Home > Musings > The Turkey protests – aftermath or interlude?

The Turkey protests – aftermath or interlude?

Chestnut seller to the protestors, on Istiklal St. on 1 June.

Chestnut seller at the height of the protests, on Istiklal St. on 1 June.

The world’s media has descended on Istanbul to find out more about our Turkish unrest, an extraordinary long weekend in which the secular middle class lost its complacency, overcame its fears and discovered political protest. A new sense of humour joined the usually stern-faced national narrative, people are somehow walking taller and it is amazing to hear great, spontaneous waves of clapping spreading among pedestrians walking up and down Istiklal St outside my house. Everything changed, even if the baleful music from the music shop opposite unfortunately emerged from the day of rioting stuck the same gloomy rut (Ol-muyooor, ooool-muyor, “It just isn’t happening…”).

The analysis is flowing fast. Here are just some good pieces in English I saw flashing past: Frederike Geerdink in Diyarbakir excellently explained why Kurds feel detached from the Istanbul excitements – a perspective that shines light on where Turkey as a whole really is today. Piotr Zalewski gave a fine account of the big day on Taksim. Henri Barkey pointedly noted how much he thinks this is about Prime Minister Erdoğan and his “yes men”, and the sharp wit of Andrew Finkel laid out how the PM needs to open up to local involvement in local decisions. Claire Berlinski’s acid take is a bracing antidote to mainstream news on Turkey. Nadeen Shaker had a fascinating interview with a perceptive activist, Ozan Tekin, about what the Taksim Square protests do and do not share with Cairo’s Tahrir Square.

At Crisis Group’s Istanbul office, we couldn’t resist adding our voice to the hubbub, putting together what we hope is a balanced distillation of how we find ourselves answering questions from the sudden inrush of new and regular visitors. You can find our “Turkey Protests: the Politics of an Unexpected Movement” on the Crisis Group website here. I also did a commentary for Bloomberg urging Mr. Erdoğan to engage the protestors. Watching the novel, calm, empathetic outreach of Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç at a news conference on 4 June, I felt that if Prime Minister Erdogan can execute one of his famous U-turns and do the same, it would do much to absorb the tensions.

I also attach some images from the scene on Taksim Square and Gezi Park, mostly from Monday 3 June. The upbeat mood was much the same in most places in Turkey. The country is an amazingly resilient place that actually enjoys a good crisis – it’s normality some people have trouble with! Still, ordinary folk are almost competing to get things ‘back to normal’ wherever they can by cleaning up and fixing the few broken shopfronts.

Still, nightly police-protestor confrontations that last for hours on the front lines have been frighteningly violent at barricades in Istanbul’s Beşiktaş district near the prime minister’s office, and in central Ankara. The new slogan rolling up from my street last night was a boisterous one: “Tyrant, Resign!” So for now we wait for the prime minister to return from his north African tour, and to discover whether we are now looking at the aftermath of an emotional outburst of popular sentiment, or whether the current precarious stand-off is just an interlude.

Where it all began - the corner of Gezi Park on Taksim Square, where an excavator's work on May 27 to clear space for a new pedestrian pavement brought a group of environmentalists to protest - and where, when police intervened by burning their tents and tear-gassing them, a national movement was born. (The plan to build a shopping mall on the park is real but was not actually why the trees here were going to be uprooted).

Where it all began – the corner of Gezi Park on Taksim Square where an excavator’s attempt on May 27 to clear space for a new pedestrian pavement brought a group of environmentalists to protest – and where, when police intervened by burning their tents and tear-gassing them, a national movement was born. (The plan to build a shopping mall on the park is real but was not actually why the trees here were going to be uprooted).

While protestors in Taksim largely avoided looting and vandalism, they did target the work machinery for the new underground tunnels in Taksim Square, a first stage in the government's top-down redesign of modern Istanbul's most important public space.

While protestors in Taksim largely avoided looting and vandalism, they did target the work machinery for the new underground tunnels in Taksim Square, a first stage in the government’s top-down redesign of modern Istanbul’s most important public space.

Still, there's going to be quite a lot of clearing up to do on Taksim Square!

There’s still quite a mess to clear up on Taksim Square.

An overturned police car on Taksim Square. However, I don't think more than a dozen vehicles were damaged in the first days at least.

An overturned police car on Taksim Square. Not many vehicles were wrecked like this one in the first days, but Interior Minister Güler said on 6 June that by that time a total of 280 workplaces, 103 police cars, 259 private cars, one house, a police station, 11 AKP political offices and one CHP political office had been damaged.

Another overturned car on Taksim Square, quite a contrast to a typical group of well-brought-up girl protestors, wearing the signature black of the protests.

Another overturned car on Taksim Square, quite a contrast to a typical group of well-brought-up girl protestors, wearing the signature black of the protests.

This group of high-school students skipped class for the third day (and didn't tell their families where they were off to either).

This group of high-school students in Taksim Square’s Gezi Park skipped class for the third day to follow the ebb and flow of protest (and didn’t tell their families where they were off to either).

University students moving off to man the barricades after meeting, singing and dancing under the trees of Gezi Park.

University students moving off to man the barricades after singing and dancing under the trees of Taksim Square’s Gezi Park.

Turkey is a resilient country and people quickly sought to take advantage of any new opportunities - here a man finds a new market in surgical masks protestors use to protect themselves from tear gas.

Turkey is a resilient country and people quickly sought to take advantage of new opportunities – here a man finds a market for surgical masks protestors use to protect themselves from tear gas.

The big clean up by the shops on the central pedestrian boulevard of Istiklal St. was particularly swift and impressive. The biggest problem was graffiti everywhere - some of it injecting an unusual sense of humour: "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" (a dig at mainstream media failure to cover much of the protests), "This country is beautiful when It gets angry", or "I've been a faggot for 40 years, but I've never seen [unprintable]".

The cleanup by shops on the central pedestrian boulevard of Istiklal St. was particularly swift and impressive. The biggest problem was graffiti everywhere – some of it injecting an unusual sense of humour into Turkey’s often self-important politics: “The Revolution will not be televised” (a dig at mainstream media failure to cover much of the protests), “This country is beautiful when it gets angry”, or “I’ve been a faggot for 40 years, but I’ve never seen [unprintable]” (More here).

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