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Posts Tagged ‘Arab Spring

Gezi in the Greater Context

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I recently watched the documentary Urbanized with my aspiring city-planner spouse.  Toward the end of the movie there is a segment on the Stuttgart 21 project, a highly controversial urban renewal project centered on Stuttgart’s central train station.  The purpose of the project to improve ties with the greater European transportation and economic networks through a major renovation and expansion of the Stuttgart train station.  Those opposed to the project centered their attention on the project’s destruction of a public park and the 100 year old trees it was home to.  The movie featured video from a police intervention during one particularly large protest:  tear gas, water cannons and fleeing crowds.  Seeing the eerily familiar images of the anti-Stuttgart21 (S21) protests led me to consider what now seems like a glaringly obvious hypothesis: Gezi belongs to a wider phenomenon of public-space centered protests in democratic nations.

Analysts and journalists have been struggling, mostly unsuccessfully, to relate Gezi to other recent protest movements.  Especially at its onset, Gezi was often falsely categorized as part of the “Arab Spring.”  As the ongoing crisis in Egypt most dramatically demonstrates, Gezi’s relationship to other recent regional protest movements is superficial at best.  Despite what some would argue are Erdogan’s desires to the contrary, Turkey remains a largely stable democracy.  In Turkey, there were vociferous calls for the “dictator” Erdogan to resign, but only the most naive considered this to be a serious possibility.  In contrast, the leaders who were the target of the Arab spring were true autocrats who, with the exception of Assad, many but not all of whom were eventually ousted as a result of the protests.  In a historic change, the unrest in Turkey also failed to materialize any serious calls for a coup.  For better or worse (and I would strongly argue the “better” outweighs the “worse”) Turkey’s civilian government has simultaneously stripped the military of its former political power while building up its own authority.

In the first few days of the movement, the Gezi protestors began to adopt the terminology of the “Occupy” movement that began in New York in 2011.  Although the association of Gezi with Occupy is more accurate than the Arab Spring, the two movements in some ways also make a strange partnership.  Despite their signature tactic of “occupying” a space, the Occupy movement was largely a protest about wealth inequality and government coddling of the banking industry rather than the destruction of public space.  In contrast, Gezi began a movement to save a public space and morphed into a protest against government repression and authoritarianism.  As varied as the motivations of those who joined in to the Gezi movement were, there was a distinct lack of economic complaints.

Of the large-scale protest movements that have captured the world’s attention in the past 3 years, the recent events in Brazil are the most clearly analogous to Gezi.  Both center around a lack of public input into large scale construction projects and government encroachment on public spaces.  The anti-Stuttgart 21 fits this pattern as well.  Throughout the democratic world, there have been a number of largely overlooked local protests aiming to curb construction in urban public spaces.  Defining Gezi as a public-space centered movement, as opposed to anti-government movements like the Arab spring or economic protests like Occupy, allows us to locate it within a greater context and compare it to similar protests.  The anti-S21 protests provide a particularly useful example for comparison as it is slightly older than Gezi and therefore its impact has had more time to solidify.

One of the most superficial conclusions we can draw from the pervasiveness of public-space centered protests is that city dwellers are increasingly opting for quality of life and community over economic development.   Even those in low income areas or informal settlements who are most likely to be the victims of development are increasingly able to express their discontent through the use of new media.

Though they are more likely to have their voices heard than in the past, protesters are at a distinct disadvantage when attempting to stop planned construction projects.  This is true in both developing and more mature democracies.  In Stuttgart, the S21 project had undergone a public review and approval process for a number of years before the protest movement began.  The government therefore countered the protests with the assertion that the public has already been given the chance to weigh in on the project.  In the case of less mature democracies such as Turkey and Brazil, the government is less likely to seek public approval prior to beginning a project but will subsequently use an appeal to majoritarian politics and sheer force to “argue” their case.

Despite their de facto advantage, governments often feel threatened by these protests, especially when they draw large crowds, and tend to use excessive force in attempts to break up demonstrations.  This is true even in a “mature” democracy like Germany, though notably the forceful suppression of the anti-S21 only happened on one occasion as opposed to the dozens (and counting) police-protester encounters related to Gezi.  I would posit that the violent government reaction stems from the fact that these type of protests threaten state monopoly over the control of public space.  Public space provides a home for dissent (through protests) as well as less “desirable” and more volatile elements of society such as the poor, the homeless and young people.  Protests against building up and “sanitizing” such public spaces are therefore not just a threat to the viability of an individual project but existentially to the government itself.

It unfortunately appears inevitable that a modern state will need to reassure itself that it maintains a “monopoly on violence” and from time to time end up acting against its own people.  The test of a true democracy is if there are consequences for doing so.  In the case of S21, the party that had championed the project was summarily voted out of power in the next local election and took a major hit in the state elections as well.  The political consequences of Gezi have yet to be seen and most likely will be small initially.  However, as I have previously argued, I believe that largely young supporters of Gezi will soon begin to make their mark politically and change Turkish politics for the better.

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Written by ataturksrepublic

August 22, 2013 at 3:19 pm

What can we say about Occupy Gezi?

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The obsessive Turkey watcher that I am, I have spent a good chunk of the last few days following the news and analysis coming out of Turkey.  Though we are still in the midst of the storm, there are some conclusions that can be drawn with a fair amount of certainty.

-Popular frustration has been building up in Turkey over the last several years because of lack of public input into projects.  There has also been a disturbing trend of police using excessive force against peaceful demonstrations of all kinds.  These two elements, among others, created a volatile situation that exploded on Friday.

-After the initial police interventions, the protest became a magnet for all kinds of Turks with grievances against the government.  Some of these new protesters are also frustrated with the AKP’s construction programs, others are perennial AKP opponents.  One protester interviewed Piotr Zalewski in his great Time article nicely sums it up when he says “We’re against everything.”  Any and all pent up frustrations against the current government are on display at the moment.

-The protests started out among the largely secular and young.  however, over the last few days I have seen mounting evidence that, even if they are not joining them in the streets (though some are), the protesters are gaining support from at least some of the AKP’s base demographics.

– We can not say for sure how many AKP supporters sympathize with the protests but there is no doubt that the AKP’s support will be diminished.  The AKP’s economic success and history of liberalizing reforms has won the support of many “secular” Turks (not traditionally associated with the AKP) including liberals and the businessmen.  Those who were late to jump on the AKP bandwagon will cast their vote elsewhere.  However, Turkey’s opposition parties are both weak and unappealing to large segments of the population.  The AKP will therefore remain a force to be reckoned with in Turkish politics until a viable alternative capable of bridging the many divides of Turkish society appears.

-Despite the fact that many are making the easy (and inaccurate) comparison between the Occupy Gezi movement and the protest movements that brought on the Arab Spring, in all likelyhood this movement will not birth a full out revolution.  Unlike the Arab Spring countries, Turkey is a democracy.  The importance of this cannot be overstated.  The AKP (embodied by Erdogan) received an impressive 50% of the vote in the last election.  As discussed above, the popularity of Erdogan and the AKP will certainly take a hit but when it comes down to the line, I am willing to bet that Turkey would rather go with the devil it knows (and elected) over the devil it doesn’t know.   However, Erdogan’s ability to guide the creation of a new constitution, already compromised, is likely lost and with it his dream of becoming Turkey’s first American style president.

– If Erdogan continues to insist upon eating his foot, and assuming that no new political opposition party is conjured up, Turkey’s calls for alternative leadership will have to be answered from within the AKP itself.  The most likely candidate to step up to the job is the current President Abdullah Gul.  Though informal polling indicates that he is unpopular among the protesters, he has consistently shown himself to be the foil to Erdogan’s impulsive and often volatile style of politics.  I suspect that after things have cooled down, the AKP base, and those on the bandwagon, will see him as the rational alternative to Erdogan.

– Erdogan, and Turkey in generally, will see their soft power and popularity seriously weakened in the region.  Bashar Assad’s denunciations of Erdogan’s handling of protests is certainly ironic but not undeserved.  The man who touted democracy abroad refuses to bend to the will of his own citizens.  Erdogan’s hypocrisy has been laid bare and I doubt the beleaguered populations of Egypt and other Arab spring countries will any longer have any interest in buying what he is selling.

-Footnote: This should be (and is) is the least of Turkey’s concerns right now, but I cannot see how the IOP will ever agree to give the 2020 Olympics to Istanbul after this weekend.

Written by ataturksrepublic

June 3, 2013 at 4:41 am

Syrian Intermission

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Turkey’s profile in international affairs has been growing over the past two years, largely due to the events of the Arab spring.  Articles referencing Turkey usually belong in one of two categories: the “Turkish Model” as a template for new Arab democracies and the ongoing crisis in Syria.  Last week, Turkey helped to negotiate temporary truce for the duration of the Eid al-Adha holiday.  Unfortunately, this truce lasted only about a day and fell through Saturday with both sides renewing hostilities.

The now-broken truce is just the latest point of involvement for Turkey in the Syrian conflict.  Near the beginning of the insurrection  Prime Minister Erdoğan called the crisis in Syria “the equivalent of internal politics for Turkey.”  Erdoğan and Turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davutoğlu have spent significant time and effort to improve relations with Syria since the AK Party came to power.  A free trade agreement, joint military maneuvers and what appeared to be a genuinely friendly relationship between the two heads of state made Turkey’s relations with Syria the show piece of its “zero problems with neighbors” foreign policy.  However, years of diplomacy unraveled in a matter of weeks after the onset of protests in Syria.  The Turkish government and ordinary Turks alike were repulsed by the Syrian army’s brutal attacks on its own citizens.  Davutoğlu and Erdoğan were clearly offended that President Assad refused to listen to their council.  The Turkish government severed relations with the Assad government in November of 2011.

The Syrian refugee crisis in Turkey began with a trickle soon after the crisis started.  In early summer 2011 the number of Syrian refugees was estimated in the hundreds.  Now it has topped 100,000 and has become a contentious domestic issue in Turkish provinces along the Syrian boarder.  Efforts to isolate the refugees in camps and away from the local population have begun to break down.  More and more resources in Turkey are being utilized or commandeered by the refugees and the Turkish locals have increasingly come to resent their presence.

Most critically, military incidents and tensions between Turkey and Syria have nearly come to a breaking point.  Almost immediately after refugees began arriving in Turkey, rebel army activities were organized with the tacit approval of Turkey.  More openly, Turkey hosted meetings of the political leaders of the opposition.  Turkey’s passive support of the Syrian opposition has been instrumental in sparking a number of violent cross-boarder incidents involving members of the Syrian opposition and the Syrian military.  The downing of a Turkish fighter jet in international airspace after it had allegedly crossed into Syrian territory marked time Turks became directly involved in the violence.  Turkey held back on any direct retaliation after this incident, but did not show the same restraint after a mortar fired from Syria killed 5 Turkish civilians at the beginning of this month.  Turkey retaliated with multiple days of shelling after the incident and moved weapons, planes and men to the border.  Shortly after, in a largely symbolic show of power, Turkey forced a Syria-bound Russian jet to land in Ankara and searched it for weapons.  This measure was justified by the arms embargo it had placed on Syria a year ago.

Turkey clearly has a huge stake in the outcome of the civil war in Syria.  Despite this, the government has been hesitant to become directly involved without international support.  Unilaterally intervening would give further ammunition to those who have accused the AK Party government of aspiring toward Neo-Ottomanism.  More importantly, the vast majority of the Turkish public is against further military engagement in Syria.  Turkey has reached out to, and criticized, the UN multiple times in an effort to persuade the international community of the need to take action on Syria.  Erdoğan has also put great effort into building an alliance with the newly democratic Egypt.  He visited Egypt over a year ago to promote “Turkish style” democracy and rode high on a wave of personal popularity.  Soon after he predicted that Turkey and Egypt would become the two power centers of the region, an “axis of democracy.”  Now, with the new Egyptian government in place, Erdoğan is trying to make this alliance a reality.

There are a few predictions that can be made about the Syria and Turkey in the months ahead.  Violence in Syria will continue much as if the truce had never happened.  Turkey will follow the path it has been on for the past year and a half, becoming more and more actively involved on the side of the rebels.  Whether this involvement will eventually amount to Turkish forces being deployed in Syria depends on two factors: outside support and cross-border violence.  If the UN (read: the US), NATO (again, the US) or Egypt can be persuaded to support Turkish military action, the Turkish government may very well go against public opinion and send troops to Syria.  However, the government may not have to defy it’s own population if Syria continues to make violent breaches into Turkish territory.  A number of small incidents or a single egregious one may persuade the Turkish public that intervention is necessary.  Even if neither of these two scenarios comes to pass, Turkey may not come away from the Syrian conflict unscathed.  If Syria perpetrates an egregious act of violence against Turkey, and Turkey fails to intervene militarily, they in effect acquiesce to breaches of its territorial sovereignty and the killing of its citizens.   Such a passive responses to violations of sovereignty will inevitably damage Turkey’s reputation as a regional leader.  In this scenario  rather than becoming the “model” in a new era of Muslim democracy, Turkey instead may end up playing a secondary role to the Arab states.

Written by ataturksrepublic

October 29, 2012 at 1:51 am