[This article is part of a reflection on the "Afterlives of Gezi." Read the other contributions to the roundtable here.]
2021 has been a year of anniversaries in the Middle East. Beginning in December 2020, when Tunisia marked a decade since its uprising, each month has brought a new wave of commemorations from Egypt to Libya to Yemen to Syria and beyond. In Turkey, it may not yet be a decade since the Gezi protests but it sometimes feels as if it has been a century since the spontaneous public outcry against neoliberal urban planning and creeping authoritarianism exploded into the largest wave of mass protests since the 1970s. The country has been convulsed with crises over the last eight years, many of them exploited by the AKP to further entrench authoritarian rule. Just as with the Arab uprisings, the Gezi protests may be understood as both the culmination of a prior set of dynamics and an inflection point. The razing of the few remaining trees in a central part of Istanbul brought into the open the AKP’s growing crisis of legitimacy and eroding alliance with the Gülen movement, accelerating into weeks of street protests. Even as the state’s repressive apparatus eventually forced protesters out of the streets and public squares and further criminalized dissent, the government’s strategy for manufacturing consent was irreparably damaged. By the end of 2013, the AKP had to resort to overt and escalating forms of coercion to maintain its control of the levers of state power and to suppress opposition to its rule across a broad swathe of the Turkish public. The cross-cutting coalition that today challenges the AKP’s claim to majoritarianism began to coalesce out of the cauldron of these events. Jadaliyya’s Turkey page was in many ways itself born out of these events and there can be few more fitting ways for us to mark this anniversary—our own anniversary—than with the voices brought together by this roundtable.
The illuminating pieces assembled in this exchange help explain how and why the Gezi protests represented a moment of rupture, but one that should not be considered, and cannot be understood, in isolation. Evren Altınkaş explores one example in his contribution, arguing that Gezi marked a turning point in the government’s systematic strategy to bring the country’s universities under its direct control that has both a pre-history and an ongoing legacy. The transition from persecuting scholars with absurd disciplinary proceedings—and the apparatus bequeathed to the AKP by the military junta of the 1980s—to purging them from the academy altogether sets Gezi apart as an inflection point. The continuity of the state’s determination to control and discipline intellectual life in the country is the necessary backdrop for explaining this moment, even as the AKP’s determination to impose a cultural revolution from above represents both an escalation and an innovation of sorts, at least in the recent history of civilian rule in the country. Removing the faculty of Turkey’s most storied universities—both public and private—and replacing them with unqualified government loyalists has damaged higher education for at least a generation, as this year’s protests at Boǧaziçi University once again demonstrate. But it must also be understood as an essential element of the government’s culture wars—a project of re-creation and not just of removal. The AKP’s determination to exert pedagogical control over the nation, stamping its image on the country’s youth, was given a full-throated voice in response to Gezi and has gained momentum since. The policing of social media, the censoring of curricula, the takeover of the country’s traditional media landscape are all part and parcel of the same impulse to control and shape knowledge production. Moreover, the AKP’s transformation of the governance of higher education is a microcosm of its dismantling of the administrative state, again with the goal of replacing civil service cadres with its own loyalists, thereby remaking the state from within.
Bengi Gümrükcü underscores in her essay the degree to which the government’s response to the protests—the claim that they were part of a foreign conspiracy to sow chaos in the country—became part of the durable repertoire for the AKP’s strategy of governing through polarization. She vividly chronicles the AKP’s tactic of deploying official vilification as a means of counter-mobilization, framing protesters as part of a sinister international conspiracy against Erdoğan who was increasingly styled as a father figure stand-in for the nation. The politics of us-and-them by which university students, academics, journalists, and professionals were increasingly characterized as an alien elite opposed to an authentic public loyal to the nation-cum-Erdoğan has since become a familiar trope in the well-worn playbook of authoritarian populism the world over. But Gümrükcü reminds us of the degree to which Erdoğan was a vanguard figure in fashioning this strategy nearly a decade ago. Gezi was certainly a galvanizing moment for forging a cross-cutting coalition of opposition groups that had rarely if ever previously shared a common platform in recent Turkish history—as Sümercan Bozkurt-Güngen convincingly shows. But it was also a crisis that the AKP deftly turned into an opportunity to deepen social cleavages, advancing a strategy of governing through polarization, as Gümrükcü makes clear.
Bozkurt-Güngen’s reflections are a reminder of the ties between Gezi and the restructuring of the country’s political and legal institutions. As she notes, Gezi brought into focus the emergence of a new form of authoritarian statecraft in Turkey, one that accomplished systemic change by using bare majorities to achieve institutional transformation. Prior to Gezi, Erdoğan had made no secret of his ambition not only to transition from his role as prime minister to the presidency, but also to enact a new presidential system that would enable him to concentrate power in the office he then aspired to control. His persistent inability to persuade a majority of his own constituents to support this transition to presidentialism eventually required a new strategy. Gezi gave Erdoğan his first taste of how a putative emergency might actually strengthen his hand. As Bozkurt-Güngen indicates in the opening paragraph of her contribution, the aftermath of the Gezi uprising witnessed a series of escalatory moves by the government from the purging of the judicial branch and political opponents to an elective war against Kurdish communities in the southeast, each justified through pretextual references to a conspiracy or emergency. These preliminary steps paved the way to the government’s formal imposition of a state of emergency for over two years, which finally enabled Erdoğan to enact the institutional changes for which he was never able to secure an electoral mandate.
Bozkurt-Güngen notes that opposition groups in Turkey have different perspectives on the question of whether the AKP, or Erdoğan in particular, was committed to authoritarian rule from the outset or whether there were critical junctures over the last two decades—like the Gezi protests—that played a role in shaping this trajectory. Whatever the significance of Gezi may have been to the party leadership’s strategy, she shows definitively how generative the protests were for opponents of AKP rule. The government’s response to the Gezi protests revealed important continuities between the AKP’s authoritarian ethno-nationalism, misogyny, and illiberalism and the country’s longstanding state tradition. The growing awareness of these continuities enabled some of the opposition groups at Gezi to transform what began as anti-government protests into a far more robust anti-authoritarian agenda.
Bozkurt-Güngen’s contribution highlights the lasting impact of the Gezi protests for those who were in the streets and squares demanding alternative futures. She examines how these demands called for a definitive break not only with the AKP but with deeper patterns of governance that have characterized the first century of the republic. Gezi served, on her reading, as a forum for negotiation among protesting groups about how to fashion a truly anti-authoritarian and affirmatively pluralist platform. Perhaps the most hopeful account of the long-term effect of the protests is her description of how participation enabled a variety of opposition groups to recognize each others’ grievances and demands. By making different factions more visible to one another and revealing some of the contradictions and tensions among protesters themselves, Gezi provided an innovative and truly national public forum to forge a new kind of solidaristic politics of opposition through coalition. Protesters took back control of the literal and metaphorical public square and used their new shared platform to move beyond vague anti-Erdoğanism. Despite the precarity of the space they briefly controlled, more than a month of acting together provided these groups a sustained opportunity to develop an interwoven analysis of nationalism, patriarchy, neoliberalization, labor politics, and environmental urban planning that continues to mark opposition politics and coalitions in Turkey eight years later. In the aftermath of Gezi, Bozkurt-Güngen rightly points to the ways in which the Kurdish movement, feminists, environmentalists, radical trade unions, and the LGBTQ movement have expanded the scope of their substantive anti-authoritarian politics. The dissident visions of an alternative Turkey that emerged from the collective experience of Gezi echo in the many informal, creative, and continuous forms of opposition that have marked the last eight years, through protests, petition-organizing, social media campaigning, solidarity academies, and at times far more harrowing expressions of dissent against all odds.
The post-Gezi challenge remains much as it was eight years ago: coalescing this robust anti-authoritarian politics around a coherent and integrated movement that encompasses the various strands surfaced at Gezi and commands the necessary momentum to achieve political change. The decade anniversary of Gezi in 2023 will also be the centenary of the republic. In contemplating the coming two years leading up to that milestone, this roundtable makes evident the paradoxical reality of contemporary Turkey marked as it is by both deepening authoritarianism and the astonishing resilience of mobilized political resistance.