Friday, June 7, 2:30 a.m., Istanbul. Thousands of Justice and Development Party (AKP) supporters gathered as a showdown outside the Ataturk International Airport in Istanbul to welcome Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan upon his return from a four-day tour to North Africa, while a massive crowd in Taksim — just 20 minutes by car in normal traffic — continued their protest that started May 27 to counter Erdogan’s proposed plan to build a replica of the Ottoman Artillery Barracks, which were demolished in 1940, there.
The crowd chanted, “Ya Allah, Bismillah, Allahu Akbar,” as Erdogan climbed onto a bus at that early hour. “Let us go, we will crush Taksim.”
Unyielding and defiant, Erdogan made it clear — just as he did earlier in the day speaking in Tunis, Tunisia, the last stop of his foreign tour — that “the Ottoman Artillery Barracks will be built,” and called on his followers by saying: “You acted with dignity and common sense these past 10 days. You don’t have pots and pans in your hands, do you?” The melody of those pots and pans has been the symbol of the weeklong nationwide protests.
His determined stand, however, swept aside in an instant all the efforts of Bulent Arinc, his deputy and acting prime minister in his absence, as well as President Abdullah Gul. They both tried to talk with all parties involved in an effort to calm the tension on the streets.
With that in mind, here are some observations as to what has taken place so far since the start of the protests in Gezi Park, Taksim, started, and a clue as to why Erdogan is so determined to build the Ottoman Artillery Barracks at Taksim Square, despite all these protests casting doubt across the world of his commitment to democracy.
First and foremost, Erdogan’s AKP acknowledged — although rather discreetly — that the prime minister’s rhetoric has been problematic.
“No doubt that rhetoric is important,” said Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc at a news briefing on June 4. “To understand a person, one needs to look at his or her rhetoric. We can all be tough and hurtful with our rhetoric. We also need to include anger in this. It would be appropriate for those in leadership positions to have a more constructive and embracing rhetoric.” To be sure, Arinc could not have publicly used Erdogan’s name as a point of reference here, but the message looks quite clear.
Protesters on the street are not politically unified, oriented or ideologically driven. They want freedom and express themselves as individuals. It will be misleading for political actors to frame these people as belonging to a party, group or ideology. This danger is not limited to the AKP but includes all the opposition parties as well. It is a simple social movement, and therefore the prime minister still has a significant chance at winning them over.
But it is a crucial problem that Erdogan prefers to portray a small group in this crowd — without question they are troublemakers, damaging private and public property — as representing all protesters. “The known terror group [Revolutionary People’s Liberation Front, DHKP-C] that attacked the US Embassy [Feb. 1, 2013] is in this business [of organizing these protests,]” Erdogan said from Tunis on Thursday [June 6]. “They’re caught both on the streets and in social media.” That said, pictures are worth a thousand words, and for the past two weeks the world has been watching these iconic images that clearly show police brutality toward peaceful demonstrators.
Erdogan’s instincts even worried the United States, the country that framed Erdogan as the representative of “moderate Islam.” “We are concerned by the reports of excessive use of force by police,” John Kerry, US Secretary of State, said on June 3. “We obviously hope that there will be a full investigation of those incidents and full restraint from the police force.” In other words, the world is not buying into Erdogan’s attempts to portray the protesters as terrorists or anti-American. The protesters have an issue with Erdogan himself.
While many protesters urge Erdogan to do something concrete about the excessive use of force, they also speculate that this violence could serve a Byzantine agenda. It is no secret that Erdogan has not had the best relationship with the Fethullah Gulen movement lately. Some street protesters claim there are significant numbers of Gulen supporters in the police establishment, and these unwarranted attacks on civilians could be a means to hurt Erdogan politically and favor Gul, who is considered to be close to the Gulen movement, in his place. There have been rumors in the past few months speculating as to whether Gul would have a chance at the ballot box if he were to break away from the AKP and establish a new party. Those who shared this thought with me, while wanting to remain anonymous, also said that if this is shown to be true, they will surely side with Erdogan — as it has been the Gulen movement that has primarily taken over the security establishment and created the fear of their privacy being invaded either through wiretaps or the judiciary.
Erdogan is a strong leader who won three consecutive elections by increasing the size of his constituency with each race. Although many on the streets ask for his resignation, their primary desire is to make themselves heard by the prime minister. They hope he changes his political style and harsh rhetoric. They want democracy to win and Erdogan’s authoritarian instincts not to become stronger. More importantly, they also protest the country’s main opposition for failing to present itself as a real contender to power. At the same time, Erdogan may wish to see these protesters form a political party and take votes from the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP).
Erdogan is not the only tough-talking guy in this country. What the Gezi Park demonstrations have reminded us as Turkish men and women is that this nation has plenty of unique characters who are capable and creative as well as patient and wise. They demand to be treated accordingly — whether they directly take part in politics or not.
Although Arinc extended an apology to the Gezi Park protesters, people are still angry with him. They believe Arinc is lying to them. Arinc claimed that police only “use gas as the last resort, and for self-defense.” He also said,“244 police officers were injured” versus “64 protesters.” Yet, the Turkish Medical Association claims that more than 4,000 civilians have been injured.
The Erdogan government is still very strong, but the protesters are confused as to how its base can turn a blind eye to all the photographic proof of the excessive use of force by the police. While there is a small group of troublemakers among the protesters, Erdogan is wrong to portray the majority demonstrating against his policies as “street bandits,” or “terrorists.” It was also chilling to hear Erdogan supporters early this morning outside the airport chant, “Let us go, we will crush them in Taksim.”
There is widespread outrage among the protesters at Erdogan’s statement calling Twitter a “social menace” and Arinc’s statement that “in fact, there are many opportunities that show how democratic we are; it could have been possible to close down the whole [Internet]. We could prevent people from accessing [Twitter.]” The arrest of 29 youths in Izmir — just a day after Arinc’s remarks — for their tweets having been deemed “unacceptable” and “undemocratic,” have inspired even stronger criticism of the Turkish media’s coverage of the protests. Citizen journalism in the shape of Twitter and Facebook has empowered the protesters, and the arrests have not slowed them down.
While Erdogan does not seem to understand that those on the streets are not politically driven, there is potential that the protesters' feeling of being the “unwanted kid” in the family could be enhanced, and this could be very problematic. For the prime minister, it really is not enough to call them “my environmentalist brothers,” like he did today [June 7] in an attempt to calm the tension.
After meeting with Arinc on June 5, Taksim Solidarity Group (TSG) members told the media, “The prime minister’s rhetoric is invoking civil war.” So, they are in a wait-and-see mode now as to whether Erdogan will find a way to retreat from building the Ottoman Artillery Barracks building at Taksim Square. Although not confirmed at the time of this article's publication, there is a possibility that Erdogan may meet TSG members over the weekend to discuss the issue.
This is what the protesters want from the government:
Gezi Park should remain a park.
There should be no construction of Ottoman Artillery Barracks at Gezi Park’s compound, and the Ataturk Cultural Center should not be demolished.
The governors and chief security officers, as well as those police officers who escalated the events in Istanbul — Ankara and Hatay — should be removed from duty.
Spraying gas of any type at protesters should be banned.
People in custody for protesting should be released immediately. [Interior Minister Muammer Guler announced on June 6 that there is no one left in custody “except for a few.”]
The bans on peaceful assembly in Taksim (Istanbul) or Kizilay (Ankara) squares to celebrate Labor Day should be lifted.
- All restrictions on freedom of expression should end.
These seven demands will give Erdogan yet another chance to show his leadership. These protests are an opportunity for him to connect with a segment of the population that strongly feels rejected and ignored and show the world what he really understands of democracy. But it is also a fact that Erdogan — more and more — perceives himself as an Ottoman sultan rather than the prime minister of the Republic of Turkey.
“I salute my brothers who are here in Istanbul, in Istanbul’s brother city Sarajevo, Baku, Beirut, Skopje, Damascus, Gaza, Mecca, Medina,” he told the crowd outside the Istanbul airport early this morning. “I salute Istanbul again and again with all my heart, every Istanbul neighborhood, every street, every district.” If he were not to consider himself in the shoes of an Ottoman sultan, why in the world would he send those greetings to former Ottoman provinces upon a routine return to the country from a foreign trip?
Although Erdogan seems to be determined to go ahead with his proposed plan of building the Ottoman Artillery Barracks at Taksim Square, this test will nevertheless determine whether Turkey can remain stable in the coming weeks and months. But there certainly is an explanation as to why he is acting the way he is.
“Because he is not losing in the public opinion polls,” Hasan Kanbolat, director of Ankara-based think tank Center for Middle Eastern Strategic Studies (ORSAM) told Al-Monitor. “Since Erdogan came to power, he has made sure that his party receives at least three different public opinion poll results from different groups — sometimes weekly, sometimes every other week. He must have seen in these polls that these protests are not challenging his authority.”
It is also worth noting that if there were to be a real opposition in the country, people would not be on the streets protesting the prime minister. Their demonstrations are less about the AKP as a whole, but directly about Erdogan — people seem to be fed up with his rhetoric, and him lecturing them as to how they should live their lives. This is not really about saving a dozen trees in Taksim Square any longer, but about a dozen other things that these people have been keeping to themselves since he came to power over a decade ago.
Erdogan often reminds them that he has been elected to office with “21.5 million" votes. “They say I am the prime minister of only 50%. It’s not true,” Erdogan told the crowd early this morning. “We have served every single one of the 76 million, from the east to the west.”
“In theory, the prime minister may be right [in reminding us as to how many votes he received at the last election]. True that who wins the election at the ballot box forms the government, and rules the country. That is why these numbers [at the ballot box] are important,” Sengul Hablemitoglu, professor at Ankara University's social studies department, told Al-Monitor. “What he misses is that he needs to connect theory with practice if he really wants to be the prime minister of all. Those on the streets are a clear testament that he has failed in doing so.”
Hablemitoglu argues that Erdogan is consciously increasing the tension on the streets, and that is why his rhetoric and actions are not showing any sign of concession about the Taksim project. “He must have calculated his gain out of all this,” Hablemitoglu said. “This may remain the only way — in his perception — to prove to those who strongly disagree with him that he has the ultimate power, and the last word.”
No doubt that while Erdogan continues with his tough talk at full speed, the crowds continue gathering on the streets, and it is all very unclear as to how this unrest will be finalized.
One thing, however, is certain: Erdogan’s image as the face of a pious, peace-loving Muslim — one who can lead the rest of the Arab world to democracy — has been opened to debate, and the lack of a serious opposition in Turkey may now be a bigger problem.
Tulin Daloglu is a contributor to Al-Monitor's Turkey Pulse. She has also written extensively for various Turkish and American publications, including The New York Times, International Herald Tribune, The Middle East Times, Foreign Policy, The Daily Star (Lebanon) and the SAIS Turkey Analyst Report. On Twitter: @TurkeyPulse