“My dear prime minister, I was an apolitical man; then how come I took to the streets? Not for two trees. I rebelled after seeing how, early at dawn, you have attacked those youngsters who were silently protesting in their tents. I took to the streets because I do not wish my son to go through the same things and I would like him to live in a democratic country,” wrote one of the protesters in Istanbul’s historic Taksim Square.
This poignant letter, addressing Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was widely circulated on Turkey’s social media.
That the owner of these words, Cem Batu, is the creative director of an advertising agency, and he and his team of well-educated, modern, young Istanbulites have been subjected to tear gas and injury during the protests says a lot about the ordeal of these last days.
It all started as a peaceful sit-in to save one of the last remaining public parks in a city of almost 14 million people.
The government has been adamant about razing the park to rebuild the old Ottoman military barracks that once stood there and to then turn it into a museum or a mall. It was a decision that was made too fast and without proper public and media debate.
Many people, who would opt for a public garden over a shopping mall, felt their voices were not heard by the politicians. Of these, some have ended up occupying Gezi Park. At the same time, the hashtag occupygezi was launched, calling out for support and solidarity.
As Koray Caliskan, a political scientist from the Bosphorus University, wrote in the daily Radikal newspaper, these early protesters came from diverse ideological backgrounds, and among them were even people who had voted in the past for the party in power, the Justice and Development party (AKP).
The harshness of the police treatment of those who occupied Gezi Park changed everything. The protesters’ tents were raided and set on fire. A university student underwent surgery after receiving blows to his genitals. Sirri Sureyya Onder, an MP from the Kurdish Peace and Democracy party (BDP), was hospitalized after being reportedly hit by a tear gas cartridge, and many others received head and body injuries.
Images of armed officers using pressurized water, pepper spray and tear gas against unarmed youngsters sparked a widespread reaction, creating an unprecedented backlash against the government and unleashing old resentments.
Protests flared up in 60 cities, including the capital, Ankara. Rapidly, the Taksim demonstrations snowballed into something beyond Istanbul, and bigger than the protection of a public park.
Three structural problems have contributed to the escalation of the tension. First, Turkey lacks a solid, sophisticated opposition party. This remains a fundamental deficiency, as people do not have alternative political venues to channel their views and frustrations. That which cannot be expressed accumulates and seethes inside, only to erupt where and when it can.
Second, while the main opposition party, the Republican People’s party (CHP), has been visibly melting, the government has been gaining too much power and authority. Lack of meritocracy and transparency diminishes people’s trust in the political regime. Recent policies, such as the restriction of alcohol sales and an announcement on the subway in Ankara warning passengers against kissing in public, have triggered fears that the government is interfering in its citizens’ lifestyles and trying to shape society top-down.
Third, even though Erdogan’s government has been effective in terms of restricting the role of the army to purely military matters, and in this sense contributing to the progress of democracy, it has been insufficient in protecting freedom of speech and press. Writers and artists are still brought to trial because of their comments and are being accused of insulting the nation or religious values. The media has been losing its diversity and numerous critical voices have been pushed to the margins, while self-censorship is not unusual.
Another source of contention has been the name of a new bridge to be built in Istanbul. The government has chosen to name the third Bosphorus bridge after Yavuz Sultan Selim, the Ottoman sultan, nicknamed Selim the Grim, famous for his massacres of the Alevi minority as part of his war against Shiite Iran in the early 16th century. This choice has deepened the dissatisfaction of the Alevi minority, who already suspect they are being systematically discriminated against. It has also created disappointment among democrats and liberals, who would rather have a neutral name for the new bridge.
Mario Levi, the Jewish-Turkish novelist, tweeted: “Why not Rumi Bridge or Yunus Emre Bridge?”
Both Yunus Emre and Rumi are well-respected historical figures and mystics famous for their humanitarian and peaceful outlook. Other people made different suggestions. Yet the name of the bridge, like other things, was chosen without much debate, widening the gap between the rulers and the ruled.
Erdogan is a successful politician, but compromise is not what he does best. The AKP has been better at winning the hearts of the Turkish people than any other party in Turkey’s political history. However, there have been shifts in the party’s discourse that have left many liberal intellectuals, who initially supported the progressive steps taken by the government, feeling deceived and abandoned.
After the general election in June 2011, Erdogan gave a beautiful speech, saying he would be the prime minister of those who had voted for and against him, equally. That speech is embedded in the collective memory as “the balcony speech.”
Today, from their own balconies, people are banging pots and pans to protest against him. Among them are those who had applauded the balcony speech for being so embracing.
The prevailing mood among Turkey’s discontents is that Erdogan now cares for primarily, if not solely, those who voted for him.
The rest of society — 50 percent of the population — feel alienated, distanced and, at times, belittled. Turkey’s politics remains polarized, contentious and stubbornly male-dominated. The sad fact that women are under-represented in both local and national politics does not help. Furthermore, even though nobody talks about this, people are emotional beings. Politics is too often shaped by emotions and reactions, rather than rational choices.
Save for a few newspapers, the mainstream media has been astonishingly reluctant to cover the protests. NTV, one of the most respected TV channels, was booed after failing to cover the events. Interestingly, NTV aired live broadcasts of the protests against itself.
In the absence of good and fair coverage, social media thrived. Research by New York University revealed that in just eight hours, 2 million tweets were shared about Gezi Park. The number of Internet users in Turkey exceeds 35 million, and Facebook and Twitter are incredibly popular. Nevertheless, social media is open to misinformation, rumors, hate speech and conspiracy theories.
In a society where few people trust either the politicians or the media, this can be dangerous. Yet Twitter has proven itself to be the main platform in sharing ideas, images and uncensored information.
“Thank Allah for twitter” was one of the messages. The same tweeter was described as a “menace” by Erdogan on a live TV interview on Sunday.
A month ago, the mood was utterly different. With the much-awaited Turkish-Kurdish peace under way, there was optimism everywhere. Erdogan was seen as a determined leader who had finally brought to an end a conflict that had killed more than 40,000 people over the past 30 years. There was a lot of talk about Turkey, with its overwhelmingly Muslim population and secular democracy, being a role model for the rest of the Muslim world. That optimism deteriorated dramatically.
However, it can be revived once again if the government learns from its mistakes.
Calling the recent events a “Turkish spring” or a “Turkish summer,” as some commentators were quick to do, is not the right approach. It is true that Turkey has lots of things in common with many countries in the Middle East, but it is also very different.
With its long tradition of modernity, pluralism, secularism and democracy — however flawed and immature it might be — Turkey has the inner mechanisms to balance its own excesses of power. However, if this cannot be achieved, there is concern that the demonstrations could be hijacked by extremist groups and turn violent.
The same concern has been voiced by Turkish President Abdullah Gul, who gave a constructive statement saying the people had given the politicians a clear message, and the politicians should take these well-intentioned messages into account.
Now, after days of upheaval, it is raining gently on the burning tires and graffiti, and the voice of the young father who wrote the open letter to the prime minister represents the feelings of many people on the streets and in their houses: “You called us ‘unlawful,’ my dear prime minister. If you only got to know us, you would see that we are anything but.”