Monday, June 10, 2013

Turkey's summer of discontent – Some images and analyses

Last Thursday I mused about some echoes of the spirit of 1968 in the current protest wave in Turkey.  A music video forwarded from Istanbul by Claire Berlinski conveys some more of those echoes, along with some striking images of what's been happening in Istanbul.

(More photos here.)

=>  But it's a safe bet that  this video captures only one dimension of the meaning of Turkey's June Days.  This protest wave has clearly brought together a wide range of underlying discontents in one grand eruption.  It's worth reading two analyses, one by Berlinski and the other by Juan Cole, each of which highlight elements which I think have been missed or, at least, insufficiently explored in most American discussions.

Here are some highlights from Berlinski's piece on June 3, "Erdoğan Over the Edge":
The story began when the government in Ankara decided that Gezi Park, in the center of Istanbul, should be demolished and replaced by a shopping mall. Now, Gezi Park is hardly the Jardins de Luxembourg. It’s a shabby rat trap that you wouldn’t walk through alone at night, and you’re more apt to find used condoms on its lawns than daisies and cowslips. But it is, all the same, one of the last remaining spaces with trees in the neighborhood.

Over the past decade, Istanbul has seen a massive construction boom. Lovely old buildings have been razed by the hundreds and replaced by shopping malls. Until this week, I would have said that while this transformation was not to my taste, it was very much to the liking of the people who live here: after all, they were certainly doing a lot of shopping. Apparently, I was wrong.

When the company building the shopping mall began cutting down trees, protesters occupied the park—peacefully. But in truth, these protests weren’t about the park or even about the shopping malls. They were about a people exhausted by Istanbul’s uncontrolled growth; by its relentless traffic; by the incessant noise (especially that of construction); by massive immigration from the countryside; by predatory construction companies—widely and for good reason believed to be in bed with the government—which have, over the past decade, destroyed a great deal of the city’s loveliness and cultural heritage. But most of all, they are about a nation’s fury with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s growing authoritarianism, symbolized by Istanbul’s omnipresent police, the phalanxes of so-called Robocops. They are so notoriously trigger-happy that journalists on Twitter post a daily tear-gas report.

Of late, almost every sector of the electorate has felt unease about one part or another of Erdoğan’s agenda. Restrictive new alcohol legislation, rammed through parliament, as usual, with contempt for the minority opposition, has prompted outrage; the so-called peace process with the PKK, which no one understands, has caused great unease. Anxiety is growing as well, not only about press censorship, but also about the prosecution of those who insult government officials or “Islamic values” on social media. There is outrage about the bombing in Reyhanlı that left 52 Turks dead and which appears to have been attributable to a series of inexcusable police and intelligence blunders (but no one knows, and no one believes what the press writes); there is fear of war with Syria; there is concern about strange reports that al-Nusra, a Syrian militant group affiliated with al-Qaida, has been cooking up Sarin gas in Adana, five miles east of the United States’ Incirlik Air Base; and there is deep skepticism about Erdoğan’s plans for grandiose construction projects—such as a third airport, a second Bosphorus canal, and a gigantesque mega-mosque intended to exceed in size every mosque left behind by his Ottoman predecessors. The thing will dominate Istanbul’s already-martyred skyline, and replace yet another pleasant and leafy park.

The recent announcement that a new bridge over the Bosphorus was to be named after Sultan Selim the Grim, slayer of the Alevis—a substantial and beleaguered Turkish religious minority—didn’t help matters. Nor did it soothe fears when a minor AKP official from the sticks wrote on Twitter that “My blood boils when spineless psychopaths pretending to be atheists swear at my religion. These people, who have been raped, should be annihilated.” Two weeks ago in Ankara, a disembodied voice on the subway, having apparently espied them by means of a security camera, denounced a couple for kissing. The voice demanded that they “act in accordance with moral rules.” In return, incensed Ankara lovers staged kissing protests: as the couples shyly smooched outside the subway station, a group of young men confronted them, chanting “Allahu Akbar!” It was reported but not confirmed that one of the kissers was stabbed; but given the mood of hysteria here right now, it would be unwise to believe every rumor one hears.

Erdoğan, it seems, severely underestimated the degree of his subjects’ displeasure, confident that God, a strong economy, and a weak opposition were all he needed to ensure his hegemony. He brusquely dismissed the tree protesters’ concerns: “We’ve made our decision, and we will do as we have decided.” An AKP parliamentarian then unwisely announced that some young people "are in need of gas.”

So the Robocops once again used pepper spray and water cannon against the protesters. A photographer captured them spraying tear gas directly into the face of a vulnerable, middle-aged woman in a pretty red dress. The photo went viral and enraged the public: she was clearly no hooligan. As one conservative journalist noted, she looked “decent.”

Rather than dispersing for good, the protesters returned—and more gathered to support them. This wasn’t supposed to happen. The police panicked. At dawn, they attacked with pronounced violence, injuring not only students, but also journalists and opposition members of parliament who had come to show their support. They also seriously wounded the photographer who took the “red dress” photo, which was probably not a coincidence. Nor was it likely a coincidence that they fired a tear-gas canister “at close range” at the head of journalist Ahmet Şık, best known for writing about the infiltration and corruption of Turkey’s police forces by the followers of the Turkish imam Fethullah Gülen. For this, Şık was jailed as a “coup-plotter.” This time, he wound up in the hospital, though he is expected to recover. [....]

If the protests keep escalating and the crackdown intensifies, it’s hard to see how this can end well. Best case: the protests will spook the prime minister and give him a much-needed dose of humility. Worst case: The protests will spook the prime minister and leave him even more paranoid and vengeful.

Unfortunately, the early signs point toward the second scenario. [....]
Juan Cole's initial take on the Turkish protest wave came in two posts, on June 4 and June 7.  Here are some highlights from his June 4 post:
The news that Turkey’s Public Workers Unions Confederation (KESK), representing coalition of 11 trade unions with 250,000 members has now announced a two-day general strike in sympathy with the protesters signals the entry of an element of class conflict into the movement. The unions in Turkey are weak, having been destroyed by the secular right wing military dictatorship of the 1980s, which had the side effect of also destroying the Turkish Left as a viable political bloc. The ruling center-right Justice and Development Party probably benefited in implementing its pro-market policies from the weakness of unions. The unions and the remains of the Left may see an opportunity for revival.

Erdogan has blamed everyone but himself for the public discontent, decrying the ‘lies’ spread on Twitter, hinting darkly that the opposition party, the secular Republican People’s Party [CHP] had conspired to provoke the protests, and now even saying that the demonstrators are ‘linked to terrorists.’

Erdogan’s theory of what is happening shows an unflattering streak of paranoia and arrogance, and, worse, it is clearly wrong. If a prime minister cannot understand what is happening in his own country, it is a very bad sign. [....]
And here's a snippet from Cole's follow-up post on June 7:
Bahar Leventoglu, Assistant Professor of Political Science and Economics at Duke and a native of Turkey, told senior editor at Duke’s Office of News & Communications Steve Hartsoe that she “does not see the prime minister recovering from this as easily as Erdoğan expects.”

“Erdoğan has been the most popular prime minister in the history of modern Turkey,” she said. “His understanding of democracy is about ballot power. As his ballot power increased, he started to get more and more authoritarian thinking that more and more people gave him the mandate to do anything he wanted. Over time, the Erdoğan that was quite a reformer prime minister in his first term disappeared, and we got this angry, know-it-all, almost Putin-esque prime minister that we did not know as much before.”

[JW:  They just noticed "this angry, know-it-all, almost Putin-esque" Erdogan now?  Who is the guy I've been reading about all these years?]

"A lot of people now see Erdoğan’s policies as a ‘cultural war’ against their lifestyles, and see the government’s so-called ‘Taksim project’ as an extension of this cultural war. Taksim (where the protests were held) is a neighborhood whose lifestyle Erdoğan dislikes, with nightlife and drinking, and is not good for the ‘religious generations’ Erdoğan wants to raise.”

Leventoglu continued: “Erdogan also has no tolerance for criticism. He believes that he knows what is good and what is bad for citizens of Turkey, and so we have to obey him as if we are teenagers being disciplined by dad. I’m sure he was taken by surprise by the protests against the government, as Turkey does not have a long history of this. But times are changing, and Erdogan is behind the times in this one.”
Maybe. But at all events, Berlinski's piece and these two pieces by Cole are worth reading in full,

—Jeff Weintraub