Voices From the Street |

Turkey Burns With Riots, but Erdogan's Grip on Power Is as Strong as Ever

Despite what's seen in world media coverage of the unrest in Turkish cities, the prime minister and his majority are not in danger, and the opposition is hopelessly split.

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

ISTANBUL AND ANTAKYA − Burcin Altensai, an architect from Istanbul, wandered around Gezi Park in Taksim Square on Monday afternoon, watching the tens of thousands thronging the area, doing folk dances and eating picnics on the grass, with a worried smile on her face. For the last year, Altensai has been a member of a small group of academics and environmental activists fighting the government’s plan to build on the park a shopping center in a faux-Ottoman building. Yes, of course she is happy that their tiny group spawned a national movement sweeping dozens of cities in Turkey, and calling upon democratically elected Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to change his authoritarian ways, but she is also sad.

“We had to tell Erdogan that you can’t force things on people,” she says. “But there has been so much needless violence, and I am worried there will be more.”

Despite providing the spark that ignited the firestorm sweeping Turkey over the last two weeks, the original protesters have not pushed themselves in front of the world’s television cameras. Another member of that group, Ceyda Sungur − the academic from Istanbul Technical University, who was made instantaneously famous as the “woman in red” when the photograph of her being sprayed with pepper gas in the face by a police officer became an icon for the Turkish protests − has avoided requests from hundreds of media organizations for interviews.

The efforts by founders of these protests ‏(they will not call themselves “leaders”‏) to shun the limelight is very different from the behavior of the young leaders of Israel’s Rothschild Boulevard social protests two years ago. The more mature protesters in Turkey are well aware of the limits of what they can achieve. Thousands in the streets shouted “Tayyip resign,” but the actual requests of their representatives who met Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc on Wednesday were much more circumscribed, and consisted of a demand to cancel the Gezi Park project ‏(which had already been temporarily frozen by a judge‏), to fire the police chiefs who ordered the violent suppression of their protests, and government commitments not to use tear-gas in the future against civil demonstrators and to enter into consultation with local residents over major building projects.

It is highly doubtful whether Erdogan will meet, or is even capable of meeting, these demands, but despite some of the forecasts, the protesters are not planning to give up and go home any time soon. In a city like Istanbul, with 14 million inhabitants, it is easy to bring in each day tens of thousands for a democratic picnic in the park, and if the police try to return, there are thousands of bored young men and women happy to tangle with them violently. Both sides have patience.

Turkish democracy is a work in progress. For decades it existed on the generals’ sufferance, the army remaining the superior power above the civil government and parliament. Since 2002, with the rise to power of the Justice and Development Party, democracy has been adapting itself to its conservative-Islamic ‏(but not Islamist‏) ideology.

International viewers were getting an extremely skewed view of Turkey this week, through the lens of the world media focusing on Taksim. The reality is that Erdogan’s majority is not in danger, and the opposition is hopelessly split and led by largely unpopular figures − most of whom wisely did not turn up at Gezi, so as not to discredit the protesters. You did not have to venture far from the square to hear different voices.

The owner of a small mobile-phone store on the main Istiklal shopping avenue leading to Taksim, who asked not to be identified, looked ruefully at the vandalized banks and shops along the road. His establishment had been spared; the vandals, true to anarchist principles, had mainly targeted branches of multinational corporations such as Benetton and Burger King. He was glad to be able to open his shop, but angry at the protesters. “Tourism has been booming in recent years,” he complained, “and now they have to do this and ruin business for all of us.”

Combination of challenges

In the southern town of Antakya, near the Syrian border, Ayhan Hamasoglu, a hotel manager, stopped to look from afar at the violent demonstration taking place near the town’s center. “Idiots,” he said. “Erdogan has been great for all of us. We are making now three times what we made 10 years ago. I’m secular, but I still support him.”

Turkey is facing a singular combination of challenges, due to the fact that it has a thriving economy in general, even as far-flung regions continue to develop, and that it is both a democracy and a deeply traditional society with tense relations between the Sunni majority and the large Alevi-Shia and Kurdish minorities.

In Antakya, Jihan, a truck driver living in the city’s Armutlu quarter − a poor working-class neighborhood where on Monday a protester was killed in unclear circumstances − said that, “in Istanbul they protest over trees, here we have much more serious issues. Many Alevis here feel the government is trying to keep them out, and they are not enjoying the prosperity like the rest of the country.”

While police violence was greatly reduced by midweek in the central cities of Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir, in locales like Antakya, where police and soldiers continued to face protesters with automatic rifles, and in Tunceli, in eastern Anatolia, where a large Kurdish community lives, and demonstrators accused police of firing tear-gas canisters into houses − violent riots and suppression of them by security forces raged on.

In some respects, Erdogan’s record vis-a-vis minorities has been better than that of his predecessors. He has launched a process of reconciliation with the Kurds, and two years ago publicly apologized in Tunceli for the Dersim Massacre in 1937-1938, when the Turkish Army killed tens of thousands of members of that community. In other ways, he has been arrogant and insensitive. Indeed, one incident that particularly riles the Alevis, who constitute over 20 percent of the population, stems from the prime minister’s announcement last week that the new bridge over the Bosphorus in Istanbul will be named for the 16th-century ruler Sultan Selim, who ordered wide-scale massacres of Alevis.

Whether or not the current wave of protests dies down, Erdogan seems resolved to continue with his political and economic plans, including reforming the constitution to allow himself to be elected president next year with new and sweeping powers, and building grandiose projects. One of the latter, the Ilisu Dam on the Tigris River, threatens to flood lovingly preserved historical buildings in the ancient town of Hasankeyf, near Diryarbakir, deep in the southeast, Kurdish region of the country.

Ironically, as Erdogan’s peace process with the Kurds has brought back a degree of calm to the area, tourists from around the world have flocked to the region to see its unique castles and mosques. If a small park in Istanbul set off a wave of violent protests, the destruction of a historic town in the Kurdish heartland may provoke an even deadlier response.

Protesters in Istanbul.Credit: Reuters
Protesters in Gezi Park, Istanbul. 'We had to tell Erdogan that you can't force things on people,' says Burcin Altensai.Credit: AP

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