Those of us who have been in Istanbul’s Taksim Square over the past three weeks have seen both Turkey’s worst face and its best face on full display.
Amidst the chaos and the violence of the clashes between protesters and a ruthless police force, a young generation of citizens demanding peaceful coexistence, democratic dialogue and a new way of political engagement appears to have found its voice. But already that budding voice risks being stifled by the polarizing rhetoric of the political classes and the government’s sustained efforts to spin the facts on the ground and create an alternative story for the wider masses to consume.
Led by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, officials from the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government have systematically depicted the protesters as a bunch of vandals and marauders, wilfully ignoring their overwhelmingly peaceful civilian profile and remarkable sociopolitical diversity from the very beginning. Over time, this rhetoric has grown more menacing, with EU Minister Egemen Bağış declaring on the night of the final police assault in the occupied Gezi Park on 15 June that all those who tried to enter Taksim would be treated as terrorists.
Touring from city to city to galvanize his own supporters, Erdoğan has repeatedly bent the truth to discredit the protesters. Accusing them of burning Turkish flags, harassing pious women or drinking beer in a mosque-turned-infirmary during the early days of the clashes (an accusation denied by the imam of the mosque in question), he has personally fuelled societal tensions instead of alleviating them as a reasonable head of government would do.
The government has also deliberately downplayed the full scale of the protesters’ grievances, which range from fears of a police state encroaching on civil liberties, silencing dissent and weakening democratic checks and balances, to concerns about rent-based construction projects, growing violence against women and the imposition of a conservative Sunni morality on diverse communities. By pretending the only issue in contention was the redevelopment of the park, officials have sought to make the protests look extreme and malignant, using a minor environmental matter as an excuse to wreak chaos across the country.
Erdoğan's justification for this portrayal consists of an international conspiracy to prevent Turkey’s stellar rise as a regional power under his leadership, which supposedly involves foreign news networks and shadowy financial lobbies bent on pushing up interest rates, along with artists, journalists, academics, students and social media users who expressed support for the protests, and local establishments that provided safe haven to fleeing demonstrators.
Whether or not he really believes in his tall tale, its emergence is symptomatic of delusional leaders whose power and ambition makes them overly paranoid and resentful of opposition. Since the beginning of the protests, many observers (including this author) have argued that Taksim was not Tahrir and that Erdoğan, having been democratically elected three times, was not Mubarak. Yet in the eyes of millions of people who share at least some of the protesters’ grievances, Erdoğan has been losing his democratic legitimacy every day that he has pushed the country to the edge.
Then again, for millions of others across the country, he most likely hasn’t. Not only does the Turkish premier remain popular among large swaths of the conservative masses. But also because unless they happened to witness the clashes personally or are avid followers of social media, a handful of local TV channels and international news networks, the only version that they will have consumed will be that of the government’s — serviced by a sycophantic corporate media.
They will have read the latest crackdown on the protesters as an orderly and peaceful operation against a small number of troublemakers defying government’s orders. As riot police assaulted a hotel and a hospital sheltering wounded and terrorised civilians, lawyers and doctors were rounded up for assisting them, and highways and main avenues were filled with tear gas to drive out thousands of ordinary men and women outraged at their government’s treatment of its own citizens, they would be listening to the flip-flopping governor of Istanbul reassuring the nation that no major incident took place, watching carefully choreographed images of massive crowds at pro-government rallies and reading in the next day’s papers how the police “restored calm” to the city.
There is a risk that, as the government intensifies its crackdown, the world loses attention and Washington remembers Erdoğan’s strategic value for its interests in the Middle East, this more convenient version, repeated over and over again by every means of communication available to the government, will eventually supplant reality in the eyes of many distant onlookers.
Over the past three weeks, the civilian occupation at Gezi Park served as a utopian commune generating an explosion of artistic creativity, romantic self-expression and an experiment in direct democracy, inspiring millions in Turkey and beyond. When the authorities regained control of Taksim, young people went on to organize public discussion forums in parks all over Istanbul, engaging in lively political debates. If those of us who took part in it can continue to build on this experience, it could have a transformative potential pushing Turkey towards a more tolerant and pluralistic path.
Erdoğan wasted a golden opportunity to reach across the socio-political divide and become “everyone’s prime minister” by ignoring this potential and cruelly antagonising the protesters. As municipal workers remove the signs of occupation from Gezi, his government is also attempting to erase the crucial memories of the last three weeks.
The struggle to maintain and nurture those memories will be more challenging and more important than saving the park itself.
Karabekir Akkoyunlu is a doctoral candidate at the London School of Economics. His latest work is The Western Condition: Turkey, the US and the EU in the New Middle East, a detailed analysis of Turkish foreign policy, co-authored with Kalypso Nicolaïdis and Kerem Öktem. On Twitter: @ulu_manitu