Sunday, 16 June 2013

The New Turkey Vs. The Very Old Turkey

ISTANBUL – I passed through a peaceful Gezi Park late yesterday morning amid scenes more reminiscent of Woodstock than violent political struggle. People were crawling out their tents, getting something to eat at the food stands, and playing with young children. Less than 10 hours later the entire area was turned into a battle ground. Police brought in from all over Turkey moved in with tear gas, plastic bullets and water cannons to disperse the crowds occupying the park.

Gezi Park Before The Police Onslaught
The violence quickly escalated and spread to nearby neighbourhoods. The streets by the restaurant where we were dining with friends filled with angry crowds as clouds of tear gas obliterated the night sky. Some protesters sought refuge in luxury hotels where several doctors were treating the injured. This did not stop the police who simply fired tear gas into the hotels.

 The cab driver who took us back to our hotel spent most of the trip leaning out the window shouting encouragement for the protestors and blowing his horn. Every time he saw a police barricade ahead he would do an immediate high speed U-turn speed and take off down some narrow, winding side street. When he wasn’t shouting out the window or cursing the police he would look at us  proudly, smile broadly, and  say he was “Number 1 Crazy Cab Driver.” He got no disagreement from us. We passed thousands of people lining the streets or standing on their balconies banging pots and pans in support of the protestors. When we eventually got back to the hotel the staff was calmly passing out gas masks as if they were just another amenity offered by a high quality hotel.

Police Move To Clear The Park
This night of unprovoked violence on the part of the police was the culmination of about three weeks of protests about the fate of a small park in the middle of Istanbul – a park that happens to be one of the last remaining green spaces in this concrete city. Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan had announced plans to rip up the park to recreate an Ottoman-era army barracks complete with offices and a shopping centre. What started as a small protest to protect the park quickly expanded into a much larger protests against what is seen as Erdoğan’s arbitrary, autocratic governing style that seeks to divide the country.

The prime minister was, as usual, furious that anyone would question his rule and challenge his version of  what is right for Turkey. He called the protestors ‘looters’ and ‘terrorists’ who should go home immediately. The protestors responded with something new in Turkey – humour. They met the prime minister’s outbursts with laughter and began to make fun of him. They made the prime minister look like a fool. And if there is one thing that Tayyip Erdoğan cannot stand it is being laughed at

As the laughter continued his language got more incendiary. None of the protestors was paying any attention to him. To him, this was intolerable. Finally his patience ran out and he brought in thousands of police to ‘deal’ with the protestors. In order to reinforce his claim that the protesters were ‘marginal’ groups the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has organized a massive rally on the outskirts of Istanbul in an attempt to show the world that Turkey’s ‘silent majority’ completely supports the prime minister. These demonstrations have all the spontaneity of a Stalinist rally in Moscow’s Red Square. They merely give the prime minister a chance to hammer – and he does ‘hammer’ – home his basic ‘us-against-them’ message. No reconciliation, no calls for unity. Just more class division and wild accusations that the Taksim protesters want to de-rail Turkey’s progress.

He could not be more wrong. He has completely, perhaps wilfully, misread the protesters, and is fighting the last war. His chief enemies have always been the secular followers of Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the modern Turkish Republic. He thinks anyone who opposes him wants to impose the rigid military-dominated Kemalist regime. Wrong, Tayyip bey.

First, most of these protesters were not even born during the worst of the military­-dominated governments of Turkey. Second, if he would merely listen, he would learn that they are against any form of authoritarianism, military or civilian. This is a brand new form a protest in Turkey. They want a new system that does not set one part of society against another or spark the clashes that ripped Turkey apart in the 1970s. The prime minister does not get this. He simply does not want to understand that the rapidly growing, more wealthy, more worldly, better educated middle class in Turkey wants a new type of governance in this country.

Erdoğan has the brute power to win this particular short-term battle. The police and his loyal supporters can enforce a type of peace. But he fails to realize he has lost the war.  The protesters are not going anywhere and their numbers will grow. They represent the New Turkey whereas Erdogan  represents the Very Old Turkey. The real question is whether anyone in the AKP realizes this and has the courage to challenge the prime minister before he increases the chaos in Turkey.

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