Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Understanding the Protests in Turkey

Today is the fifth day of protests in dozens of cities throughout Turkey.  The demonstrations began at Gezi Park in Istanbul where dozens of people had been protesting government plans to remove the park to make way for a possible shopping mall.  The park is a well-loved green space with some trees that were apparently planted during the era of Ataturk in the early 20th century.  The original protests were generally peaceful and environmentalist in nature, but there was already a political element given the park's renown and the current government's "moderate Islamist" stance.  Secularists in Turkey are normally supporters of Ataturk and his reforms and they are often at odds with the Islamists.

The police responded to the demonstration with a show of force, moving people out of the park and using tear gas and pepper spray.  Word of the excessive force used by police spread quickly and images of clashes between protestors and police flooded Twitter and Facebook.  Thousands of people in Istanbul were moved to action to express solidarity with the protestors at Gezi Park, and the police escalated the situation with increasing violence, including street tanks, water cannons, and more gas cannisters.  

People in other cities, also outraged at the police response to the demonstrations, began to take to the streets.  The protests were quickly broadened to include expressions of discontent with Turkey's current government, particularly the perceived strong-handed control being wielded by prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the Turkish police forces.  Crowds in more than 20 of Turkey's 81 provinces participated in the protests.  People began calling for the prime minister to resign, and graffiti related to Erdogan and  the police began to appear throughout the country. 

Crowds gathered and marched in Ankara on the first day after the original clashes with police at Gezi Park. Many thousands of people from diverse political, racial, and socio-economic backgrounds joined in the marches and demonstrations.  Rich and poor, old and young came out of their houses banging pots and pans or clanging forks and switching their lights on and off in support of the growing movement.  

Turkish media was strangely silent about the protests and many Turks were apalled that newspapers and television stations seemed to be acting as if there there weren't hundreds of thousands of people angrily marching all over the country.  Only one small satellite-based network, Halk TV, provided live coverage of the protests.  Turks relied on Facebook and Twitter to communicate about meeting times for marches and demonstrations, to issue warnings about police activities in certain areas, and to appeal for medical or other assistance in the protest zones.

Although the events at Gezi Park were enough to elicit powerful reactions on the part of the people, they certainly wouldn't have produced this level of protest without the long history of decisions made by the current government.  Some of the more controversial decisions and actions were made quite recently.  For example, the government recently decided to prohibit the sale of alcohol at stores after 10:00 PM, a policy which still has Turkey's secularists reeling.  Another series of much smaller demonstrations occurred when a couple was "caught" kissing on security cameras in an Ankara subway and a loudspeaker announcement was made encouraging people to behave according to "moral standards."  

The protests have grown in intensity and clashes with police have become increasingly violent.  Several political parties and causes are riding the wave of public discontent and attempting to coopt the demonstrations.  And as the crowds are increasingly emboldened the destruction that they are causing also increases.  It seems that the protests are losing some of the public support because of the lack of a clear message and the damage that people are seeing on the street.  

These events have been a wake-up call to the ruling party and there will have to be an ongoing effort to win back the confidence of the people. Erdogan's initial statements were dismissive of the protests as he defended the actions of his government and the police. And now he is out of the country on a scheduled diplomatic trip to North Africa. The deputy prime minister made a statement, today, however, apologizing for the excessive force used to quash the initial protest at Gezi Park.  This is an obvious sign that the government is now being forced to reconsider Erdogan's dismissive approach.  
Tonight thousands of protesters are convening again.  Ankara's downtown area has sustained damage in the form of broken storefront windows, spray-painted graffiti, dismantled sidewalks, fires on the street and soaked streets from the police water cannon. Public services and transportation are limited, and many are avoiding the downtown altogether.  

Today a two-day strike was announced which will include thousands of public-sector workers and several unions.  The strike is designed to show solidarity and to communicate that the protests are not just unruly mobs in the streets, but include mainstream working men and women.  Similarly, several politicians made statements today condemning the government's actions leading up to the protests as well as the prime minister's response. 

The Turkish Church is generally sympathetic to the complaints that gave rise to the protests.  Many believers actively participated in the first day or two of demonstrations and some continue to be involved.  There is a diversity of opinion about what the church's response should be, and some heated discussion has been taking place about whether the protests have lost their initial message.  Most of the exchange is happening on Facebook and Twitter, and well-respected Turkish church leaders have being weighing in on the issue.  Pastors preached sermons this past Sunday related to civil disobedience and other topics that could give insight into these events.

The protests are likely to continue for at least a few more days as the government tries to formulate a response that will neutralize the explosive atmosphere and cool public support for the crowds on the street.  And I suspect that in the absence of a clear message or agenda for reform the crowds will be increasingly composed of people on the political fringes and the general public will no longer identify with the movement, and it will die.  There will undoubtedly be permanent effects, however.  The public will not forget that it has the ability to hold people in power accountable simply by showing up in large numbers.  The government will have to make serious adjustments to its public image and there will obviously be an increased care taken not to rekindle the flame of the protests in the days to come.  And the church will have gained the experience of wrestling with a new dimension to its role in Turkish society.

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