Erdogan Clears Gezi Park Protesters, sets Stage for Polarization

Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan on Saturday evening into Sunday morning had police deploy water cannon and tear gas (some say laced with pepper spray) to clear Gezi Park of protesters and tents, after it had been occupied for a couple of weeks by those protesting the decision to cut down its trees and build a mall there. The heavy tear gas left many gasping for breath and taking refuge in a nearby hotel lobby, where many vomited because of the strength of the chemicals. Police also fired tear gas into the lobby; in encloses spaces, tear gas can be lethal.

Ironically, tear gas cannot be used in warfare because of the convention against chemical weapons, but it is used on workers and civilian protests by governments all the time. Bahrain has innovated in heavy use of tear gas to suppress its own Arab Spring protests, and Turkey is now using similar tactics.

The Turkish protests mushroomed into a nationwide dialogue on police brutality and the authoritarian and increasingly moralistic tone of Erdogan’s government.

Five persons have died and some 5,000 been injured in the government’s repression of the movement. The Gezi Park group remained nonviolent. Protesters at nearby Taksim Square included some radicals, a handful of which engaged in violence, and the government has used a few unfortunate incidents to tar the entire movement with that brush.

Erdogan had met with the protesters on Wednesday, and has been talking about subjecting the decision on the park to the courts or even a municipal referendum.

Protesters were not reassured, however, and declined to disperse as he demanded, though crowds were alleged to have been thinning out Saturday before the government assault. Ultra soccer fans tried to come to the area from Besiktas and other supporters from Kadikoy, but were apparently blocked by police. (h/t to Twitter feed of Zeynep Tufekci.)

Erdogan addressed a gathering of his supporters on Saturday, who predictably rallied to his hard line on protests. (Sometimes his crowds chant “padişah,” ‘emperor’ at his rallies). He has been talking in an aggressive and frankly somewhat paranoid way about the protesters, implying that they are tools of foreign powers or part of a domestic conspiracy. Had he just promised a referendum and left the whole thing alone, the protesters would have likely drifted away. This way, he wins absolutely in the short term but creates lasting bitterness and polarization that could detract from national stability.

To be fair, the US government would almost certainly behave in this situation exactly as Erdogan has.

RT reports:

The possibility of street clashes on Sunday between pro- and anti- Erdogan groups has been heightened.

Among the disturbing conclusions about the immaturity of the Turkish democratic experiment forced on observers by these events is that the country largely lacks the kind of press freedom essential to genuine democracy.

16 Responses

  1. The prime minister has been able to control the Turkish media. For him to go on offensive against the protestor is rather strange. He could have allowed them only in the park and used the media to discredit them on daily basis. But he must think that time is not on his side. But what is his rush?

    One way to explain his rush to clear the protestors might be his eagerness to engage in a Syrian conflict. He doesn’t want an opposition platform to oppose him on the war.

    When you look back at 2003, Turkish parliament made smart decision to stay out of Bush-Blair’s Iraq war. That is even with all the back door promises that must have been made for Turkish access to Iraqi Oil. Now the prime minister wants to engage Turkey into a clearly lose-lose situation for Turkish people. He needs a distraction. And clear show of strength otherwise he may not be able to control the Turkish involvement in the Syrian conflict.

  2. The Turkish experiment with democracy is immature because Kemalism, the ‘founding philosophy” of Turkey, was about the forced imposition of a uniform identity onto an ethnically and religiously diverse society.
    Kemalism is not compatible with liberal and pluralistc democracy.
    Politics in Turkey has always been a struggle between the barracks and the mosque. With the AKP, some had hoped that democracy would emerge from the mosque. But Erdogan’s authoritarianism is dashing those hopes.
    Real democracy, with a free press, has never really flourished in Turkey, has it?

  3. “Ironically, tear gas cannot be used in warfare because of the convention against chemical weapons,”

    Say “shouldn’t be used”. We know USA used it in Laos during the Vietnam war, for example. (Unless it was nerve gas as originally claimed in the infamous Time/CNN story, which was later retracted as it might just have been tear gas). Should anyone think use of tear gas was non-lethal and humanitarian, the goal was to disable the enemy so US forces could go in and shoot everyone in sight, mainly civilians.

    • In 1967 and 1968, CS (“riot gas”) grenades were frequently used with the intention not only of disabling but also to kill. Often in tunnels, to kill the “gooks” hiding in there, but other applications as well.

      In my own unit, our flight officers were taking the Troops’ Class A rations and other supplies and trading them to Air Force types for cases of steaks and chicken that were regularly delivered to soften the hardships of base life at a huge AF/Marine installation in I Corps. Our officers were having some great barbecues while we ate canned stuff from the Korean War era. The remedy for that was several episodes (they were kind of slow learners) of CS grenades being lobbed into the middle of their barbecues. With the clear message that it could just as easily have been fragmentation grenades.

      And for another example of what “war” really is, our First Sergeant took the plywood sheets that we laid on pallets so we wouldn’t be living with mud floors in our tents, and made us build a nice “hooch” for him, complete with insulation to improve the efficiency of his air conditioner, and powered his man-cave with a generator that had supplied power for the beer coolers at the enlisted men’s “club.” And somebody tossed a CS grenade into that hooch and dropped a bolt through the hasp on the door while Sarge was sleeping. Again, a message… “Rank has its privileges,” but the lower ranks have their recourse.

  4. Police tear-gassed the Divan Hotel, which was being used as a field clinic. They have also arrested doctors for treating the injured.

    Enough photos exist of Jenix pepper spray being added to the TOMA reservoirs, and enough visual evidence exists on people’s skin that we can safely say that the police did indeed use ‘chemically enhanced’ water.

    Four more journalists were arrested.

    Today, Erdogan claimed no need to recognize opponents because he “take[s] instructions and orders only from God.” Instead, the AKP pays transit and other fees to bring supporters/government workers to a party rally whose aesthetics would make Riefenstahl proud.

    Tomorrow five major unions including doctors and dentists are striking. The Turkish Bar Association has declared a state of emergency.

    Meanwhile the press has been enjoined from reporting on the intelligence ministry’s snooping in the lives of opposition figures and gathering profiles on people who use such government services as the schools and the state airline.

    One can, no doubt, find analogues for most elements of this response in the annals of the west. Of course, that excuses none of it, any more than reversing the polarities would.

    And one could take the Mustafa Akyol line and blame it all on the Kemalists, but that presumes what, that the Ottoman Empire was democratic and supportive of dissent?

      • Can’t say I’m happy to be doing this, but since the 31st most of my “free” time has been spent tracking news reports and reports from many friends/former students in Turkey, spreading what I learn from them and sharing with them what doesn’t get reported there, or what they’re too busy dodging the police to find out.

        What I neglected to mention is:

        The Jandarma (Gendarmerie), a branch of the ARMED FORCES, has been mobilized in Istanbul. This is the same branch that has been most active against the PKK. This has been reported with photos by Hurriyet Daily News.

  5. juan et al
    I am a regular reader who is currently traveling in Greece with my wife and 2 kids (11 and 13). We were planning on a 4 days in coastal Anatolia (Ephesus) and 3 days in Istanbul, before flying out of Istanbul. Is it safe for us to travel in Turkey right now? Would you recommend traveling with the kids? I have searched for advisories buy can’t find anything helpful from the State Dept. Thanks

  6. @Juan; you say “Ironically, tear gas cannot be used in warfare because of the convention against chemical weapons, but it is used on workers and civilian protests by governments all the time.” A colleague with whom I am having a vehement argument asserts that this is not the case: “Tear gas is not a actually a gas but an irritant powder in suspension. It’s use is not banned for police and self-defense.”

    Where is the ban for tear gas in warfare? Thank you.

  7. Anyone attempting to fathom what passes for thought within the Ak Partisi might begin with this gem from Turkey’s EU Minster, Egemen Baris:

    “Hours-long broadcasting that is even not interrupted by commercials has damaged Turkey’s image,” he said.

    “But these long broadcasts surely have a financial reason, and this will be revealed. International channels such as BBC and CNN never do such broadcasting without any advertisement. Somebody somehow financed these broadcasts. Like our prime minister said, the losses of the interest rate lobby due to low interest rates have exceeded $650 billion in Turkey,” he said, adding that this was a result of the government’s dedication. “This drives them crazy and they are doing everything to disturb the calm in our country and win back their losses.”

    link to hurriyetdailynews.com

    One begins to sense that what we see in Turkey is what a Bachmann-Palin US would be.

  8. We draw closer to learning what the advantages of civil control of the Armed Forces of Turkey means as Bulent Arinc, deputy prime minister, speaks of calling out the Army.

    link to hurriyetdailynews.com

    This is consistent with EU Minister Bagis’s earlier notice that protesters would be regarded as terrorists.

    link to hurriyetdailynews.com

    Members of the five unions participating in the general strike today have also been threatened with retributive action.

    link to hurriyetdailynews.com

    To all who thought (as I once did) that this recalibration of power was to the good, remember that the government — but that, too, is inaccurate — that one man has from the beginning escalated this crisis.

    Erdogan called for excessive force against protesters.

    He claimed that the project had been voted on, and yet if your read the statements of the Prime Minister, the Istanbul Governor, and the Istanbul Mayor between 31 May and 5 June or so, you will read conflicting accounts of what the project was to be, and you will never find any plans or drawings.

    He escalated the violence at two points, most recently on Saturday when he gave the protesters a day to vacate but unleashed the most vicious attacks in years in perhaps thirty years or more in Istanbul and Ankara. aunties and children were in the park. He stormed hotels and arrested doctors who treating the injured.

    He held two party-funded, party-organized rallies to inflame tensions. The NY Times reports, “By Sunday, Mr. Erdogan sought to thoroughly delegitimize any opposition to his governance, linking the effort to save the park to a recent terrorist attack in Reyhanli, in southern Turkey, which was connected to the Syrian civil war and killed dozens,” and “’We know very well the ones that sheltered in their hotels those who cooperated with terror,’ he said at the rally. ‘Will they not be held accountable?’”

    As Ali Alper Riza, a turkish Cypriot practicing at Goldsmith Chambers in London wrote yesterday, Turkey is now an “elective dictatorship.”

    link to hurriyetdailynews.com

    Anyone thinking this too will pass because Erdogan is term-limited should stop to recall that there is no such provision in the Turkish Constitution, it is an AK Party policy easily reversed by a megalomaniac whom no one in his own party dare resist.

  9. And a very unsurprising addendum: The CHP’s main offices in Istanbul were attacked.

    link to hurriyetdailynews.com

    “We were told that the building was being attacked by a group of around 35 to 40 people who had sticks. The young people who were sheltered inside the CHP building rushed to the entrance. They later told me that the group attacked the building with stones and chanted ‘Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.’ But I did not witness this as I was on the upper floors. I heard that this group dispersed after they saw the young people inside our building,” Toprak told the Hürriyet Daily News immediately after the incident.

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