Gezi Park Revisited

Lessons from the 2013 uprising.

Faced with the narrow victory in April’s referendum and the prospect of a new opposition party, Turkey’s President Erdoğan has admitted he faces “a difficult period” ahead of the 2019 elections. For that reason, he has already hit the road to drum up support, and where better to start than the Black Sea region, where he enjoys staunch support.  

Last week in a speech in Trabzon province Erdoğan lashed out at those who four years ago demonstrated against plans to demolish Gezi Park in Istanbul and replace it with a shopping mall. According to Erdoğan they made a great to-do about moving 11 or 12 trees from one place to another and accused them of being backed by imperialists intent on destabilizing Turkey. On the contrary, the president claimed, his government are environmentalists, since they have planted two and half million trees since they came to power 15 years ago.

It is interesting that Turkey’s president should choose to raise the issue of Gezi Park at this stage, since this was the first popular uprising against his regime. In the last days of May 2013 a mixed group of environmentalists camped out in Gezi Park, a green islet adjacent to the central Taksim Square, to prevent the park’s destruction. In turn, the police used water cannons, tear gas, pepper spray, plastic bullets and batons to dislodge them. 

What began as a local protest spread to 79 out of Turkey’s 81 provinces, and in an open letter to Prime Minister Erdoğan in The Times the signatories condemned the “untold brutal force” employed by his police not only in Gezi Park and Taksim Square but also in other major Turkish cities. A similar crowdfunded ad appeared in the New York Times, demanding an end to police brutality, free media and an open democratic dialogue. 

An estimated three and a half million people demonstrated against the government’s crackdown, resulting in 11 dead and more than 8,000 injured. In the ensuing wave of repression 5,300 were arrested and in a now familiar pattern action was taken against journalists and media that covered the protests. In the first 20 days of demonstrations the Turkish police depleted 130,000 of their stock of 150,000 canisters of tear gas, causing them to order 100,000 more.      

Prime Minister Erdoğan called the demonstrators vandals, hooligans and looters, but research has shown that half of the protesters in Gezi Park were college graduates. The same research has shown that the main grievances were restrictions on freedom, the governing AK Party and its policies, and indignation with Erdoğan’s statements and attitude. 

According to Erdoğan, however, the demonstrations were instigated by the “interest rate lobby” and its Turkish lackeys, leading banks. His deputy prime minister Beşir Atalay was more specific and blamed it all on “the Jewish diaspora.” In another speech Erdoğan claimed an international conspiracy to destabilize Turkey was responsible and also blamed the international media, in particular the BBC, as well as Twitter and Facebook. This is entirely in keeping with his present attitude, where he claims Turkey is under attack from Western powers.   

Erdoğan has condemned social media as “the worst menace to society” and Facebook as “ugly technology” with good reason, as it was Twitter and Facebook that helped to topple President Hosni Mubarak in Egypt. On the fourth day of the Gezi Park protests 2 million tweets were sent in eight hours to mobilize resistance and by June 5 this number had risen to 15 million. 

Since the attempted coup last July cyber crime police units have determined that terrorist propaganda has been disseminated from 70,000 social media accounts. In February 22,000 users were already identified and work has continued to identify the remaining 48,000. This has resulted in thousands of detentions and arrests, also for insulting the president, and with almost monotonous regularity the Interior Ministry states each week how many have been detained. 

This is ironic in view of the fact that President Erdoğan has his own Facebook account with 32,154 likes and a Twitter account with 10.8 million followers.  

President Erdoğan’s claim that his AKP government are environmentalists is equally dubious. The two and a half million trees he says they have planted are outweighed by the 2.7 million trees cut for the construction of Istanbul’s third airport and third bridge over the Bosphorus, which together with the planned Kanal Istanbul could result in an environmental disaster. Other projects could cost a further eight to nine million trees. The year before the Gezi Park uprising there were protests against the construction of waste-dumps, nuclear, coal and hydroelectric power plants, mines, factories and dams in the Black Sea region and elsewhere in Turkey. 

The construction of a giant mosque complex on Çamlıca hill overlooking Istanbul is yet another example of Erdoğan’s intended legacy. His presidential palace in Ankara, built in an environmentally protected zone which belonged to Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, has been called a product of “megalomaniac architecture” and as such is a fitting monument to Erdoğan’s rule. 

Robert Ellis is a regular commentator on Turkish affairs in the Danish and international press.