Ahram Online (AO): The government seems to have made some concessions regarding scrapping mall building plans [in Gezi Park in Istanbul]. Erdogan said that he was open to "democratic demands." Has any sort of dialogue been put into place so far? What are the updates on other government development plans in the area and can any kind of agreement be reached between the government and protesters regarding this point?
Ozan Tekin (OT): While Erdogan was on his previously scheduled state visit in North Africa, Deputy PM Bulent Arinc met a delegation from the Taksim Solidarity group - an umbrella organisation of protesters - to discuss their demands.
Most AKP [the ruling Justice and Development Party] officials have currently been saying that the protests on the first day were legitimate and right, but that what concerns them is the broadening of the events as a threat to the government with “extremists’ incitation.” The governor of Istanbul declared that he wishes he was in Gezi Park alongside the occupiers – he was denouncing the protest as “illegal” 10 days ago.
The government now says that they will go ahead with their plans to rebuild the old Ottoman barracks in the park, but there won’t be any shopping malls or luxury residences within. Taksim Solidarity and the wider layers of protesters insist on not giving up without a declaration that the park won’t be destroyed. So the government has had to step back from some parts of its plans, but an agreement seems unlikely in the near future unless there are further concessions by the government.
The results of a recent public opinion poll claim that 75 percent of Istanbul residents and 64 percent of the population oppose the government’s restructuring plans for the park.
AO: A crackdown on Ankara protests during the weekend has been brutal and thousands are gathering in many of Istanbul's districts and in Ankara amid fears of more use of force. What are the reasons for the apparent escalation in protests and police response?
OT: Gezi Park has been free of any security forces for over a week now. There are barricades all around Taksim Square and the police have withdrawn completely. That was because tens of thousands bravely resisted police violence last weekend, with more and more people coming out onto the streets as the police attacks were becoming harsher.
The place is now like a festival area, with thousands staying there every night and tens of thousands visiting every day after working hours. However, police terror is still alive in other cities where thousands of people demonstrate in solidarity with Taksim Square.
AO: There are rising calls for having early elections, which are slated for 2014. Is this becoming a popular demand and what is the government's reaction?
OT: This has not been put up by the protesters as a demand, but some commentators and opposition MPs have been raising it for a while. A leading AKP MP denied it. But there were already a series of contests due in 2013-14: local elections, a presidential election and, probably, a referendum on a new constitution.
This movement has still not won majority support across the country. Its significance comes from the numbers it succeeded to mobilise on the streets. The movement needs to win over parts of the government’s voter base - who make up 50 percent of the total electorate - in order to create a serious threat to Erdogan. To do this we have to struggle against the ideas of the ruling class that divide us, like racism, nationalism, sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia and so on. Some opinion polls indicate that 16 percent of AKP supporters are sympathetic to the resistance – that is a good starting point.
This is the reason why Erdogan immediately started rallies in many cities and is planning to do more - to consolidate his base against the movement.
AO: So what about his rallies? What is their clout and are they increasing in numbers as protests escalate?
OT: The numbers are not huge, considering the government’s support, but what’s remarkable is the anger that this movement has created among AKP supporters. They consider this to be a plot by the Kemalists against conservative/Islamist forces.
The chants in Erdogan’s rallies are quite furious: “Stand firm, never bend, the people are with you”, “Give us the go-ahead and we’ll crush Taksim.” Erdogan is not yet giving the go-ahead, but he’s gambling on this by telling a series of lies – that the protesters occupied a mosque to drink alcohol inside (which has been denied by the imam of the mosque in question), that women with headscarves are being harassed by the protesters (a women’s march has been held by the Gezi occupiers to oppose any kind of abuse against women). The prime minister is also using nationalist rhetoric, claiming that this is an international plot against “Turkey’s economic growth.”
AO: What is the Kurds’ stance on the events?
OT: Kurdish people have been involved in the events at Taksim Square, and some demonstrations in solidarity with the movement were held in Kurdish cities. But their participation is not at full strength.
Considering the ongoing peace process with the government which will end the state’s discrimination against the Kurds, they’re worried that a CHP-MHP coalition (a Kemalist/fascist coalition opposed to the peace negotiations) may come to power if the government falls.
The Kurds in the park have faced some attacks because they display PKK leader Öcalan’s posters in their area in the park. Socialists and all anti-racists in the movement are fighting hard to diminish the nationalists’ influence inside the park and to defend Turkish-Kurdish unity. We have been successful so far, but it is still very important to build a united front against racism.
AO: What is the situation in Taksim Square, and can you tell us a bit about the atmosphere in the Gezi Park camp?
OT: There is a complete sense of freedom. Tens of thousands have been joining every day after work to turn the park into a carnival. A few thousand stay for the whole night. The activists overcome any problem in a spirit of solidarity and comradeship. Everywhere in the park people debate what’s to come and how we can move forward. Many political forces have their own stalls. People inside are very open to new and even radical ideas. You can sell hundreds of copies of the ‘Socialist Worker’ paper in a day.
Ozan Tekin is an author and editor at Marksist.org, a Turkish leftist news site. He can be reached at [email protected], or on Twitter at @ozantekin.