To understand what has happened in Turkey we need to give an account of the composition of the protesters, their demands, and their slogans. The first characteristic of the protesters is the predominance of Generation Y, born between 1980 and 2000.
A few weeks ago, Time magazine defined this generation as the millenials and identified it as the “me meme” generation. The Time report claimed that the millenials are lazy, narcissistic, self-entitled, cool, reserved, unpassionate and informed but inactive.
The generation that took to the streets last week in Istanbul has no tolerance for arbitrary authority, asks for convincing explanations for every rule, hates to be told what to do, requires options from which it can choose on its own and demands respect.
However, in their fight against the police they proved anything but lazy, reserved, impassionate and devoid of altruism. Their sense of humour was their most effective weapon against the insults of the Justice and Development Party (JDP) regime.
When the Prime Minister Erdoğan dismissed the protesters as çapulcu (looters), they joyfully reappropriated the term and identified themselves as çapulcu. They used it in anglicised form: “I am a chapuller,” “I am chapulling.” Any public relations campaign of the JDP regime against this humour seems ineffective at best, counter-productive at worst.
The second characteristic is the middle class and lower middle class origin of the majority of the protesters. The immediate demands of the protesters reflect the liberal character of the protest: respect for the freedom of speech, right to assembly and to organise, the right to the city.
The protest can simply be defined as a move of the middle class to claim the urban public sphere for themselves. The immediate cause of the uprisings is the JDP’s so-called urban transformation, a process in which urban public land is given to private construction companies for the construction of private residences and shopping malls.
Urban transformation already purged the poor out of their homes further into the peripheries of the city. However, the most visible and controversial privatisation of public spaces involves the Beyoglu-Taksim area. Smaller protests have been taking place against several construction projects. The last straw was the reconstruction project of an old Ottoman barracks on Gezi Park, adjacent to Taksim Square. The exclusion of the middle classes from the public spaces in the centre of the city is a response to the neoliberal city planning of the JDP regime, which rests on an urban rent economy.
The third characteristic is the significant role of Istanbulite soccer fans. Istanbul is not unfamiliar with riots ignited by sport fans. In 532 AD the fans of chariot race teams revolted against the Emperor Justinian in a week long riot that almost cost him his throne. The JDP should know better than antagonising all three of the major Turkish soccer teams based in Istanbul: Besiktas, Fenerbahce and Galatasaray. The stadiums of Besiktas and Galatasaray already fell victim to urban transformation.
Last year a small-scale riot broke out after Galatasaray received the cup in the Fenerbahce stadium, whose popular president had been jailed for a year under allegations of match fixing. The riot could hardly be contained by the police force. Erdogan was protested by Galatasaray fans in 2011 by whistles and boos.
In the last game in Inonu Stadium this year, Besiktas fans were attacked by the police with tear gas. The JDP’s practices in soccer matches reflect its attitude to such public events: authoritarian and brutal.
Discontent with the JDP regime, however, goes far beyond the struggle for urban public spaces. Increasingly, the JDP is imposing a conservative identity on the population, which is brewing a growing opposition. The JDP came to power by implementing a neoliberal populism, which combined the hatred of the large segments of the people against the state establishment and elites with a neoliberal agenda of market reforms and deregulation.
Using its experience in municipalities the JDP managed to curb the anti-capitalist tendencies of the urban poor, which were much visible in its predecessor, the Islamist Welfare Party programme. The JDP’s conservative identity politics is an antidote to its neoliberal policies.
The insistence on building the Ottoman Artillery Barracks has a significant ideological component: it was built on an old Armenian cemetery, and it became a centre of the failed anti-Young Turk rebellion of 1909 and demolished in 1939. Thus, it represents a historic comeback of the past in the conservative political imaginary. However, how much identity discourse and social policy can contain discontents of neoliberalism remains to be seen.
The contradictions of neoliberal populism become apparent in the Gezi risings. The middle classes, which — in contrast to the urban poor — feel themselves entitled to a secure, respectful and well-paying job, are faced with a deregulated job market, chronic unemployment, and precarious job security.
The Gezi incidents attest to a change of these classes from cynicism to political subjects determined to do something for their life conditions rather than just sit and weep. They revolt against JDP policies disrespectful of their autonomy: restrictions on abortion, on alcohol consumption, on public displays of affection, and on clothing.
The night when the crowds purged the police out of Taksim people were holding their beer glasses up in the Beyoglu district and chanting “Cheers to you, Tayyip!”
The reaction of the middle classes against neoliberalism is still articulated in the field of urban space rather than social rights. Whether the protests will turn into an anti-neoliberal and anti-market social movement depends on the precarious future of the Turkish economy and the capacity of the middle classes to reach out to the working class. For the time being, protests in poor districts of Istanbul are sporadic, yet quite intense.
Meanwhile, the downside of the construction of a conservative Sunni identity was the alienation of Alevis, who have been exposed to humiliating discourses and exclusionary practices.
Earlier this year Erdogan stated that Alevi houses of worship, cemevis, are places of cultural activity rather than of worship. This attitude was confirmed by the High Court of Appeals.
The day the Gezi protests broke out, Erdogan laid the groundwork for the third bridge over the Bosphorus, another controversial construction project, and named it Yavuz Sultan Selim, the Ottoman sultan famous for his crackdown on Anatolian Alevis in the early 16th century.
Erdogan’s Syria policy also disturbed the Alevis. The twin car bomb attacks in Reyhanli at the Syrian border were a major blow to the JDP’s security and foreign policy and further antagonised the Alevis. It is not a coincidence that most ferocious clashes between the police and protesters occurred in the Alevi regions of the Hatay province, liwa a-Iskandarun, next to Syria, leading to the death of a protester.
Conservatism on the decline
The JDP’s identity politics based on a secularist elite-conservative masses dichotomy is becoming obsolete. The young generation is much more accustomed than their parents to living together with people who are different. This explains the vast plurality of the Gezi protesters: soccer fans, college students, feminists, LGBTs, anti-capitalist Muslims, Kemalists, liberals, nationalists, socialists, anarchists, ecologists, Alevis.
The prayers on the night of the Mi’raj and the Friday prayers on Gezi Park attest to the emergence of a new civic multiculturalism, which poses a great challenge to JDP’s conservative discourse.
This nascent civic protest culture also poses new opportunities and risks for two other major identity movements: the Kemalists and the Kurds. From the beginning of the peace process with the Kurdistan Workers Party, the JDP based its position on the uncompromising attitude of the nationalists and Kemalists. However, whether fighting against police brutality shoulder to shoulder would lead to a rapprochement between the Kemalist and Kurdish youth depends on the post-Gezi politics of both sides. Despite people on each side recognising the benefits of such a realignment, currently hesitation and reservations seem to prevail. However, Generation Y defies the extant ideological categorisations of Turkish politics.
The vast majority of the young has no ideological affiliation and express themselves in an electic manner, picking and choosing liberally from the existing cultural pool without much regard for coherence. The image of a young man raising his hand in the shape of a wolf, the traditional symbol of the ultra-nationalist MHP, and shouting “shoulder to shoulder against fascism” is confusing to many on the Turkish left, who have been shouting this slogan against the MHP for the last 50 years.
Another major controversial issue is the JDP’s control over the media. Over the recent years, the government frequently intervened in media outlets leading to the firing of prominent journalists and anchorpersons that made and shared discomforting news for the JDP. The government controls the owners of major media outlets through the manipulation of public auctions for sizeable public projects.
The subordination of the media to the JDP reached scandalous levels when during the first day of the country-wide Gezi uprising no major TV station reported the incident. The airing of a documentary on penguins by CNN Turk, while major conflicts between protesters and the police were taking place in the centre of Istanbul, became the subject of public derision.
The media manipulation of the JDP failed largely due to the availability of Twitter, Facebook and other social media outlets. The JDP claimed that the protests were organised by a social media conspiracy by foreign agents and military coup plotters. Erdogan stated that “there is a curse called Twitter.” These allegations and statements added to the public relations scandal further undermining the credibility of the government and the media outlets under its control.
Finally, on the seventh day of the protests 2000 protesters consisting mainly of white-collar professionals convened in front of NTV, a major TV news channel, shouting “We do not want media for sale.” They attached lira bills to a cardboard saying “How much does it cost to be on air? We can pay.”
After this event, mainstream TV channels started extensive coverage of the incidents, issued apologies, but maintained a careful discourse not to raise Erdogan’s eyebrows. Still, the change in the tone of the TV channels counts as a major gain for the public visibility of the furious middle classes.
At this point, no one can foretell how the protests will unfold in the future. Prime Minister Erdogan appears to be remaining defiant and insists on his construction project in Gezi Park. His discourse aims to rally his supporters behind him against the compromising statements of President Abdullah Gul, Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc, and the Gulen-affiliated media. Behind the appearance of a one-man show, the JDP regime rests on a coalition of forces that have different opinions about how to solve the crisis.
For now, Erdogan’s plans for introducing a presidential system seem to be ruined and Gul, Arinc and the Gulen communities’ positions became more powerful within the JDP.
Thus, while Erdogan’s uncompromising discourse attempts to consolidate his base, it runs the risk of deepening the cleavages within the JDP and consolidating the protest coalition. Meanwhile, the protesters are aware that they crossed the Rubicon and there is no going back.
The writer is assistant professor of international relations at Işık University, Istanbul.