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Who Are the Turkish Protesters?


Are they extremists, as Erdoğan suggested? Are they activists organized by Turkey’s opposition parties? Are they “bums” and “looters”? Hippies? Kurds? Leftists? Anarchists? Soccer hooligans?

What began as a peaceful sit-in to protect one of Istanbul’s last green parks has evolved over the past few days into huge street marches and battles between protesters and riot police. Tear gas has filled the air in several cities across the country. Young men with scarves covering their faces fought with rocks against heavily armed police. The offices of Erdoğan’s party in Izmir were set on fire. Hundreds have been injured. One young protester is reported dead. “To your health, Tayyip!” people screamed as ambulances rushed the injured to hospitals.

But who are these people? The makeup of the ranks of protesters is an important indicator of how far all this will go. Erdoğan remains one of Turkey’s most popular politicians, the most popular Prime Minister in half a century. He commands significant support among Turkey’s conservative, rural, and religious citizens.

Do the protesters really represent “the entire spectrum of Turkish society,” as Haaretz reported yesterday? Or is it “young people from the country’s mainly upper-class,” as Zihni Özdil writes for Muftah? These demonstrations, Özdil continues, “represent one of the last convulsions of the old ‘secular’ elites, who have been waging, and losing, a bitter battle against the rising Anatolian nouveau-riche that make up Erdogan’s AKP.” Erdoğan has other enemies too, and they’ve become more active recently. “[N]ationalist groups despise Erdoğan for initiating a peace process with the PKK,” writes the prominent Turkish journalist Mustafa Akyol, “while communist groups condemn him for being ‘an American collaborator,’ and an enemy of the Assad regime in Syria, which they hold dear.”

The protesters seem to represent numerous sections of Turkish society. But not Turkish society in its entirety. “[W]hile thousands [of Turks] went on the streets to protest him [Erdoğan],” Akyol continues, “millions who support him remained in their homes.”

This is not yet a “Turkish Spring,” as many people are clamoring about on Twitter. Taksim Square is not Tahrir. Erdoğan is not Mubarak. Yet these protests matter. Turkey has had a good run over the past few years, but behind the scenes Erdoğan has consolidated power and run the government according to his own priorities; he’s arrested generals and journalists, muzzled dissent, and is attempting to enshrine a new constitution that would award the president enormous power. Many Turks despise him.

“Erdoğan will win this fight, but it may destroy him,” tweeted a Reuters journalist in Istanbul. Akyol seems to agree: “This is not a Turkish Spring—but Erdoğan could yet turn it into one, against himself.”

Perhaps the Turkish-American journalist Elif Batuman best captures the situation: “On my street, spirits seem to be high. Someone is playing ‘Bella, Ciao’ on a boom-box, and I can hear cheering and clapping. But every now and then the spring breeze carries a high, whistling, screaming sound, and the faint smell of pepper gas.”

[Turkish protestors and riot policemen clash on June 1, 2013, during a protest against the demolition of Taksim Gezi Park. Photo courtesy of Getty Images]

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  • Fat_Man

    “The economics of the ‘Turkish Spring’” By David P. Goldman On June 3, 2013

    “The credulity that the mainstream media display towards Turkey continues to astonish. One reads today in the New York Times of Turkey’s “booming economy and a self-confidence expressed by the religiously conservative ruling elite,” at a moment when a mass uprising betrays the weakness of the Turkish economy and the bumbling of the ruling elite. As I report in the essay below cross-posted from Asia Times Online, employment in Turkey’s formal economy has shrunk by 5% in the past year (equivalent to the worst of the 2008 Great Recession in the US) and Turkish households are cutting spending under the weight of a crushing debt burden. Western reporters who turn up for a few days in Istanbul see a lot of construction activity, to be sure — that’s because Turkey’s Islamists are spending like drunken sailors on Islamic vanity projects while the private sector is shrinking. Two things have gone terribly wrong for Tayyip Erdogan. The first is his commitment to the Syrian quagmire, and the second (and ultimately more important) is the collapse of his consumer credit bubble.”

    * * *

    “In retrospect, analysts of Turkish politics may conclude, Erdogan’s Islamism was not a fresh start for Turkey but rather a belated attempt to pour Islamic glue into the cracks that threaten to fracture Turkish society. He may already have failed. A growing proportion of Turkish voters has concluded that they made a deal with the devil, and that the devil hasn’t kept his side of the bargain.”

  • Nick Bidler

    I am, as a rule, wary of any group that uses the #occupy label, but this group seems to have rather more serious grievances than #occupywallst, which really was composed of the young upper-class new blood and the old lower-class veterans of protestation.

  • ljgude

    Turkish Teapartiers or anti progressive elements trying to bring back the days of Turkey’s founding father – Ataturk. Like all Teapartiers they are on the wrong side of history and will we swept away by the progressive forces of Erdogan and Obama.

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