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Ghosts of Gezi protests still haunt Erdogan

The timing of President Erdogan’s recent outbursts targeting the 2013 Gezi protests hints that the protests will play a central role in his campaigning ahead of the June 2023 elections. 
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks to his supporters on June 7, 2013 in Istanbul, Turkey.

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s angry outbursts are nothing new, and his new favorite punching bag seems to have become the Gezi protests that took place nine years ago. 

Addressing a group of Turkish businesspeople on June 13, Erdogan blamed “multipronged attacks that kicked off with the Gezi protests” for his country's failure to reach the national income of $1.5 trillion. “We will not give our last breath before we settle the score with them,” he pledged. 

It wasn’t the president’s first strike at the 2013 Gezi protests. Earlier this month, Erdogan branded Gezi protestors as rotten and "sluts,” setting off a large public outcry. While officials from his ruling party tried to downplay the insults as “a slip of the tongue,” Erdogan has remained defiant. “I spoke the language of the people,” he said, standing behind his comments. 

The Gezi protests that started as a small-scale environmental demonstration in Istanbul’s main Taksim Square morphed into a nationwide protest against Erdogan’s rule, with hundreds of thousands of people taking to the streets across the country and protesting the ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) increasing authoritarianism. In another speech on June 5, Erdogan accused Gezi protestors of “burning mosques,” prompting opposition members to confront him, asking for proof

Main opposition lawmaker Alpay Antmen submitted a parliamentary query asking Vice President Fuat Oktay about Erdogan's claim. “When were these mosques burned? Who burned them? If so, why didn't you bring charges against them over the past nine years?” she asked.

“All AKP members, including Erdogan, know that it is a lie; hence, no one can defend him. Previously, Erdogan had claimed that they (the protesters) had drunk liquor in a mosque and that images of them were going to be released ‘next week,’” Antmen told Al-Monitor, reminding that they have failed to produce any single photo or video of the alleged incident over the past nine years because it was simply “false.”

Coinciding with Erdogan’s formal announcement of his re-election bid on June 9, the timing of Erdogan’s successive shots at the Gezi protests hints that they will play a central role in his parlance throughout the campaigning period.

Antmen agrees that Erdogan’s renewed outrage at the Gezi protests has to do with elections scheduled for June 2023. 

“Because he lost social, economic [and] political control of Turkey,” Antmen said, “Erdogan now aims at convincing former AKP supporters by utilizing religion and polarization. This is an ugly and dangerous plan. Claiming a group in Turkey has burned mosques is a dangerous allegation. The only good news is that AKP members know that this is a lie,” he added.

According to Merve Tahiroglu, Turkey program coordinator at the Project on Middle East Democracy in Washington DC, Erdogan’s fixation with Gezi also has other reasons.

“Erdogan is obsessed with Gezi for two reasons. First, the protesters clearly showed Turkey and the world that Erdogan, far from his own self-image as a ‘man of the people,’ is not as popular as he thinks. Second, Erdogan still uses the liberal leftist bent of the Gezi protestors to perpetuate the image of a culture war between secular and pious citizens in Turkey. Although he depicts himself as a victim of this war, he is the one waging it,” she said.

A Turkish court in April sentenced prominent Turkish human rights activist Osman Kavala to life imprisonment for financially supporting Gezi protests in a bid to overthrow the government. Seven other defendants in the trial were also sentenced to 18 years in jail. The convictions that were widely denounced as politically motivated by several Western capitals and international civic groups are seen as another indication of Erdogan’s enmity toward Gezi protestors. 

Sinan Ciddi, professor at the Marine Corps University and nonresident senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, points out another motive. 

“His fixation on Gezi is part of his ongoing strategy to deflect attention from the dire economic and political daily agenda of Turkey,” he told Al-Monitor. “It is a concerted attempt to deflect voter focus away from the crippling level of inflation plaguing the country and the ever-increasing poverty that Turks across most income levels are experiencing. By rehashing falsehoods about Gezi protests, he is continuing a culture war that seeks to rally his base — a base that is shrinking daily.”

According to Seren Selvi Korkmaz, a political analyst and executive director of IstanPol, the Gezi protests that remain a polarizing event for Turkey’s society are a handy tool that allows Erdogan to attack several opposition groups, including the main opposition Republican People's Party and pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party. 

“During Gezi, a part of the AKP’s base was convinced that Gezi was a foreign destructive movement. Erdogan found a way to punish the opposition through Gezi. And he keeps reiterating ‘they drank alcohol in our mosques’ statements, which marginalize alcohol consumption,” she told Al-Monitor. 

“I expect we will see this searing rhetoric more frequently to polarize the public further,” she added.