had before. Gezi Park was filled with a mix of experienced activists from various socialist, feminist, LGBTI, environmental, and Kurdish and anarchist groups, to name a few. This allowed for a sense of unity and common purpose that many in the park and its offshoots said they had not felt before. Of course, some seasoned protesters were skeptical of the newcomers, especially of the young hipsters with their Doc Martens and analog cameras. One woman, of a feminist-socialist group, told me that all these kids were new to the scene. “We have been doing this for years,” she said “but this is the first time I have seen anything like this in Turkey.” Despite the optimism, there was a sense of confusion too: people wanted the AKP out, but they did not know what to put in its place.
On June 15 the police rolled into Taksim Square and tore down the camp at Gezi Park. They cleared the park and the square with water cannon and teargas and arrested protesters. Later in the next week journalists’ and activists’ offices were raided, and scores of people were arrested. A Kurdish colleague told me she thought the police had been preparing for this, and had left the protesters alone so that they could gather information and “evidence” – photographs, publications, even tweets – to arrest people. It seemed a plausible explanation for the two weeks in which not one policeman entered the square.
After that, protests became less frequent, more disillusioned. Partly this was to do with the intensity of the police response; the new sense of injustice and political awareness had to find other forms, such as the community forums and the HDP, formed as an umbrella organization after Gezi.
On December 17, 2013. Turns out the police had been investigating senior politicians – among them some of Erdogan ’s most powerful ministers and their sons – and that they were involved in a complex network of bribery and corruption. The implications go beyond Turkey’s borders. It seems that in order to evade sanctions on Iranian oil, Turkish politicians had been using the Turkish bank Halkbank and the services of an Iranian, Rıza Sarraf (formerly Reza Zarrab) to trade gold for Iranian oil and natural gas. The police are known to be in the control of Fetullah Gülen’s Cemaat; the corruption probe is widely seen to be the movement’s way of expressing their distaste for Erdogan and his policies. The corruption probe sparked retaliation from the AKP, and purges of the police and the judiciary have been ongoing. On December 25, half of Erdogan’s cabinet was forced to resign.
Since December, a slew of secretly recorded tapes have been released. To cherry-pick a bit: Erdogan is caught on record explaining to his son Bilal how to hide 30 million euros in cash on the day the scandal broke. (In total, roughly $4.5 million was found in shoeboxes in the possession of those implicated in the trial.) Erdogan and his aides are also caught on record dictating to the media what can and cannot be shown. (Protests can’t; AKP rallies can.) The AKP has dismissed the recordings but has been unable to disprove their veracity, and the tapes are widely accepted as legitimate.
In early 2014 a number of laws were passed – bricks in the AKP fort or the AKP tomb, depending on which side you are on – extending the reach of the state. These laws have enabled the government to block or ban websites more or less as it pleases, and have extended the powers of the National Intelligence Organisation (MİT). In March, President Gül signed a law to dissolve the Gülen foundation’s schools by the end of the 2014/2015 academic year – another blow in the messy split between Gülen and the AKP.
On the back of these laws and graft probe – which has also been roundly ignored by the AKP – came the death of Berkin Elvan, on March 11, 2014. He had been in a coma for 269 days. His face and the loaf of bread he had gone out to buy when he was shot have become symbols of the protests, and of the disbelief of Turks at the behaviour of their government. The officer who shot Elvan has not been named or investigated – in fact, there is not even talk of an investigation. Erdogan accused the boy of belonging to “a terrorist organisation,” a vague and common accusation levelled at anyone who opposes or even questions the government.
In the 1980s, at the height of Apartheid in South Africa – where mass gatherings were all but impossible – funerals became political acts, scenes of protest, mourning and solidarity. Berkin Elvan’s funeral was exactly like that. Millions of people in Istanbul and across the country walked the streets to register their refusal to accept a state that kills a boy and then does nothing to acknowledge or atone for its actions. Again, water cannons and teargas were used to disperse crowds. But, as one person said to me as we watched YouTube videos of Okmeydanı, “How do you disperse millions?”
The farcical nature of the battle the state is waging on the public means that any form of dialogue is virtually impossible, except on platforms that do not involve those directly in power. Even President Abdullah Gül’s bleats of protest are meaningless because they are not backed by any political will for actual change.
On the night of Berkin’s funeral on March 12, protestors and police clashed across Istanbul and in other cities. Burak Can Karamanoğlu, an AKP supporter, was killed in Okmeydanı. After Karamanoğlu’s death, Berkin’s father Sami Elvan reached out to his father. Sami Elvan had decried Erdogan and the AKPs’ behaviour on national television and his act of reconciliation – when he could have simply claimed an eye for an eye – was a rejection of the party’s divide-and-rule tactics. The AKP’s language is increasingly hostile to Alevis, who ascribe to a more mystical form of Islam and who are known for being tolerant and also fierce in their resistance to state repression.
The AKP’s reaction to all of this – protests against its laws, against Berkin’s death, against the destruction of green space at Middle East Technical University in Ankara – has been predictable: in one week, they have banned both Twitter and YouTube. The initial Twitter ban seemed ineffectual. Turks’ reaction to the government’s scare tactics has been to skirt them with new DNS numbers and black humour, and numbers of Turkish tweets and Turkish Twitter users shot up. The same is likely to happen with YouTube, and the website is currently in talks with Ankara to lift the ban.
All of this and much more besides – much has been left out in the interests of time and space – will affect how Turks cast their votes on Sunday. This in turn will affect what happens to every can of worms that has been opened in the last few years: the unexplained Roboski massacre, the Ergenekon trials, the deaths of protestors, widespread corruption, the nature of the deep state, the true reach of Gülen’s control and the relationship between the state and religion, to name a few. In short, Turkey is headed somewhere fast, but no one is sure where that is. DM
Photo: Turkish people walk past in front of a poster with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Istanbul, Turkey, 28 March 2014. Local elections were held in Turkey on Sunday, 30 March 2014. EPA/SEDAT SUNA
- Olivia Walton