The Turkish Protests In Context

The roots of the Turkish protests

We have seen in the Arab and Gulf States, protests, riots, downfall of dictators, and sporting events cancelled.  All of these took place in autocratic countries, with little meaning to any elections that were held.  However, in Turkey, a democratic and free country, riots have broken out against government policies.  This is the result of the Prime Minister, Recep Erdoğan, appearing to be autocratic and attempting to implement more Islamic-appropriate laws.

Out of the ashes of the First World War emerged many nations, some gained independence, others land, and some were formed from ancient borders that had been part of an empire for almost 1000 years.  The Ottoman Empire was occupied and defeated, its territory split between the victorious powers and a War of Independence between the allies and Turkish nationalists led by Kemal Pasha, later Kemal Ataturk.  Born Mustafa Kemal, he rose through the Ottoman Army to be one of the leading generals in the war.  Following defeat, he organised the remains of the Ottoman Army into a National Turkish Army, and fought for independence and the end of the occupation.  He achieved this aim in 1924, establishing Turkey as a modern state.  He ended religious power, creating a secular state and replaced Arabic script with a Latin alphabet.  The newly formed parliament voted him the name Ataturk, meaning ‘Father of the Turks.’  To this day, Turks are proud to be a secular state and tend to be against the Islamisation of the law.   It is in defence of this secularism that led to the Prime Minister’s first party, the Welfare Party being shut down by the Constitutional Court for threatening the secularism of the state, and his imprisonment in 1999 for inciting racial or religious hatred.

To this end, the Turkish people have reached the last straw with their government.  The party of Erdoğan, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) is a conservative, Islamic party, and many people in the country are against their Islamist agenda.  They are not as stringent as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt or Hezbollah in Lebanon, but they are more so than their opponents.  It is to this end, that the Parliament passed a law restricting the sale of alcohol after 2200.  Then, the government announced that a shopping centre is to be built on Taksim Square.   This announcement led to rioting and violent clashes with the riot police in Istanbul as it contains a potent monument to Ataturk and the establishment of the secularist state.

Many of the protestors are venting pent up anger at 10-years of perceived Islamist rule, claiming that the current OccupyGezigovernment, especially the PM, is too autocratic and are bringing shame to the country’s democracy.  The PM and the government meanwhile, are accusing the protestors of ‘undermining democracy.’  So far almost 1000 people have arrested for public order offences.  The protestors have a point.  Since 2011, Mr. Erdoğan has implemented restrictions on freedom of speech, freedom of the press, internet use, sale and consumption of alcohol, abortion, and freedom of assembly.  The ruling party, in line with its Islamist agenda, is also opposed to extending rights of the LGBT community in the country. Just before the riots started on 29 May, the Prime Minister made a speech in which he menacingly said “”Whatever you do, we’ve made our decision and we will implement it.”

From the government’s view, the AKP have been in power for 10 years, and like many political parties, believe that as they have been elected by the people, the people want what they want.  This does not appear to be correct, and in any case, the government’s response has been heavy handed.  The Guardian has reported that one shopkeeper, while handing out free lemons to counteract tear gas, said “They have declared war on us [the people]…This is out of all proportion”    The Guardian is also reporting that Koray Caliskan, a political scientist at Istanbul’s Bosporus University, as saying ” Erdoğan is a very confident and very authoritarian politician, and he doesn’t listen to anyone anymore. But he needs to understand that Turkey is no kingdom, and that he cannot rule Istanbul from Ankara all by himself.”

The big problem is that many people don’t see democracy in action.  They don’t see the government as using democratic institutions to come to a clear and considered decision.  All they see is an Islamist party in power, with one man at the top who makes the decisions and is not accountable to anyone in the party.  It is party rule, where the party is one man.  It looks like the government is approaching make-or-break time.  If it doesn’t do something soon, they will be tarnished forever as being the party that destroyed Turkish democracy.  Despite this, the people appear to be determined to prevent this and force the end of this quasi-autocratic rule. 

It is obvious that this is no ordinary protest however, as all sections of society, young old, right and left wingers, nationalist Turks and separatist Kurds are involved.  The official response has been criticised by human rights organisation Amnesty International for the “excessive use of force.”  Due to this heavy-handed approach and the amount of violence there appears to be, foreign governments are warning citizens not to go.  The US State Department are warning “U.S. citizens traveling or residing in Turkey should be alert to the potential for violence, avoid those areas where disturbances have occurred, and avoid demonstrations and large gatherings. Even demonstrations intended to be peaceful can turn confrontational and possibly escalate into violence. U.S. citizens are therefore urged to avoid the areas of demonstrations if possible, and to exercise caution if in the vicinity of any demonstrations.” While the FCO is advising “against all but essential travel to parts of the country.

erdogan-TurkeyDespite having over 50% of the vote at the last election, these protestors are showing their government that, despite the majority, they cannot do what they want.  It is the culmination of frustration over the appearnance of the Islamisation of the state and the increasing autocracy of those at the top.  These protests will go on for many more days yet, and will only end, now, with the promise of new elections or the repealing of many of the Islamist-inspired laws that have been implemented recently.  The only section of Turkish society that isn’t protesting is the religiously conservative and this is a minority of the population.

There has been an apology from the Deputy Prime Minister, Bulent Arinc, to protestors who have been injured in the initial protests.  He said that the people had “showed their legitimate, logical and righteous reaction at Gezi Park… I apologise to those citizens” however, he added that other people aren’t owed “an apology to those who have caused damage in the streets and tried to prevent people’s freedom.” However, it appears that it is the government’s initial reaction to the protests that led to the injuries and further rioting in the first place.  It appears that the government is sending out two separate messages.  On the one hand, the PM is saying that the protests are undermining the freedoms, while the Deputy PM is saying that initially, they were exercising their freedoms.  One protestor went so far as saying that they are playing “good cop, bad cop.”   Because of this, protests have now entered a fifth day,.  The Turkish Medical association are reporting that over 3,000 people injured, 26 seriously, while the government are saying that 244 police officers and 26 protestors have been injured. 

Despite all this violence, and the need for the government to restore calm to the streets, probably through negotiation, Mr Erdogan is now on a state visit to North African countries.  The violent has gotten so bad, that a local Starbucks has been temporarily converted into a field hospital.  The authorities are getting more and more heavy handed, having used tear gas.  A big union has, meanwhile called for a two-day general strike of its 240,000 members.  In the face of the escalating violence, it appears as though a revolution is brewing, although Mr Erdogan must be confident otherwise he would not have left.  The protestors do not appear to be united, and this could yet turn into another Syria if calm is not restored!

The government has made many steps forward in its human rights record as part of its bid to join the EU and for its successful application to NATO.  However, ahead of talks on its application for EU membership, the EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fuele has released a statement.  In it he says that the EU members “aspire to the highest possible democratic standards and practices.”  These include he says, many freedoms that we in Britain see as the highest of those – the right to protest, freedom of the media, and the right to free speech.  He also stressed Turkey’s role in intervening in Syria stating the EU has pledged €400 million to Turkey to aid Syrian refugees their and that EU-Turkey co-operation is closer now than ever.  He ends with a plea to the Turkish PM,


“let me – by repeating your own words – call on Turkey “not to give up on its values” of freedom and fundamental rights. And let me assure you that we, on our side, have no intention to “give up on Turkey´s EU accession.” Mr Erdogan, however has stated that the US and EU states have used the same tacics, and saying that the protestors are using tactics of “terrorism, violence and vandalism.”  Despite this, he was welcomed back by thousands from his whirlwind north African tour.” 


This is the biggest threat yet to Turkey’s membership bid.  This however, may not matter as some polls are putting the amount of support for membership at only 30% when it was, at one point, as high as 70%.  However, there is support for Mr Erdogan, as he was cheered when he arrived home on Thursday.

Turkey is now at the start of its version of the “Arab Spring.”  It is another Muslim country with an Islamist orientated political party in power who do not want to give up power and are going to force through their policies.  How Erdoğan, the AKP, and the government respond to this crisis will have repercussions for many years if they don’t retake control of the streets and calm the situation down quickly.  It could yet affect their applications for membership of the EU and damage the image of the country internationally.  Turkey has a big tourist industry given the many sites their and this will face a big downturn if the situation isn’t cooled quickly and, for the people, satisfactorily.  Only time will tell as what started as a protest begins to threaten a revolution and to bring down yet another Middle East leader.

 Alex Patnick


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