[This article is part of a reflection on the "Afterlives of Gezi." Read the other contributions to the roundtable here.]
The eighth anniversary of the Gezi Park Protests is an occasion to reflect on its legacy and on developments since within Turkey, but also regionally on the fortunes of the movements for freedom and social justice amidst which it had flourished. Indeed, this year marked a decade since the first wave of Arab uprisings, which shook the region from Tunisia to Yemen. The three thought-provoking contributions to this roundtable provide us with ample opportunity for such reflection. They combine painful personal experience with illuminating analytical frameworks and address complementary facets of the current situation in Turkey. Selin Bengi Gümrükcü examines and historicises the qualitatively different nature of state repression during the Gezi events; Evren Altınkaş tackles the constrictions placed on the academic freedom of university staff and students in the period since; while Sümercan Bozkurt-Güngen shifts the focus to opposition actors and their debates around how to account for the AKP’s authoritarianism, and the implications for their own future direction.
These dramatic changes in Turkish state-society relations and official discourse have been considered tantamount to an “exit from democracy” unprecedented in the republic’s history. Shifting our gaze to a regional comparison offers further perspective, demystifying the seemingly overwhelming power of the state in these dynamics, while revealing what is indeed distinct about the Turkish context. Egypt provides a telling comparative case, as its ostensibly stark contrasts give way to striking similarities on closer reflection, and this at a time when a fierce diplomatic feud—indeed, one that originated precisely in the events of summer 2013—is being gradually defused. In my response, I will discuss the mirror image strategies of Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and of his Egyptian counterpart Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi, relate these to the challenges posed by “Tahrir/Taksim,” and consider briefly the difficult questions that confront their opponents, in their efforts to re-enter the political scene.
On the face of it, Erdoğan and al-Sisi are polar opposites—the Islamist president who subdued the Turkish army, and the military general who broke Egypt’s largest Islamist movement. Their fears and ambitions also appear in perfect contrast: the one politically formed during years of hostility from nationalist and military quarters, who constructed a coup-proof party of “conservative democrats”; the other rising in an army reshaped by billions in annual US aid and determined to keep its affairs away from political scrutiny. In May and June 2013, Erdoğan faced off with a popular uprising that spread nationwide, seeming to bring together coalitions of every ideological stripe and creed. It offered a glimpse of a different model for citizenship in Turkey, which could potentially outmanoeuvre the AKP’s brand of neoliberal religious conservatism. A month later in Egypt, al-Sisi rose to power by pledging to honor a similarly national wave of popular uprising, which saw a different and indeed disparate set of coalitions take to the streets, but one united in its rejection of the Brotherhood. He consolidated his power by declaring his existential battle with Egypt’s Islamists (and others) a “war on terror,” aiming throughout to assure the Egyptian army’s pre-eminence. Yet each leader—in fashioning their personalized authoritarian regime in recent years—has relied on remarkably similar strategies and representations.
In analyzing the Turkish government’s first response to the Gezi Park protests, Gümrükcü writes of the tool of “rhetorical vilification” within the broader populist rhetoric which Erdoğan has employed. The smearing of the protesters as criminals, deviants, and indeed foreign agents has powerful parallels with the rhetorical strategies used by toppled Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak’s regime when the January 2011 uprising began, and indeed by every regime since, both military and Islamist, particularly to foment foreign funding scandals around human rights groups. Such rhetoric served to arrest the tide of public sympathy with the protestors, to confuse and distract from their demands, and to boost the morale of regime supporters, who were periodically mobilized to clash with the “January youth.” Its particular potency stemmed from its ability to tap superficially into a historically powerful discourse of anticolonial nationalism, and twist this into an aggressive chauvinism with quite different targets.
The second area Gümrükcü highlights is the government’s organizing of “top-down counter-protests”: the “Respect for the National Will” rallies of June 2013. These have an even clearer counterpart in al-Sisi’s repertoire, as his first act in appropriating the popular power of the 30 June demonstrations across Egypt was to “ask for a mandate” to act in their name. This event was duly staged on 26 July as thousands gathered in Egypt’s cities, raising images of al-Sisi and clashing with supporters of ousted Brotherhood president Mohamed Morsi. Just as Erdoğan underlined that “it was his supporters—those people who gathered in Sincan on 15 June, for example—who were the true people of Turkey, and not the protesters at Gezi Park,” al-Sisi has never stopped invoking “the Egyptian people,” “the light of his eye,” who had stood united against terror, and were the only legitimate constituency to which he presented himself as answerable.
Thereafter, al-Sisi began his purges, both of his erstwhile government partners in the Muslim Brotherhood and of the January uprising’s coalitions. This proceeded through the restoration of a state of emergency, along with new laws that banned strikes and protests and declared the Brotherhood a terrorist organization. Here the parallels multiply again. Altınkaş describes how Erdoğan first chased down the Gezi protestors and then the signatories of the Academics for Peace petition, before instating an emergency law following the July 2016 attempted coup to purge his former allies in the Islamist Gülen movement and muzzle independent voices in the academy and media. This in turn resonates strongly with the closure in Egypt of critical media platforms and the crackdowns on faculty and students on charges of terrorist links, not to mention the unprecedented numbers of arbitrary arrests, military trials, and extended prison terms. Erdoğan and al-Sisi have both installed their loyalists inside the bureaucracy, media, and security establishments. Crowning all this, of course, was the 2017 constitutional referendum that gave sweeping new powers to the Turkish president, and the same process in 2019 that extended the Egyptian president’s term to six years, and allowed al-Sisi himself to run—exceptionally—three times.
Lest we forget, the extreme character of these repressive strategies is certainly a measure of the novelty, vibrancy, and resourcefulness of the 2011 Egyptian and 2013 Turkish uprisings, and the national mobilizations which each one generated and threatened to sustain in subsequent years. Like their opponents, these movements also had much in common.
The Gezi uprising famously began with environmental and urban activism, and attracted the radical politics of Kurdish, feminist, trade union, and LGBTQ movements in Turkey. It spawned new political coalitions such as the Gezi Party and United June Movement, as well as the enduring electoral transparency monitoring of Oy ve Ötesi (“Vote and Beyond”), and the local activism of City Defenses and their offshoots. Even if these faded with time, Bozkurt-Güngen argues that Gezi occasioned a qualitative shift: it compelled different groups to reckon with each others’ grievances and often contradictory demands. What is more, it “intensified the search for anti-authoritarian alliances going beyond a vague anti-Erdoğanism and targeting deep-seated nationalist and patriarchal structures in society and politics, and impacts of neoliberalization on environment and working conditions.”
A few years earlier, in all of Egypt’s major cities and squares, the various connections and solidarities forged in continuous protests had also been both transformative and productive. The very terrain of Egyptian politics was in flux, and its conventional fault lines were being redrawn. The military elite had watched this process unfold, from the implosion of Mubarak’s formidable security apparatus amidst the protests of late January 2011, through the tumult of 2012 as the same protestors turned their ire on the ruling military council itself. Needless to say, it experienced this as an existential threat. With their calls for military budget transparency, an overhaul of the economic system, and the fall of the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, these movements were profoundly subversive, and the mobilizations they generated lasted years, not months.
Of course each regime learned critical lessons from these upheavals, and even from each other’s—AKP politicians have often scathingly invoked the inspiration of Gezi in the Egyptian and Occupy examples. In some of their chosen strategies—from repression to co-optation to incentivization—they were intensifying existing practices: Altınkaş explains that the AKP’s forging of “embedded academies” deepened the centralization begun with the 1980 coup and the 1981 founding of the Higher Education Institution (YÖK). As Gümrükcü points out, the AKP had concluded in 2012 that since it had “tamed” the military, it was now time to tame the streets. In Egypt in 2013, al-Sisi raised the spectre of state collapse, pointing at Egypt’s Libyan and Syrian neighbors, in order to compel the same submission. This took the Mubarak-era discourse of national security to new, existential levels. At the same time, he moved quickly to dazzle the unconvinced or undecided with grand megaprojects and promises of prosperity, while keeping troublesome new actors firmly out of the emerging order and allowing the army’s fiefdom to grow. The social pathologies that this generated have been increasingly evident—the mounting numbers of fired, imprisoned, or disappeared in each country; the migrations abroad, all of them different shades of forced; and the feelings of despair and defeat haunting so many of those left behind.
Thinking the Unthinkable
What can such a bleak comparison tell us, what possible space for hope or political opening can it leave us? This dark picture is certainly why we have seen scholars, activists, and pundits all declare in their different ways the suspension or even death of politics in today’s Turkey and Egypt. Yet it is worth reflecting on the lessons of the uprisings, as intently as the respective regimes have done, to see beyond this. We might caution that the uprisings, however rare, illuminated the ultimate fragility of such extreme efforts to “close” politics off to people. Moreover, fatalistic judgements can betray a high politics bias that overlooks both grassroots activism and the contingency of moments when revolutions become “thinkable.”
The comparison also reveals the avenues that remain open and are unique to each case. Viewed from Egypt, Turkey remains a country with a long, if interrupted, democratic tradition, a major opposition party whose founding dates to the birth of the republic, and several newer parties with the potential to coordinate. Its “blocked” current landscape contains pockets of political resistance whose isolated nature today may prove to be transient. As Altınkaş and Gümrükcü both note, one of the boldest of these recently has been the opposition of Boğaziçi University faculty and students to the presidential appointment of a pro-AKP rector. The institution’s high profile has made its case harder to smother than similar dissent in newer universities. Last but not least, the fissures in the AKP’s own regime are increasingly on display and may yet be seized as political opportunities. Indeed, in one of the stranger parallels with Egypt, Turkey seems to have in Sedat Peker—the maverick mafioso who is currently taunting the AKP with his home videos relating inside stories of their corruption—a version of Al-Sisi’s notorious YouTube critic Mohamed Ali—the contractor whose poor treatment by the military led him to expose its cronyism in similar videos, and successfully incite popular protests in 2019. Those were some of al-Sisi’s weakest moments, matched only by the Tiran and Sanafir mobilizations of 2016, which protested his ceding of the two Egyptian islands to Saudi Arabia, and the betrayal and manipulation of his own nationalist bombast. Looking from Turkey to Egypt, where long-time constraints on formal politics have been extended so decisively to the public sphere, the mere possibility of such mobilizations should be judged significant.
None of this is to say that a popular uprising in either country is imminent. One can be in no doubt as to the vanishing room for manoeuvre that has disoriented opposition actors for years now. What cannot be snatched away, however, is their ability to take stock and strategize for such a challenge, as difficult as this is in the circumstances. Bozkurt-Güngen raises the pertinent issue of conflicting interpretations of the problem, and how these suggest different courses for action. We might add to this a central problem raised by the comparison with Egypt: the existing polarization in each country which, as Gümrükcü notes, has been exacerbated by the events of the past decade. While attempting to understand the power balances within each state and business elite, there is also a need to consider the motivations of the broader social forces that enable or tolerate these. Paying attention, without disdain, to the Other(s) in each context, will arguably be crucial to mitigating the pre-existing divisions and tensions that have been so successfully stoked since 2013.
In these “quiet moments” (for some), our roundtable encourages us to think more systematically about the forms of organization and alternative political and ideological projects that might appeal to popular constituencies outside the Tahrir/Taksim experience.