Istanbul Uprising

It seemed as if the world had entered the age of the austerity riots. And then Istanbul erupted. Let there be no mistake, Istanbul cannot be lumped in with Athens, Barcelona, Lisbon or New York. What is happening in Turkey is the flip-side of the anti-capitalist coin. It is an uprising against development. It is a street battle for cities that belong to people and not capital. It is resistance against an authoritarian regime emboldened by an economic boom. What we are seeing unfolding in the streets of Istanbul is a convergence between Turkey’s small but growing anti-authoritarian left who has been organizing various campaigns of social relevance in the past years and a large section of the urban population loyal to the Kemalist ideals of modernism, secularism and nationalism. This being said, the situation in Turkey is extremely complex and necessitates an understanding of many different political situations that have been developing over the past decade.


As many may already know, the origin of the current uprising stems from the proposed development of a park near Taksim Square, at the heart of Istanbul. The development of Gezi Park is only one part of a massive urban renewal project the Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has put forth for the city and country as a whole. It Includes gentrifying schemes for the cities poorest neighborhoods such as Tarlabaşı, the construction of a third bridge to connect the two continents that Istanbul spans and even a massive plan to open up a third channel connecting the Black Sea to the Marmara Sea, to facilitate containerized shipping, which has been referred to as Erdoğan’s “crazy project”. The neighborhood of Taksim is where a great number of city development projects are happening and where there is a rich tradition of rebellion and protest. To put things into context it is useful to look at the significance of Taksim Square as a point of rebellion and convergence.

On May 1st 1977, half a million workers and revolutionaries flooded Taksim Square for one of the most epic demonstrations to date. This demonstration came six years after a bloody coup wherein three Turkish student revolutionaries, accused of being enemies of the state, were hung by a military tribunal. Their memory immortalized, the Turkish left picked up from where the executed revolutionaries had left off plunging into the seventies with force and multiplying in numbers. During that year’s demonstrations, 34 people were killed in the square by what is believed to be paramilitary gunmen on roofs as well as during the ensuing panic. In addition to being the gateway to Beyoğlu, the most culturally vibrant part of the Istanbul, with probably more bars and cafes per square meter than any other city in Europe, Taksim Square has also carried this particular tragic memory since the 1977 massacre.

The riots that have taken place most Maydays in Istanbul over the past seven years have all centered around protesters attempting to reach Taksim Square. The first of these clashes was in 2007 when the Turkish Left wanted to commemorate the massacre on its 30th anniversary. The state prevented this and far-left militants fought back in the streets with molotov cocktails and rocks. The situation was the same up until 2011, two years ago when the government finally realized its mistake and allowed the left to have the square for the day.

But things have developed since two years ago, and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s AKP government decided to introduce their massive urban renewal project for Istanbul which also included a re-visioning of the square. Under the rhetoric of making the square a pedestrian zone, the Erdoğan government (which is also in charge of the municipality of Istanbul) adopted plans, without any input from residents, to dismantle large swathes of Taksim to construct various shopping malls and development projects for the rich. The battle over holding demonstrations in Taksim on Mayday resumed this year as the state decided to use the redevelopment of the square as an excuse to prevent protests from taking place. Gezi Park, the focal point of the current rebellion is being slated for demolition to make way for the construction of a replica Ottoman-era army barracks, Topçu Kışlası, that will most likely be used for commercial purposes. It is not a coincidence for the AKP government, with its roots in Islam, that the original barracks were the site of a major Islamic uprising in 1909. This comes in addition to a decision to name the third bridge after Sultan Yavuz Selim, infamous for the mass-murders of the Alevite population of Anatolia.

Those who have been defending Gezi Park have been at it for a long time. In addition to large trade-unions, many participants come from a relatively newer independent left, with younger generations embracing more anti-authoritarian ecological tendencies with an emphasis on “right to the city” kind of activism. They all converge under the grouping of the Taksim Solidarity Platform, which focuses on preventing the transformation of the city into an even more elaborate capitalist playground built upon public space. This was not their first campaign against urban renewal. Two months ago clashes broke out between filmmakers who were trying to save a famed turkish cinema, Emek, from becoming yet another shopping mall and police who deployed pepper spray and water cannons. It is also important to note that some of the main protagonists who are involved in the fight for Gezi Park are also those behind immigrant solidarity demonstrations and actions such as providing free meals for migrants or organizing demonstrations in front of immigrant detention centers in Istanbul.

The fight to save Gezi Park was not in the public consciousness of Turkey until the police raided it two mornings in a row on May 29th and 30th. Outrage at the brutality of the police was the spark which lit the whole country on fire and transformed the struggle into a nation-wide rebellion against the current government.

Neoliberal  Islam

The ruling AKP (Justice and Development Party) should be contextualized within the transforming geopolitical landscape of the Middle East. They have strong roots in political Islam and continue the tradition of other political parties from the 1990s that had been suppressed by the military, sometimes while in power. In fact Erdoğan himself previously has been imprisoned for inciting the public to “Islamic sedition.” The stated aspiration of Erdoğan and his cadre is that of “The Neo-Ottoman Project” which aims to make Turkey the economic and political powerhouse of the Middle East and North Africa. Erdoğan’s  political power-plays in Syria and Libya must be contextualized within these aspirations.

Unlike the European Union or western states, Turkey has seen a massive economic boom (with annual growth rates of almost 10%) in the recent years. Even though both the trade deficit and real unemployment is running high and massive privatization is selling off what is left in the hands of the public, the crisis is being contained in Turkey and the current government is riding high on this situation.  This is perhaps what sets the revolt of Istanbul apart. This is a revolt against boom-time development, destructive urban renewal projects and the hyper-modernization of cities. The Istanbul uprising illustrates the opposite pole in the ongoing fight against capitalism, and complements the struggles against austerity of recent years.

Turkey was one of the prime targets of the neoliberal restructuring of the 1980s, during which then prime minister Turgut Özal facilitated massive privatization schemes targeting its factories, mines and the overall infrastructure of the country. The AKP government, and Erdoğan in particular was successful in bringing that neoliberal regime into the 21st century, shrouded by an Islamist populism. In addition, he successfully promoted Turkish firms with Islamic bases, as a neoliberal force in the global marketplace. This can be most notably seen in Northern Iraq where the major source of capital is in fact Turkish. We should remember that the Turkish model has been proposed by western powers as a possible way out of the uprisings that marked the Arab Spring. Thanks to those fighting during the past days in the streets of Turkey that neoliberal Islamic model has now been thrown into serious question.

Ergenekon and the Kurdish Struggle

Erdoğan’s aspirations have not been totally uncontested and there have been various threats against his regime, notably from a cadre of generals and intellectuals who see themselves as defenders of the Turkish secular nation-state and who have sent various warning signals to Erdoğan in recent years . The most significant counter-reaction from Erdoğan came when he launched a multi-city police operation against dozens of members of the military, intellectuals and public figures with allegations of organizing a coup against his government. These police operations, and resulting criminal cases against the conspiracy known as Ergenekon are ongoing. It is imperative to realize the significance of these arrests and resulting court proceedings. Unprecedented for a nation brought up on successive military coups, the arrests and trials of high ranking military officials and others were met with rallies and demos around Turkey as huge crowds embroiled by the ascent of the AKP defended the secular old-guard elite. These arrests and imprisonments are also why there still has not been a response to the current situation from the the Turkish military, traditionally a major player in Turkish politics. The proliferation of the Turkish nationalist sentiment in the current uprising is a direct consequence of the past years’ so-called “flag-demos” or “Rallies for the Republic” that the nationalist center-left parties have been staging against the AKP government. At this current moment of the rebellion we are witnessing the opportunism of these opposition political forces as they try to exert influence over what has so far been a true people’s uprising.

Any analysis of the Turkish uprising must consider the relationship with the Kurdish movement for liberation. The center-point of Turkish politics for the past two decades has undoubtedly been the Kurdish guerrilla warfare for autonomy launched by the PKK in 1978. Over the past months, Erdoğan has effectively brokered a peace deal with the leader of the PKK, Abdullah Öcalan, who has been in a Turkish island-prison since 1999. Erdoğan is attempting to position himself as the leader who solved the most pressing issue in the country. This has not only led him to assume a carte-blanche in Turkish politics (his regime has brutally oppressed and imprisoned various leftists and other opposition figures in recent years) but also to portray himself as a peacemaker between two ethnicities. The recently re-energized convergence of a large segment of the Turkish Left with the Kurdish movement has become more fragile due to the deal making conducted by Erdoğan as people are suspicious of how the peace process plays into his neo-ottoman ideas.

This is perhaps one of the biggest questions of the moment: how will the movement in the streets congeal and what kind of relationship will it have with the Kurdish struggle? The great majority of those who initiated the occupation of Gezi Park and who have been fighting Erdoğan’s vision of developing Istanbul are in full solidarity with the Kurdish people. But the masses that have flooded the streets with the Turkish flags are a different story. At best, they are critical of Erdoğan using the Kurdish peace process to strengthen his hold on power and at worst, they are blatant racists who see Kurds as terrorists. Despite this danger, recent developments in the street are promising. People are reporting witnessing both Turkish flags and flags with Öcalan’s portrait being displayed together or the intertwining of chants that both emphasize the fraternity between different ethnicities and ones celebrating the national identity of Turkey.

Creeping Social Conservatism

The uprising against Erdoğan is fueled by a creeping Islamic conservatism pushed by the AKP in order to cultivate its base. These conservative policies have manifested in various realms such as cutting access to abortions and birth control, tighter control of the internet and communication, restrictions and taxes on alcohol consumption and the state-sponsored amplification of Islamic holidays. These policies have been met with demonstrations of thousands in the same streets where the rebellion is centered and have been the predecessors for the current malcontent.

Erdoğan’s personal style as a prime minister, is a major factor influencing the visceral anger witnessed in the streets. In almost every public speech, whether it be at a political rally or a TV interview, Erdoğan attacks, threatens and is condescending towards every social-political segment except his own. This ranges from blatant insults to dismissals with the rabid tones of a mad-dog politician. His latest statements during the uprising were exemplary and only add fuel to the fire for those in the streets who he arrogantly characterized as “a handful of marauders and extremists.”

The crucial link between the conservative cultural policy of AKP and its economic neoliberal policy must be revealed so that the Kemalist middle class who is heavily participating in the uprising realizes that they cannot push back cultural conservatism without challenging the economic policies. If successful, this would win over the poorer classes currently more inclined to support the AKP on a cultural basis.

The first days of this people’s uprising have been totally spontaneous and outside the control of any political parties. All of the contradictions, for example between radical leftists and Turkish nationalists, were momentarily put aside to fight the police and build barricades to hold the squares and boulevards of Istanbul. What remains to be seen is whether or not large-scale public spaces such as Gezi Park and Taksim Square will provide the venue for these contradictions to come into revolutionary dialogue and construct an unstoppable movement in Turkey.

Ali Bektas can be reached at: