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Let Us Dot the ‘i’ and Cross the ‘t’: Insurgence and the End of ‘Tough Love’ Politics in Turkey

[See article for image description. Photo via] [See article for image description. Photo via]

I think it was on the second day of the protests that I saw the photograph: a Gezi Park protester standing in front of a yellow warning sign. The municipality sign warns drivers to use alternative routes because of the construction work in Taksim Square. The activist is drawing a line through the letter “l” in the Turkish word çalışma (work) on the sign, which makes itçatışma (clash).

This frame poetically captures Turkey’s unfolding contentious episode. During the construction work in Gezi Park, which is connected to one of Istanbul’s most expensive urban projects, a small group of activists moved in to prevent the bulldozing of the park’s trees. Police and construction company security personnel intervened violently, and there you have the beginning of an uprising.

As I type out these words, it is the tenth day of the anti-government protests in Turkey. Beginning at that rather inconspicuous and under-visited park, protests have gone viral and spread to more than twenty provinces. For now, activists occupy the park and most of Taksim Square. Despite relentless police brutality aiming to subdue the blessedly unruly crowds, thousands of citizens remain in the streets. Activist youth have already come up with a whole new series of tear gas-related jokes.

[Activist changing the sign that indicates to drivers that there is construction being done around Taksim Square and
alternative routes set up. The activist is drawing a line through the letter “l” in the Turkish word çalışma (work)  
which makes it çatışma (clash). Image by anonymous photographer via

Kurds: “Welcome to the Club, But …”

Our Kurdish comrades were musing, “Welcome to the club.” While the Kurdish movement has years of bitter experience with the violence of riot police, water cannons, and tear gas, many Turks on the streets were only recently exposed to these technologies of power for the first time in their lives.

The parliamentary representatives of the Kurdish movement are cautious about the insurgency. On the one hand, there is merit in their caution. There are many anti-Kurdish protesters who resent the government because of the recent peace process, in which Kurdish guerrillas have agreed to end their paramilitary operations and leave Turkey after the AKP’s bold move to negotiate with the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) through its imprisoned leader, Abdullah Öcalan. On the other hand, many younger Kurds disagree with the reluctance of the rank-and-file of the movement to endorse the recent protests. These anti-government dissenters understand why their representatives are being careful not to alienate the AKP in the middle of the peace process, but are nevertheless uncomfortable with the game of realpolitik their leadership feels obliged to play.

Police Brutality

Abdullah Cömert, a young activist in Hatay,, was killed when shot by a tear gas canister in the head. Another young worker from Ankara, Ethem Sarısülük, is in a coma after a riot police officer shot a bullet which ricocheted and hit Sarısülük in the head. There were protesters who lost their eyes to tear gas or to canisters shot in their faces. In general, riot police deliberately targeted individuals by means of gas grenade launchers. Whatever the political prospects of Turkey’s “Occupy moment” will be, the Ministry of the Interior has a lot to answer for.

There is now an opportunity (though gained at a steep price) to politicize the management and training of the Turkish riot police (officially called the Agile Force), and hold the government accountable for the crimes committed by officers all around Turkey. Operated within the rubric of the General Directorate of Security of Turkish National Police (TNP), the Agile Force is at the bottom of the TNP hierarchy. Its young officers, primarily drawn from poorer households, go through an impoverished training program, which teaches them to be unforgiving against the “enemies of the state” (nowadays, principally identified as Kurds, transsexuals, leftist students, and workers). They are used as a blunt instrument in crowd control. After a few assignments, their nationalist-religious convictions become as solid as steel. The force has almost no PR face. We never see their high ranking officers explaining themselves to the media. The force’s personnel socialize almost exclusively with their peers. Even after years of repressing the Kurdish struggle, the policing operations of the TNP are yet to come under serious official scrutiny.

May 2013: An Ordinary Month in the Erdoğan Republic

Studies of social movements teach us that contentious events may be spontaneous and unpredictable. However, to be emergent, they depend on the structures preceding them, even if such events may subsequently end up rupturing and transforming those very structures. I would argue that the Occupy Gezi episode already created a rupture, despite the ongoing efforts of the main opposition parties (i.e., the Republican Peoples Party and a few other extra-party groups representing the anti-Islamist, Kemalist “left,” and the clerical-fascist Nationalist Action Party). At the moment, the rupture is hovering over the political field. It can be swiftly mended by state repression and the manufacturing of consent, or it can be expanded through new forms of action and networking.

The Justice and Development Party (AKP) is used to responding to criticism of its neoliberal-repressive policies with majoritarian arguments, limiting the definition of democracy to “fair elections.” This populist style of justifying neoliberal “tough love” politics uses the “fifty-one percent argument.” Prime Minister Erdoğan and his ministers frequently bring up the AKP’s electoral support to dismiss criticism of a policy for its authoritarianism. Alcohol policy needs to be tough because “the people wish it so,” and they express this through giving the AKP the majority of their votes. The argument about electoral support is meant to claim that since the AKP truly represents the national will, its policies cannot be anti-democratic. Recent protests exposed the fallacy of this argument. Many citizens—who were already outraged by the AKP’s authoritarianism, whether they participated in the protests or not—now observe that there is space for extra-parliamentary and anti-majoritarian politics in Turkey. This lesson has already been learned by many Kurds, who were socialized into claim-making through armed struggle, street politics, or other forms of socio-political mobilization. Occupy Gezi may well be an opportunity for the rest of the citizens to learn a similar lesson.

But what led to this rupture? Let us recall some events, just from this May.

During the days leading to the 1 May demonstrations, the government alienated a large segment of the workers by forbidding them entrance into Taksim Square. The officials stated that the ongoing construction work posed a hazard for the crowds. The claim was mostly a non sequitur, as there was enough space for thousands of people, and, a few days after 1 May other groups were allowed to hold events there. On 1 May and the following days, the riot police attacked various groups protesting the restrictions.

Beginning from 6 May, wage negotiations between the principal metal workers union (Türk Metal) and the metal employers union (MESS) were undermined by the resistance of the employers against wage increases. The union prepared to strike, and only recently had their demands accepted by MESS. This issue coincided with the Turkish Airlines workers’ strike, beginning 15 May, whose union (Hava-İş) publicized the inhumane and unsecure working conditions within the industry and criticized the indifference of the employers. Turkish Airlines is a “success story” in the eyes of AKP’s conservative bosses. The company’s neoliberal management strategies provide a good case for analyzing how capitalists in “emerging economies” like Turkey, weak on the heavy industries or the ICT R&D front, move to restructure their strengths in the services sector. More flights equaled increased exploitation and higher profits. The AKP quickly moved in control the damage; simultaneously dismissing the claims of the airline workers, while trying to force the union to negotiate. Turkish Airlines sued the union, claiming the strike was illegal, and the first hearing was held on 30 May as Occupy Gezi was gaining momentum. On 2 June, members of the Unified Forces of Unions Platform and the Confederation of Revolutionary Workers Unions of Turkey visited the strikers, communicating solidarity messages from the workers in Taksim Square. On 4 June, workers on strike gathered in front of company headquarters for a performative briefing on the strike while wearing Guy Fawkes masks, which have also become a token symbol of Occupy Gezi. The strike continues as of 8 June. With Turkey’s progressive unions seemingly on board with Occupy Gezi, the bridge between airline workers’ demands and the demands of Occupy Gezi protesters is likely to be reinforced.

Since mid-May, a new front was opened in the AKP’s cultural warfare of polarization: new restrictions on alcohol consumption. Despite well-documented evidence about low levels of consumption, and of alcohol-related health problems—especially in comparison with a good number of European Union countries where alcoholism is recognized as a public health issue—the AKP insisted on an unfairly restrictive policy. The aggressive discourse of Erdoğan and his cronies about alcohol consumption, very different than the secular frameworks of European Union policies (often brought up by Turkish officials to justify their national measures), is predominantly religious. Drawn into a new phase of the secular-religious culture war, many social drinkers were angered at being explicitly labeled “alcoholics” by Erdoğan.

The worst tragedy of the previous month was the violent bombings in the small Reyhanlı district of Hatay (a province bordering Syria), which left fifty dead and many wounded. The authorities quickly made arrests and claimed to have found evidence that the attacks were planned and executed by groups coordinated by the regime of Bashar al-Asad. Some opposition groups claimed that jihadist paramilitary groups were the culprits. Irrespective of the true identities of the perpetrators of this massacre, citizens all around Turkey (including some AKP voters) were angry at the government’s open support of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), which—they believed—prepared the conditions that made this attack possible. While it is certain that the rage about the Reyhanlı bombings contributed to the recent protests, we should be aware that this rage is also fueling widespread racism against the tens of thousands of Syrian refugees. If the momentum of the protests is to be sustained, we need to address both the implications of this racism and the horrible living conditions imposed upon the Syrian refugee population.

Also in May, the new peace process with the Kurdish guerrillas continued to unfold, further contributing to the discriminatory rage of many members and supporters of the Republican People’s Party (CHP) and Nationalist Action Party (MHP). This side of anti-AKP dissent, as I have already hinted at above, irritates many Kurdish activists on the streets and presents another challenge for the post-Occupy Gezi coalition-building process against the AKP’s majoritarian authoritarianism.

Three further developments might be recalled to help explain the sustained dissent in the streets of Istanbul. On 20 May, the contract for the construction of a third airport in Istanbul was officially signed. Many environmentalist groups have long criticized the adverse ecological impact of the planned construction. Also on 20 May, a grandiose ceremony was held to mark the beginning of the ten-year construction process of the third Bosphorus bridge. The name chosen for the bridge (“Yavuz Sultan Selim”) outraged Turkey’s Alevi communities, since the Ottoman ruler is reviled in Alevi lore for his alleged massacres of thousands of Anatolian Alevis during the conflict with the Safavid state at the beginning of the sixteenth century. Meanwhile, non-Alevi critics of the new bridge are either (once again) drawing attention to the potential ecological damage to Istanbul, or are critical of the AKP’s construction industry-oriented developmentalism (which is tinged with a monarchist discourse of Ottoman revivalism). Finally, on the same day, we also read about how the Istanbul Greater Municipality sold the Kadıköy Ferry Port in Beşiktaş to the management of the new Shangri-La Hotel—adding further fuel to the fire.

[As the most powerful men (and some women) of Turkish politics open their hands in prayer, the poster boasts of the
"New Pearl of the Bosphorus,” in reference to the third Bosphorus bridge that is to be built. Image by Anatolian Agency]

And this was only May 2013.

Who Is the Real Looter?

There is a famous DAM song from a few years back, rhetorically posing the question “Min Irhabi?” (Who is the Terrorist?) to the Israeli occupation regime. When Our Dear and Magnanimous Leader Erdoğan called the protesters “a minority of looters,” I thought about a similar question, which might be relevant for two reasons. (But first, look up “chapulling” in Wikipedia, and, while you are at it, listen to the “Looters Symphony” recorded at the Gezi Park.)

First, the government openly threatened the protesters with mobilizing bigger crowds. It is a historically effective bourgeois strategy. Against the anti-establishment riff-raff, unleash the Bonapartist lazzaroni. Members of the AKP’s youth organization were even observed working hand-in-hand (often, club-in-hand) with the riot police during the clashes. With its monopoly over violence, and its trigger-happy exercise of that violence, to me the Turkish state looks more and more like the fiercer gang of brigands.

Second, the park being defended against the urban renewal project was already stolen from Istanbul’s Armenians. There are few people, mostly Armenian activists, who bring this issue up. The area was confiscated from Istanbul’s diminished, post-genocide Armenian community back in the 1930s. Today’s Gezi Park, as Tamar Nalcı and Emre Can Dağlıoğlu wrote in the Istanbul weekly Agos, was part of the Surp Agop Cemetery, run by the Armenian community for at least three hundred and fifty years. It was even rumored that a genocide memorial was raised in the cemetery in 1919. In the 1930s, Istanbul’s local government stole the estate through legal manoeuvring. By 1942, the cemetery was gone. As far as I could observe, the park’s grim history was not made integral to the politics of resistance in Taksim Square.

Austerity Blues, More than Arab Spring

As he rages against vandalism and conspiracies, reminding us of the magical economic performance of Turkey under his rule, Our Exalted and Glorious Leader Erdoğan sure sounds just like Tunisia’s fallen dictator Ben Ali in December 2010. With Turkey’s Muslim-majority population, it is tempting to bring up comparisons with the recent transformations in the Middle East. Yet we have to zoom out and look for political-economic connections with the situation in the European Union and in Russia. From Iceland to Cyprus, we have seen increasing contentious action—from unions, students, unorganized workers, immigrants, and other dispossessed groups—against governments trying to balance their budgets by favoring the rich over the poor. There are government-as-ruling-class-coalitions in countries like Russia, Hungary, and Poland that are comparable to Turkey’s AKP in terms of their efficiency in reinforcing free market policies with religious-autocratic social and punitive policies. Turkey’s citizens are not blind to the increasing gap between the rich and the poor. With emergent groups like Anti-Capitalist Muslims, however marginal they may be, we are beginning to see the unraveling of the AKP’s strategy of covering up class conflict with both the discourse of Islamist universalism and egalitarianism, as well as secular-religious culture wars.

In comparison to European economies, Turkey’s “success story” of economic growth is frequently brought up. There is trouble in the paradise, though. I will just recall three pointers on the political-economic trajectory of Turkey, which might shed some more light on the Occupy Gezi rupture:

  1. The 2011 Turkish Family Structure Survey by the Ministry of Family and Social Policies tells us that seventy-eight percent of the country’s households live on less than a monthly income of 1200 Turkish liras (approximately 640 USD, which is slightly more than the minimum wage level). There is another chunk of 18.5 percent at the 1201-2500 TL monthly income category. Only a 3.4 percent aggregate group of households earn more than 2500 TL (around 1330 USD) each month.
  2. According to data published (as of November 2012) by Turkey’s Banking Regulation and Supervision Agency, there are about fifty-four million bank accounts (including individual, corporate, and other types), with deposits totaling 718 billion TL (380 billion USD) in all Turkish banks. In 90.5 percent of these accounts, only up to 10.000 TL (around 5300 USD) are deposited, and all those accounts make up only 4.7 percent of total deposits. Alternatively, 71.5 percent of total deposits are held in one percent of all bank accounts.
  3. A brief April 2013 analysis of the Turkish economy shows that up until last year, the government managed to finance a consumer bubble with a “huge trade deficit” that ran on short-term interbank loans. The International Monetary Fund (IMP) is predicting that the deficit will be 7.3 percent of GDP by the end of 2013. Since 2010, Turkey borrowed eighty billion USD in short-term money, allegedly coming largely from Gulf Cooperation Council capital. However, since the beginning of 2011, real consumer spending after inflation has been in decline. According to the Turkish Statistical Institute reports, clothing, furniture, household appliances, and communication spending of Turkish consumers was in real decline in 2012, while education and health spending increased. Meanwhile, credit card debt is rising at an annual rate of twenty seven percent.

Prophecies of economic doom or boom are for media pundits and think-tank strategists. I am just a blogger, and will not speculate on whether the insurgence could lead to a crisis. Nevertheless, many citizens (including, according to citizen journalism sources during the protests, some AKP voters) hold class-related grudges against the government. The fruits of years of economic growth (which ceased in 2012) were very unequally distributed, and many citizens can see through the talk of growth.  

After the Rupture

We may or may not build on what we are learning from the protests. But we are learning for sure. Turkey’s Generation Y is out in the streets in such huge numbers for the first time. (Graffiti from Istanbul reads, “You have wronged the generation that beats cops in Grand Theft Auto!”) These adolescents are mostly unaffiliated, do not care much about party politics, Kemalism, or religion, and despise the current gang of old men ruling the country.

There are other lessons as well. Some of the CHP supporters in the streets show signs of reconciliation with both Kurdish and religious protesters. Some unions joined the protests, and more workers may lend support to sustain the movement in the medium term, in the event that strategies to seriously hurt capital accumulation in the country are developed. I do not remember the last time thousands of angry citizens protested “lamestream” media outlets for their failure to cover protests. There is an absurdly beautiful commune up and alive in Taksim Square. Every hour it is there is a victory against the regime’s arrogant “tough love” politics.

Some contentious events create ruptures and weaken structures. Occupy Gezi, I think, is an example of such an event. The protests, for now, appear to have the potential to contribute to democratic change in Turkey at three levels. First, Occupy Gezi strongly problematizes the government’s majoritarian politics. Secondly, the protests internationally exposed the bankruptcy of the badly marketed “Turkish model for Arab democracies.” Thirdly, new linkages (not fully explored at the moment) between the networks of secular-Turkish dissenters (of socialist, anarchist, Kemalist, and other leanings), religious-Turkish dissenters, and Kurdish activists are being created. Whether we can continue acting on these potentials, whether we can put what we learned so far to better use, is all up to us.

The Second Witch from Macbeth blows a whisper forth the narrow rift we opened:

"By the pricking of my thumbs, / Something wicked this way comes."

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