Taksim Square Protests in Turkey Spread to other Cities, Police accused of Brutality

Protests at Taksim Square in Istanbul that began by opposing the privatization of a park (one of the last spots of green in that part of the city) took on a different life when they were met with a disproportionate response by police. The authorities used water canon and fired tear gas at young people doing nothing more than peacefully rallying, injuring some 100, some seriously. Tear gas canisters are dangerous if launched into crowds. The latter began demanding that the prime minister, Tayyip Erdogan, step down. Dozens of young people were injured, and dozens more were arrested. As news of the protest in Istanbul spread on social media, rallies were staged in “Ankara, Bodrum, Konya and Izmir.” On Saturday morning, a crowd of protesters crossed the bridge over the Golden Horn from Sultanahmet, coming to Taksim Square to show support for the previous day’s rally. Taksim is said now to be cordoned off, and the bridges were closed. (There are also ferries for getting across).

Photos of the events are assembled here

Amnesty International called for an inquiry into the disproportionate use of force by the police.

Aljazeera English reports:

The government of Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan was last elected in June, 2011, at which time his Justice and Development Party (AKP) received about half the votes in the country (an improvement on past performances). The elections appear to be on the up and up, and AK seems genuinely popular in the countryside and in many urban districts. The economy has grown enormously in the past decade under Erdogan’s rule, Turkey is now the world’s 17th largest economy (by nominal gdp) according to the IMF. It has been averaging 5 percent growth per year at a time when neighbors in the EU like Greece and Spain are basket cases. It has a huge tourism sector that has benefited from the troubles in Egypt, Tunisia and Lebanon. The economy will likely only grow 3% this year, but that is still a good number given Europe’s doldrums.


AK is a center-right party that has a slight religious tinge, and it has recently voted to restrict alcohol sales after 10 pm (alcohol is forbidden in Islam and AK views it as a public health problem rather as many Western governments look on cigarette smoking). Erdogan offended secularists by calling drinkers “alcoholics.” But this measure is among the few enacted by the AK Party that one could point to as influenced by Islam, and it is hardly Draconian, though a rather early last call.

The Justice and Development Party has also been criticized for calling for the fall of the government of Bashar al-Assad in Syria. But critics neglect to note that Erdogan repaired relations with al-Assad on becoming prime minister in 2003 and that in the 1990s the military government of Turkey had very bad relations with Syria. It was only once the Baath Party in Syria began murdering protesters in fair numbers that Erdogan decided that al-Assad would have to go. Recently leaders of the People’s Republican Party (devoted to the secular ideals of Turkey’s modern founding father, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk), Erdogan’s opposition, visited Damascus in a show of support for Bashar.

The young people protesting probably don’t care that much about either the early last call in Taksim’s bars or about the fate of Bashar al-Assad. Like all young people active in public spaces in conservative countries, they get hassled by the police. The protests were not mainly about the environment or retaining green parks but about police brutality. Turkey’s political tradition has never been particularly tolerant of dissent, and unfortunately the AKP is continuing in a tradition of crackdowns on political speech it doesn’t like. Reporters without Borders ranks the country 154 for press freedom, and it has 76 journalists in jail, and “at least 61 of those were imprisoned as a direct result of their work.” Observers are astonished to find that Saturday morning’s newspapers in Turkey are virtually silent about the protests. Editors have clearly been intimidated into keeping quiet about these events. A similar news blackout was apparently imposed after the border town of Rayhanli when it was bombed a couple of weeks ago. You can’t have a real, vibrant democracy without a free press.

My suspicion is that the protesters are leftists or the children of parents in the Republican People’s Party, who do not like Erdogan’s capitalist leanings nor his embrace of the religious Right as a prime constituency.

Although some on twitter were talking about Erdogan as a dictator and the protests as a Turkish spring, it doesn’t seem to me a good analogy. Erdogan has been repeatedly and fairly elected as prime minister. Unlike a Mubarak or a Ben Ali, he doesn’t run a police state and hasn’t blocked people economically. The protests appear to have been relatively small. The call for the fall of the government is undemocratic. If people don’t like Erdogan, they should campaign for his opponents in the next election.

On the other hand, freedom to assemble and freedom of the press were correctly thought by the American founding fathers to be key elements of democracy. By preventing peaceful assembly and deploying disproportionate force, and by an apparent imposed news blackout on the protests, the Turkish government is raising questions about how democratic the country really is.

34 Responses

  1. There is some news traffic via Facebook. Otherwise, here is a linque to the Hurriyet Daily News out of Istanbul that has coverage of the events fully on the front page. Taksim is kind of hard to avoid or ignore at this point.
    [American] link to hurriyetdailynews.com
    [Turkish] link to hurriyet.com.tr
    In my past experience, the Turks don’t mess around. Living there from ’53 to ’56 and again from ’58 to ’62, it was a fairly ordered society that was not shy about calling out the Army as needed (as when a coup occurred in ’60 (among other times)). The Ankara newspaper showed the eventual aftermath with the coup leaders on the gallows, obviously a statement of warning to the people that this was a potential fate for those who might seek a similar means of political change. We were confined to our housing for the duration of the emergency with Turkish soldiers stationed at the corners / intersections. Again, the government (and its military support) doesn’t fool around when it comes to maintaining order although the actual sources of power may have shifted over time.*
    Given that the country maintains the 2nd largest armed forces in NATO, the military is pivotal in a region that has seen so many problems in the countries surrounding it, from the Soviet Union to Iraq, Iran, Syria, the Balkans, among other states carved out of its former Ottoman Empire. Should Turkey become unstable, the adverse effects thereof would become incalculable with the rise of Islamicist influences and consequential internal struggles that might render the country impotent to meet its obligations, not least of all is its homage to former imperial glory.
    Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has an interesting tightrope act, trying to balance himself while juggling his supporters, the military, and his detractors domestically and amusing those who are in the international arena, not least of all the tourists who find all sorts of intrigue, imaged and real, in Istanbul.

    * link to economist.com

  2. Just to add a little more to the picture here — Turkey ranks as the number 1 ‘prison state’ for Journalists (with Iran a close second), according to the 2012 census from the Committee to Protect Journalists:

    link to cpj.org

    Unemployment among youth (under 25) is twice that for those older than 25:

    link to countryeconomy.com

  3. Whether “Erdogan has been repeatedly and fairly elected as prime minister” isn’t the key point. This crisis further underscores the repeated slide toward intolerance of dissent over the course of the PM’s tenure. Erdogan did not receive a mandate to poison the political well. Unfortunately, we’re no longer shocked or surprised when the government uses trumped up charges to stifle political opponents or misuses his pulpit to badmouth critics. And now this. The violence in the streets we’re now seeing was entirely predictable.

    Economic growth is all well and good but it hardly compensates for the loss of liberty. This is a disgrace and Erdogan is fast driving the country into a crisis.

    • I don’t disagree that Erdogan has a ‘tyranny of the majority’ mindset and is crowding people in the public arena, which is why this is happening.

      But the idea that Turkey had a free press or other liberties under the Kemalists that have now declined is risible.

      • I did not suggest that Turkey enjoyed a free press during previous regimes. The point is how to further strengthen Turkish civil society. The military has remained in the barracks for quite some time and hopefully will remain there. Civilians are in charge and that is all for the good.

        But Erdogan’s Nixonian approach toward dissent during his terms in office is more than irresponsible; it is contemptible. The violence of the crackdown is on his shoulders and he ought to be held accountable.

        • Well Erdogan is likely going to run for president, so voters will have a chance to hold him accountable if they like.

        • The secular government in the 1980s was far, far more repressive and had lots more dissenters in jail.

  4. Actually, young people opposed to Erdogan seem to care quite a lot about the alcohol restriction. It’s all they’ve talked about the last few days. But you’re right, I don’t think they care about or are even especially aware of environmental issues. Nor are they – like the party they support, the opposition CHP – particularly bothered about the slaughter of innocents in neighbouring Syria.

    UK national in Istanbul

  5. The Turkish government is paying the price for its unwise policies towards Syria. Erdogan’s initial policy of zero tension on the borders was a clever policy that improved Turkey’s relations with all her neighbors, including Syria and Iran, and resulted in a flourishing economy. Indeed for a while, Turkey was contemplating the setting up of a common market with Syria and removing custom duties between the two countries. However, after the disturbances in Syria, Erdogan decided to join Saudi Arabia and Qatar in their campaign against Syria.

    It should be remembered that according to some accounts, Turkey has some 15 million Elevis [close to the Syrian Alawites] and about the same number of Kurds. So in addition to secularists and leftists, there is another large constituency that does not like Erdogan’s policies towards Syria. As the result of these policies, Turkey’s relations with Iran and Iraq have also suffered. If disturbances continue, and there are already some reports about the loss of life, Turkey will face a domestic uprising that will seriously affect its standing in the world and its economic development. Even now, it would be wise for Turkey to act as a broker between Syria and Iran on the one hand and the Persian Gulf sheikdoms on the other and try to find a peaceful solution to the Syrian conflict.

    • Alevis in Turkey are a completely different thing than Alawites in Syria.

      There isn’t any evidence that Syria played into these events one way or another.

      • I think you’re wrong about that, Juan. There IS a lot of resistance to involvement from the same groups, notably CHP to involvement in Syria. that’s why Erdogan has tried to blame the Reyhanli bombing on CHP. Nrote, too, that Redhack released documents showing Syrian opposition involvement. AKP is prosecuting an army private for a leak while not denying the truth of the document but only continuing to blame Assad/CHP.

        Meanwhile, he is most definitely showing interest in at least picking off the Kurdish/Sunni sectors of Syria and Iraq, supporting opposition in one case, trying to deal direct with KRG in the other.

        The treatment of the Alevi, the damning of them as outsiders, the refusal to recognize cem eviler as houses of worship, naming the new bridge after Selim the Alevi killer all suggest a sectarian politics and foreign policy.

        Moreover, what we’ve seen with religious legislation is just an acceleration of trends that includes the conversion of lisesiler into imam hatiplar and enrollment of students without parental consent.

        How closely have you been following TC internal politics?

        • The Alevis liked Kemalism for its secularism, but their cemaathanes were targeted in Kemalist legislation as ‘sectarian,’ just as Sufi tekiyes were. Alevis are not Alawis and while they may have some sympathy, it is like Mormon sympathy for Ekankar members.

          Kenan Evren started that Imam Hatip stuff.

          I say in the article that CHP opposes AKP on Syria policy, and even went to see al-Assad.

          What I meant was that I doubt Syria policy is implicated in the Gezi Park protests.

        • Yes, Evren started the imam hatiplar in a foolish attempt to counter the left. Safe to say he never intended where the AKP has taken it.

          Yes the economy is presently good. but they’re building a damned mall; did you see how many of them are closing in TC each year? The TOKI construction boom is enriching for some friends of Tayyip, but not sustainable.

          Emre Deliveli has been writing some very solid and critical analyses of the country’s economic state.

  6. AKP is now showing who it always was. It has cleared out the army, gulenized the police, arrested journalists, clamped sown on free speech, even on twitter.

    Its own people speak openly of desire to “annihilate” atheists, compare autistics to atheists as both missing a faith gene in their brain.

    (from Hurriyet English)

    Erdogan now threatening political dissenters: From Hurriyet English:

    Erdoğan ended his speech with an ominous warning to main opposition Republican People’s Party (AKP) leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, who is set to deliver a speech in Istanbul’s Beşiktaş district before moving to Taksim. “If you use provocative words, our people will never forgive you. If it comes down to making a meeting, if you gather 100,000 people, I can gather a million,” he said.

    It is beyond time for responsible people around the world to quit pretending this is ‘moderate and democratic.’

    The tram has arrived!

  7. It might be interesting to compare current policies and conditions in Iran and Turkey relative to their respective repression or expression of ‘political’ versus ‘cultural’ values.

    I am reminded of Herbert Marcuse’s book One Dimensional Man in this regard.

    Although Iran remains as ‘politically repressive’ as ever (if not more), there appears to be a cultural and social revolution going on that may surprise some:

    Erotic Republic
    Iran is in the throes of an unprecedented sexual revolution. Could it eventually shake the regime?

    BY AFSHIN SHAHI | MAY 29, 2013

    link to foreignpolicy.com

    Of course one of Marcuse’s central thesis was that social ‘liberation’ was actually an effective tool for ‘desublimating’ political issues and energies.

    Turkey, on the other hand, seems to have become a pressure cooker due to both political repression and cultural repression.

    Erdogan might do well to ease up on the latter if he expects to maintain any real political control of the population.

  8. “The government of Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan was last elected in June, 2011, at which time his Justice and Development Party (AKP) received about half the votes in the country (an improvement on past performances). The elections appear to be on the up and up, and AK seems genuinely popular in the countryside and in many urban districts”

    I have talked to men who served in the Turkish army and intelligence services would call that claim dubious. There is a growing concern of fraudulent elections with the AKP.

    Furthermore, talking with people in Turkey this spring, many middle-class people will tell you that this economic growth is smoke and mirrors. They claim none of this growth is being seen by the middle class, instead a majority of it is going to the wealthy with connections to the AKP.

    There is no denying to wrongs of the Kemalists in the past, but that does not allow for leeway of the wrongs by the AKP.

    • I’ve been going to Turkey since the mid-1970s, and I can tell you without a shadow of a doubt that the economy has grown just enormously. Infrastructure, buildings, everything shows signs of dynamism and upkeep. This is distinctly *not* the case in Tunis or Cairo.

      There isn’t any serious doubt that AKP has been being legitimately elected. Kemalists are sore losers.

      link to en.trend.az

      • Juan,

        Sadly two people have already been permanently blinded from the tear gas canisters. You are right that between authoritarian Kemalists and their AKP counterparts, the liberally-minded are definitely a minority. How much the current [and previous] encounters are a result of AKP policies or how much is a function of Erdogan’s personal style, they do remain troubling to those hoping for a wider space for thinking outside of the two worldviews.

        It does concern many people who had been supporting the AKP that Erdogan seeks to change the system of government to “stay on” while having yet more power. The Gulenists are among the elements who have voiced concern about the anti-democratic PM and the clique around him. One fear how is that he is making a devil’s bargain with the Kurdish party..their votes on the change to a presidential system in exchange for providing the reforms needed to bring closure to the “Kurdish problem.”

        As for the trees, part of the issue is the lying…denying the plans for Taksim and saying they are just building a little pathway. It is seen by those interested in the preservation of the area as one more blow to the areas history, following buildings ripped out for gaudy new stores. It goes with his other grandious building projects that blight/will blight the city and banish yet more lower income citizens to the peripheries.

        This is the PM who “ordered” the city of Kars to tear down a prize-winning statue symbolizing Armenian-Turkish relations, tried everything in his power for the last three years to get courts to shut down the most popular soap opera, [did get it off Turkish Airways], and endless other personal whims.

        For those of us who praise the accomplishments of the AKParty over the last decade, it would be wrong to ignore their mistakes or failures as well. The reasons that brought more than just environmentalists or Kemalists to Taksim and elsewhere to protest are myriad. They deserve to be heard. If the government continues to accuse and insult them, cumulative frustration over everything from low wages, limitations on labor organizing and unemployment could easily be woven into the story, hardly a way to diffuse the situation.

  9. Also worth remembering that May began with tear gas and water cannon in taksim Square when Tayyip refused to allow a May Day celebration and, as today, shut down the transit including ferries.

    Explanation was that the square “structurally couldn’t support” a celebration.

    But it could support a police riot. Or two. Or three.

  10. Okay- you made me cry- I want to express solidarity with the Turks. (Your link Aljazeera English reports goes to a Tesla ad.)

  11. Why the defensiveness toward criticism of aspects of AKPolicy and of Erdogan’s sultanic arrogance? There is no doubt that the last years have seen dramatic improvements in many, many aspects of politics and economics, but that doesn’t excuse the grave mistakes.

    Like the MB “magnates” like Khairat El Shater, the AK big business types represent the worst combination of piety and greed, charity and disregard for the rights of poorer citizens. [El shater has been spending considerable time recently in Turkey with both the political types and business community.] Just as the MB is in league with those in Cairo who would tear down ‘ashwaiyat on “prime” downtown land to build housing for the priveleged, the AK bosses are doing likewise to Turkey’s cities.

    Is it a coincidence that the police and military seem to be at odds about how to handle what is happening now? or some obviously sympathizing wiht the demonstrators as well the waiters from the big hotels helping them, or that Turkey’s own “ultras” have joined the fray? Like in Egypt, it is all blamed on certain forces, not popular anger. Like in Egypt, though not as dramatically, Turkey is feeling the cumulative effects of unrestrained neo-liberalism and crony capitalism, mixed with self-righteous morality.

    Anyone who wished/wishes the Turkish experiment to succeed must hope that some modesty and reality be injected into the system, and now. The good news is that this is likely to end Erdogan’s hopes to stay on til 2024. It also means that Abdullah Gul and others may have a chance to put it all back on track. According to one commentator today, if the mess continues for 40 days, the President has the option of asking the PM to step down. I wonder if that is accurate.

    • Abdullah Gul is extremely unlikely to be a major departure from Erdogan, nor for that matter are many of the leading members; they’re all Erdogan men.

      I’m not sure whether this shows the tide is turning against Erdogan or not. At this stage, I’d suspect not, but in response to Juan’s comment below I would suggest that if any government is unpopular enough then it doesn’t matter how useless the alternative is. Though Juan is right that while Erdogan retains popular with his core constituency and the opposition remains weak and divided, the AKP shouldn’t be too worried about their future electoral prospects.

  12. Juan,

    This analysis is dated. All you say is correct until around 2011.

    PM Erdogan has banned alcohol in beyoglu last month, banned 29 October Ataturk celebrations last year, banned May 1 Taksim marches (but allowed May 2 Galatasaray celebrations), shut down a TV series down he didnt like, closed many alcohol-serving restaurants and bars (I know them personally) and done many other arbitrary, unpleasant acts that people can feel directly in their daily lives. He was elected by 51%, but chose to act as if he was elected with a 99% margin. He is trying to reshape the constitution to create a massively powerful presidency for himself right now.

    Get over AKP as a reformist party. They have been in power for 10 years and become thoroughly corrupt and unpleasant. Look at the PMs inability to even address the mass unrest in the streets over the last two days.

    Stop just pointing out some sore loser Kemalists and do some real thinking and reflection. Things have changed since 2002, or 2006 — AKP really has become the devlet they rebelled against.

  13. I’m rather dubious about a tossed off assertion that young people don’t actually care about a law that bans sale of alcohol after 10 PM. That seems exactly like the sort of thing that young people would care about a great deal.

  14. A friend in Istanbul put together this short video of the protests spanning several hours, focussing on the spreading support throughout the city.

    link to youtube.com

  15. First of all, thank you for your thoughtful comments.

    You write, among other things: “The protests appear to have been relatively small. The call for the fall of the government is undemocratic. If people don’t like Erdogan, they should campaign for his opponents in the next election.”

    Re the first sentence: I respectfully disagree, as I imagine would the hundreds of thousands of protesters who gathered in cities all over the country this weekend, despite a serious and genuine threat to their health and well-being. I think it took a lot of courage to do what they did.

    Re the second: I was under the impression that in a parliamentary democracy citizens had the right to demand their government resign, even if it’s before their term ends, if people feel they’ve lost their mandate. This happens all the time in Europe, and was a daily fact of life when I lived in Canada under frmr PM Mulroney.

    Serious and well-informed people can disagree on whether or not RTE should resign, but any government that sicks its cops on peaceful protesters in this way deserves this sort of response, including demands for its resignation.

    Demanding resignation is not the same thing as demanding a coup.

    If these events had happened in any parliamentary democracy in western Europe, not only protesters but the also the establishment would be demanding resignations immediately.

    So why be so dismissive here?

    • Small and large are relative terms. When I was writing late Friday, moreover, the Istiqlal crowds were in fact small. They may grow, no one knows.

      In parliamentary systems the government typically resigns when it can’t muster 51% of votes in parliament, not because a few thousand people demand it. The French ultramontane Catholics have been holding fairly large demonstrations in Paris against gay marriage and have demanded President Hollande’s resignation, as well. Do you think he should step down on that basis?

      Moreover, when the government falls in a parliamentary system, there are snap elections for parliament. Were Mr. Erdogan to call for new elections, his party would almost certainly win them. CHP is disorganized and not all that popular in most of the country.

      I didn’t say anything dismissive; it was just dispassionate analysis from afar.

      • a few thousand, Juan? that’s the number of the wounded and arrested. Multiple sites in Istanbul, Ankara, Izmir, protests in bursa, Samsun, Antalya, Adana, Alanya, Sivas, on and on. Friends and former students I never expected to be in the streets have been and their videos/photos of police riots have been chilling.

        Meanwhile, between vowing to rip down the Ataturk Cultural Center and to build a Mosque on Taksim (which under the new law would wipe out all alcohol-serving restos) is just waving red banners in front of the crowds.

        He’s showing that he earned the Gaddafi Human Rights Award he collected in Tripoli in 2010.

  16. Very good points. Thank you for your response.

    When a parliamentary government falls the first thing that happens is not, in fact, snap elections. Rather, the president (in the case of Turkey) attempts to create a new government out of the existing parliament. Such a turn of events takes place when a political leader loses credibility as a result of events (such as a scandal of some sort) that have occurred since the previous election.

    After this scandalous police riot, why is it so unreasonable for Turkish citizens to argue that Erdogan has lost his credibility and should step down? If he were to step down, there wouldn’t necessarily have to be new elections, or even a non-AKP government. Erdogan would resign and be replaced by a new AKP leader, who would become PM.

    Regarding Hollande, you’re comparing apples and oranges. Hollande is a president with a fixed term, not a PM with a malleable one. Presidents in the US and France (and Turkey) almost always serve their entire term, prime ministers hardly ever do. PMs call elections when the moment seems most suitable for them in order to maximize their electoral chances. By the same token, however, PMs are also more vulnerable to demands for their resignation. This is because in parliamentary systems it is parties that are elected to power, not individuals. When there’s a scandal, it is entirely appropriate to ask the leader to go.

    Were the events of this weekend scandalous enough to merit such a course of action? People can disagree on that. But demanding resignation of a PM is not undemocratic. Instead, it’s a pretty fundamental component of parliamentary democracy.

    Thank you for your time.


    • First of all, you can’t wriggle out of the French example by saying that Hollande is president. His prime minister could be made to resign over the roughing up of the right wing anti-gay rights protesters, too. The question I posed is whether you think the police crackdown on the Catholic Right in the middle of Paris, which did result in injuries, should have that effect.

      That the national prime minister should resign over municipal police actions seems to me a non-starter. Please name a time when a French or British prime minister stepped down not because of a loss in internal party deliberations or for fear of losing a vote of no-confidence in parliament but because of street protests.

      The long and the short of it is that democracy cannot work if a small minority can thwart the results of the ballot box simply by coming out into the streets. They should be allowed to, and the police authorities in Turkey have behaved shamefully. But the right way for AK to be judged as political actors is at the ballot box, given that international observers find Turkish elections relatively free and fair.

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