Thanks for tear-gassing me, Tayyip (Notes from Turkey: Istanbul, Antakya and Ankara)

Caught in a protest

I am in Turkey at an interesting time. Last year I spent the summer here examining the government’s response to the Syria crisis, noting in a report that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s confrontation with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is widely unpopular and could prompt serious opposition. While this summer’s anti-Erdogan demonstrations centred on Istanbul’s Taksim Square (and the brutality of the government’s crackdown) certainly surprised me, in essence they were rooted in the same tensions I had noted. The demonstrators’ central complaint was Erdogan’s arrogance as a leader, and his willingness to openly defy public opinion. This ranges from unpopular foreign policy, as in Syria, to sensitive domestic issues like recently imposed strict alcohol laws or the proposed demolition of Gezi Park in Taksim that prompted the unrest. Visiting Istanbul last month, it was clear from the activists and intellectuals I spoke to that protests were on hold rather than over. As it happens, they re-erupted two blocks from where I was staying in Antakya last week.

'Tayyip's Army' (Photo from the Guardian - http://bit.ly/18jPLqO)

‘Tayyip’s Army’ (Photo from the Guardian – http://bit.ly/18jPLqO)

Earlier in the summer, almost every city saw widespread and prolonged solidarity protests with Gezi Park. All but four of Turkey’s 81 provinces reportedly saw unrest, and most were met with a similar police response.  It has left its mark on the growing street-level opposition movement and one spark seems able to set off another round of nation-wide protest. That was provided on Monday night, when a 22-year-old, Ahmet Ataka, was killed by police in Antakya, himself protesting in solidarity with activists at MET University in Ankara. The cause of his death was a matter of debate: activists said he was hit by a tear-gas canister, while the police released videos showing a body falling from a high building, claiming he fell. Unaware of what had happened, I myself passed his improvised shrine on Tuesday morning and the angry crowd that had already gathered.

By the early evening, on my way back home, the police were blocking my path. Local youth had created improvised barricades, set fires on the road and a vast police presence had moved in to cordon off the area. Unlike most Antakyans, none of the police spoke Arabic: they were outsiders specifically brought in for this task. The officer gestured to me to turn back, suggesting that the rioters were shooting. However, all I heard were the repeated thuds of tear gas canisters being let off. Not knowing the city well and with my only route home blocked, I weaved my way through the side streets trying to get round the cordon. At points the air was thick with teargas, dense despite being quite far from the demonstrators. Police had gas masks to protect themselves but I had to wade through, spluttering and wincing. It wasn’t pleasant. Friends later told me that this has become common for most urban Turks this summer. The police’s tactic seems to be to fire vast quantities at protestors, irrespective of its disbursement. Later that same night an international under 21s football match between Turkey and Sweden had to be halted because tear gas had spread from nearby protests in Istiqlal Cadessi (off Taksim) and was incapacitating the players. Erdogan’s Police force, it seems, is as unconcerned by the general public as their Prime Minister.

Tayyip’s Army

Protestors have labeled the police ‘Tayyip’s Army’, militarized and well equipped with armoured cars, riot gear and a seemingly never-ending supply of teargas. But the label comes as much from the police’s perceived ideology, as it does from their appearance. Opponents claim that the majority of the police belongs to the Islamist Gulen movement, from which Erdogan’s AK Party draws much of its support. One activist claimed that at least 70% of policemen were Gulenists, and all the commanders. A commentator I spoke to argued these links were the product of a long-term trend begun in the 1980s when the socially conservative Motherland Party (many of whose members eventually joined the AKP) controlled the Ministry of Interior. At this time affiliation to Gulenism within the police was permitted and even encouraged. As such, today the police is dominated by those ideologically supportive of Erdogan’s Islamist policies that most demonstrators are protesting against. To the secularist opponent of Erdogan, the police are the Prime Minister’s foot soldiers to quash any dissent to his Islamic and conservative agenda.

Istanbul's Gezi Park - where it all started...

Istanbul’s Gezi Park – where it all started…

Ahmed Ataka was the sixth protestor to be killed by the police since the Gezi Park demonstrations began in June. Deaths are sadly not surprising given the uncompromising police approach. Erdogan insisted he would not back down or offer any compromise, calling the protestors ‘çapulcu’ or ‘bums’. (The opposition embraced this label and all over Istanbul I saw T-Shirts on sale stating ‘Everyday I’m çapulling’.) Whilst I was shocked by the level of police violence I saw in Hatay – with television showing some vomiting from too much teargas inhalation – an Ankara academic noted that this was fairly standard by Turkish standards over the last 15 or so years. What was different, he stated, was the nature of protestors. Turkish Kurds, for example, have long experienced this level of police brutality, without the same national or international outrage. What makes these protestors different, the academic stated, is their demography: middle class educated secular Turks.

The (slight) ethnic dimension

In Hatay there is a further ethnic dimension to the protests. The unrest was centred on areas dominated by Hatay’s Alawite community (known here as Nusayris, an ancient offshoot of Shia Islam). As a community the Nusayris are largely secular, and natural opponents to Erdogan’s Islamist agenda, but their opposition is deeper than that. They are not happy with the government’s policy towards neighbouring Syria. They sympathize with Bashar al-Assad, a fellow Alawi, to the point that some protestors were filmed chanting the pro-Assad slogan: ‘Syria, Allah, Bashar wa bas!’ (Syria, God, Bashar and nothing else!)[1]. Yet aside from any ethnic solidarity, they share the fears of many of Turkey’s secularists that Bashar’s fall will mean a victory for Sunni Islamists, possibly leading to increased Islamism in Turkey. Many Nusayris complain that Erdogan is exacerbating sectarianism in Turkey. They accuse him of echoing the Gulf’s anti-Shiism regarding the Syria conflict – as one commentator put it, “he is cynically pressing on all our faultlines.” Similarly, they oppose recent AKP plans to divide Hatay into two political provinces, one for Sunnis and one for Nusayris. Antakya has a history of tolerance, with Sunnis, Nusayris and Christians living side by side, and most residents oppose any divisions. Some of the more religious Sunnis in Hatay’s villages are reportedly more sympathetic to the AKP’s policies but the Antakyans I spoke to insist that in the city there is no appetite for sectarian divisions.

The view from Antakya - Syria just around the corner (on the left)

The view from Antakya – Syria just around the corner (on the left)

However, it would be wrong to characterize the protests as purely sectarian. The Nusayri may be at the vanguard of the anti-Erdogan movement in Hatay, but nationwide they are a diverse bunch. Throughout the day numerous Turkish cities saw anti-AKP demonstrations in solidarity with Ahmet Ataka, and the evening saw protests in Izmir and Istanbul, with the Police, inevitably, moving in hard. While Turkey’s non-Sunni minorities, particularly the Nusayris and Alevis (a similar Turkish-speaking Shia offshoot), may be more proportionally represented as they are most threatened by the Erdogan’s sectarianism, the majority are Sunnis, whether secularists or just democrats. Indeed, one person I spoke to who had been in Taksim in June expressed her pleasant surprise that veiled women stood alongside them, demanding an end to Erdogan’s autocratic practices.

Trouble ahead

It was clear from my trip that this movement is not going away, and Erdogan’s heavy-handed approach has only boosted its numbers. As seen by the Ahmet Ataka demonstrations I was caught up in, the anti-Erdogan movement is coordinated across multiple cities, meaning a single incident can spread like wildfire within hours. In 2011, as the Arab Spring began, Erdogan was hailed in both the West and the Middle East as a model for the newly democratizing Arab world to emulate. He was an Islamist committed to pluralism and democracy. His harsh crackdown on dissent in 2013 has exposed this lie. In reality, Erdogan had been edging away from democratic practices for several years. Though he successfully neutered the military, which interfered in Turkish politics for decades, he hasn’t accepted alternative forms of public scrutiny, arresting journalists at a dramatic rate. Indeed most of the Turkish press refused to report the Taksim protests. As one journalists said to me, “there was pressure from the editors and the pro-AKP owners to stay quiet. Noone wanted to lose their job.” Erdogan may compete in fair elections, but he seems to believe that electoral victories give him a mandate to do as he wishes until the next election, regardless of public opinion. Indeed, this is a major structural weakness of Turkey’s political system, which has an appointed president and no second chamber to scrutinize the premier.

Opposition mural, Harbiye, Hatay

Opposition mural, Harbiye, Hatay

However, though Erdogan’s reformist image at home and abroad may be shattered, he is far from finished. While the middle class secularists may be getting organized on the streets, the political opposition, the CHP, is still weak. Some are hoping that municipal elections in March will give Erdogan a bloody nose, focusing on an unlikely defeat for the AKP in the Istanbul mayoral elections. However, with Erdogan boasting a huge majority in parliament, supported by Turkey’s conservative religious hinterland, it is unlikely it will lose power any time soon. The Taksim demonstrations may derail Erdogan’s plans to ‘do a Putin’ by changing Turkey’s constitution to make himself a more powerful president, but if that happens, most expect him to remain as prime minster by altering his own party’s constitution which currently forbids this.

Yet Erdogan cannot rest on his laurels. The protests have rattled Turkey, and some wonder if the most likely challenge might come from within the AKP itself. Alongside Erdogan’s conservative base, the support of Turkey’s business community has been key to his success. Many are concerned by the damage to Turkey’s image that the constant cycle of protest and repression brings. Already it has damaged the tourism industry (occupancy rates in Istanbul hotels were very low this summer) and, more importantly, seems to have played a role in Istanbul losing its bid to host the 2020 Olympic games. If protests weaken the economy, key business leaders may begin to view the arrogant premier as more of a liability than an asset and urge the AKP to ditch their captain, with current President Abdullah Gul best positioned to swoop in. The role of the powerful Gulenist movement would also be key were any such internal coup to take place. In the long term these protests may serve as Turkey’s 1968, from which eventually civil society activists and a new generation of pluralist politicians emerges. In the short term, however, Turkey can expect the battle between the street protestors and their steadfast prime minister to continue.


[1] Ulusal TV broadcast, 2115-20, 10/9/13

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