Turkish Protests Are Unpredictable: A Dispatch From Taksim Square

by Tara Vassefi

Istanbul – “Of every two people you meet in Turkey, one of them voted for Erdogan” Mehmet a 31 year- old friend working in the tourism industry, explained to me. In spite of his statement, Mehmet was the first person I met who supported the polarizing Prime Minister after several weeks in the country.

Mehmet grew up in a small village outside of Antalya with no running water or electricity. After learning English and working in tourism for ten years, he worked his way up to a managerial position and recently bought a three-bedroom house for his young family.

Before the protests began, Mehmet was the only person I met who openly argued that Erdogan was the force behind Turkey’s speedy improvements. He shrugged off the shift in social policies as menial and disparaged Erdogan’s critics as comfortable urbanites who had not experienced first-hand the difficulties of life before the government’s vastly successful campaign to improve infrastructure, healthcare, education and the economy. And he was quite convincing. However, when I visited Turkey just a year ago, it was already clear that anger toward Erdogan was brewing underneath the impressive façade of economic development.

Setting progress back?

By this year, people had grown much more vocal about their grievances. These complaints ranged from opposition to conservative social policies, to nationalistic criticism of the government’s negotiations with the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), to frustration over the fact that while the economy seemed to be doing well, the majority of people were still underpaid and overworked.

On previous trips, I suppose I naively bought in to Washington’s “rhetoric.” I loved Taksim’s exhilarating nightlife, where live bands played Turkish music and young, westernized crowds danced the traditional round dance, as opposed to imitating American culture. I noticed a growing middle class that is practically nonexistent elsewhere in the region and in some ways grew healthier than the middle class in America. I would gawk at the infinite recycling bins scattered around the cities and at Istanbul’s clean, efficient, and cheap public transit system. When I heard about the protests, my first thoughts were that all this progress could be set back.

A complex situation

On the first day of the protests I was walking back to my hotel in Taksim when I started to feel the back of my throat tighten up. The usually booming neighborhood had cleared out and the spice from tear gas permeated through the streets. Reports now make clear the original protesters were part of a small group of liberal environmentalists, but the media’s lack of reporting confused Turks about the already complex situation.

While people in Taksim generally seemed a little surprised and excited about the prospect of mass protests in Istanbul, there were differing explanations as to the cause of the early protests. On the street, some people said it was because Erdogan was destroying an important park in Istanbul for the sake of business. Other secularists said it was because he was appeasing his Islamist supporters with a gradual shift toward conservative social policies. Others presenting the nationalistic perspective still said it was because Erdogan negotiated with the PKK.

In the days after the protests began, the scene at Gezi Park was like a carnival. While it looked very similar to the Occupy Wall Street protests with circles of young people playing the guitar and dancing, there were also older Istanbulis who came through collecting pamphlets and giving donations to the different tents. Countless people were offering free food and tea and vendors were laying out Guy Fawkes and gas masks. A group of socialist protestors had a tent at the entrance to the park from Taksim square where they were handing out lists of their demands.

These demands included an apology from Erdogan for calling protesters looters and bums, to stopping construction of a mall on top of Gezi Park, to protesting the building of a mosque in place of an iconic cultural center opposite the park called Atatürk Kültür Merkezi.

A divided support base

Not long after the initial protests, Erdogan’s elusive 50% support base came out of the woodwork. However, while Erdogan’s supporters could all agree on the basis for their support – economic development – the protesters seemed generally divided between liberal social democrats, nationalists, and Kemalists (the ardent supporters of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s rather severe secular political ideology that drastically sought to modernize Turkey after the Ottoman Empire’s collapse). As my travels took me outside Istanbul, protests were heating up in the city and solidarity protests popped up in other cities.

At one solidarity protest in Selçuk, a city that at least superficially had an exaggerated reverence toward Ataturk with multiple pictures of him in each establishment I visited, the bulk of the protesters were Kemalists. From a distance, the protest I attended looked quite impressive for such small city and as cars drove by most of them honked their horns in approval. However, on the outer edges of the protests were younger protesters who complained that the Kemalists did not want the two protest groups to merge.

To the Kemalists, this protest was about enduring Turkish nationalism as built by Ataturk. To the others, this protest was about democracy and Liberalism. And while both groups could agree that Erdogan was steering away from these ideals, the protesters were very divided.

The same divisions could be seen back in Gezi Park. Many Socialists and young Liberals claimed that they were the original protesters and seemed reluctant to acknowledge that the nationalist and Kemalists were part of the movement. There were dozens of different groups marching and chanting but even to an outsider it quickly became clear which groups were nationalist based on whom would cheer and clap for whom. In spite of these divisions, each group was represented at Gezi Park, including the hard-line Kemalists.

Preparing for injury

While I was visiting Gezi Park, I saw people hanging up pictures of the already-iconic image of a solitary woman in a red dress being sprayed with tear gas. She stands peacefully resisting with her hands by her side. When I pointed out the image to a young Socialist, he smiled and proudly said, “this taught us not to be afraid of the police.”

As some of his friends joined our conversation, I noticed that one of them had something written on his arm. He explained excitedly that it was his blood type for if – or when – he was seriously injured. Another friend rebutted that it would be suicidal for Erdogan to push back any harder than he already has. A young woman in an arm brace from being hit with a tear gas canister felt that Erdogan had already crossed the line. While none of them was sure how it would all end, they were optimistic and excited for what they seemed confident would be positive change.

Even while attending the protests, it was difficult to draw substantive conclusions about where this is all heading. Just as the Turks are unsure about what these protests will bring, it is imprudent for outsiders to project their own concerns or prophecies on this unique situation, as is expectedly the case with “Arab Spring” references and condescending to the Turks that “they don’t have it so bad.”  As such, analysts and observers should exercise caution before drawing conclusions about the future of the protests.

Tara Vassefi is a faculty member at the Naval Postgraduate School, and is currently pursuing a J.D. at the American University Washington College of Law.  She is a member of YPFP’s Middle East Discussion Group, and is currently in Istanbul.

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