Ahram Online (AO): Can you give us a picture of how protests were transformed from a four-people stand against park destruction to an outpouring of nation-wide anti-governmental protests?
Ozan Tekn (OT): A few dozen activists rushed into Gezi Park when the bulldozers arrived on Tuesday night last week to start cutting trees. The bulldozers retreated later that day and a few thousand people occupied the park. The police started attacking the park in the early hours of the morning to let the bulldozers in again. On third day, this sparked an explosion of protest, and tens of thousands joined the struggle in Taksim Square to keep the park safe and protest against police violence.
AO: What are the reasons behind the discontent with Erdogan's policies?
OT: The government’s plans to restructure Taksim Square is a part of a broader neo-liberal programme. They want to turn Taksim, the centre of the city, into a place for the upper classes and push ordinary people out. This is a conservative, neo-liberal government and people were increasingly fed up not only with the plans for Taksim Square, imposed with no consultation at all with citizens, but also with the whole spate of neo-liberal policies, the unchecked proliferation of shopping centres, last months’s legislation to ban the sale of alcohol after 10pm, and the frequent heavy-handed use of the police against perfectly democratic protests. Prime Minister Erdogan's arrogance and heavy-handed attitude also stoked the discontent.
AO: How large is the scope of the protests? Who is taking part in them?
OT: Those who started the resistance at the park were leftists, environmentalist, independent activists, etc. The police’s violence against them triggered a reaction in much wider sections of society. Thousands of independent young activists –many taking part in political activity for the first time– came out onto the streets in anger. All the parties of the left were there. Some trade unions –though perhaps not on a massive scale– joined in as well. The main opposition party (CHP) and other right-wing nationalist/pro-army groups also joined the protests. But their influence was very limited on Friday and Saturday.
AO: What is the so-called 'Turkish Spring'? What are its broader implications in the region?
OT: Erdogan claims to support the revolutionary movements in the Middle East. But facing a wave of riots on a much smaller scale, his government managed to use brutal police violence for hours against the protesters. This is his hypocrisy – it shows that the Turkish government can in no way be a “model” for the demands of the Egyptian or Syrian masses.
But 50 percent of Turkish society votes for AKP [Erdogan's ruling Justice and Development Party] because they think it is slowly doing what the movements from below in the Middle East are achieving. Turkey has a long tradition of the army intervening in politics by bloody military takeovers. The generals also plotted to overthrow the AKP government, claiming that it was turning Turkey into “Iran” by imposing sharia law.
Many sections in the AKP’s electoral base want change and support Erdogan because they believe he will deliver that – the army’s exclusion from politics, a peaceful solution to the Kurdish question, improvements in social justice. This puts the AKP in a contradictory position –a neo-liberal right-wing agenda on one hand, and many millions voting for a “hope” of freedom on the other. Even at the peak of the protests, Taksim Square was nowhere near Tahrir in terms of numbers, and its political content was much more like “Tahrir against Morsi” than “Tahrir against Mubarak”.
AO: How is Erdogan's response to the situation impacting the course of the protests? Are more strikes reflecting other grievances being planned?
OT: An AKP spokesman admitted that they had “only achieved to bring together many disparate groups in the streets.” Erdogan’s arrogance and insistence on never stepping back helped the protests to grow bigger. This was the real cause of his first serious defeat in 11 years – the police retreated from Taksim and tens of thousands of people occupied the park to turn it into a festival area. Now the movement’s main aim is to save the park from being destroyed and to oppose the government's plans to restructure Taksim as a whole.
AO: What about the kind of police brutality used and the fresh demand for the removal of the interior minister?
OT: The interior minister has said that 1,730 people were arrested during the protests. Hundreds were injured by police attacks which were truly brutal, not only in Istanbul but across the country. So the resignation of the interior minister, the governor of Istanbul and the chief of police are important demands.
AO: What about your own experience of the protests? Did you really call Taksim Square Tahrir?
OT: Mass protests on the streets were really very inspiring for two days – Friday and Saturday. The soul of the movement was like that of Tahrir. Many activists were explicitly referring to Tahrir Square. Tens of thousands resisted the police with no fear.
When Gezi Park was won, many ordinary people celebrated and then went back to their homes and work. Then came the growing influence of pro-army nationalists, mostly CHP voters, trying to turn the protest into something that pushes the military to take action against the government. These people are hostile to Kurds and Armenians, oppose the peace negotiations with the Kurds (which is a historic turning point for democracy in Turkey) and call the prime minister "a national traitor".
In 1997, mass protests led by the left against the “deep state” were used by the military to force the Islamist government of the time to resign. There are some groups who are trying to do that now – their presence is a growing threat for the mass movement. It splits and weakens us. But they have not so far succeeded in hijacking the movement.
This is a serious ideological struggle we need to win. We are against this government not because it is Islamic, but because it is conservative and neo-liberal. It is a legitimate, elected government and therefore we do not want it to be overthrown by unelected armed forces. We want it to be overthrown by the mass movement of the people.
Ozan Tekin is an author and editor at Marksist.org – a Turkish leftist news site.