Lessons to learn from #OccupyGezi

By Darja Irdam

The protests that have been taking place in Turkey for a week have received extensive international attention, and even some support from representatives of different ends of the Turkish political spectrum. Moreover, no matter how hard he tries to ignore them, the protests now got the attention of Turkish Prime Minister and AKP party leader, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

It seems that a minor protest rooted in environmental concerns have by now reached deep into the political wounds of the country. Could this be a turning point for the hitherto invulnerable AKP? At least, it has seemed like this battle had been coming for a long time; and the question, of course, is whether anything will really change.

However, no matter how things end up, one of the most important lessons learned is that of #OccupyGezi’s media victory. As it turns out, a hash-tag operation really can get a lot of attention even when the mainstream media outlets find it in their best interest to pretend that nothing happened. As in many other such protests, however, it is quite clear that most of the attention gained from such operations is from like-minded individuals in other countries. To what extent the protests are going to engage anyone else than secular intellectuals is another matter.

"Protests In Turkey Turn Violent" - unknown source.

While the attention that #OccupyGezi receives in the social media is enormous, previous experiments with democracy in cyber space remind us that it is debatable whether this will lead to tangible results on the ground. Nevertheless, such cyber spaces seem to create a demand for information on their own, stimulating a production of news coverage in different kinds of media all over the world. Whatever medium the protesters manage to occupy, it does seem to encourage Western observers to rethink their position on the AKP.

For years, Turkey’s ruling party has been perceived as a “mildly Islamicist party” (as the Economist-coined moniker goes). The PM, whose long-term agenda has been to establish Turkey in a firm position as a guarantor of both peace and tradition in the Middle East while claiming a place in Europe, has been surprisingly successful in creating a rather positive image of the AKP in the West.

However, soaking peaceful activists in tear gas can hardly be referred to as democratic in the liberal tradition (although, to be fair, it is really not unknown in any Western country either). For many Turks however, and members of the secular middle class in particular, the PM really crossed the line when he declared that his parliamentary majority allowed him to do whatever he wanted, no matter the amount of protests it created. While technically true, it is a dangerous course to run in country with a long and ongoing history of repressive majorities facing stiff resistance from a host of minorities.

Although it is, of course, important that the international community finally sees the darker side of Erdoğan’s government, it is even more crucial that Turkey’s own citizens are finally beginning to stare into the abyss. But what is going to change? The sad answer is probably: not much.

Man in teargas attack, unknown source

Erdoğan has already declared that he is sure of the support of his voters and his ability to mobilize even more of it, which even in sheer numbers will outweigh the boiling and furious minorities. He can say this, because the AKP received 49.8 % of the Turkish vote in the 2011 national elections, translating into 327 of 550 seats in parliament. This is one reason that the situation in Turkey is little like that in various Arab countries: Erdoğan’s popular government is rather akin to those run by the Muslim Brotherhoods than that of the governments the brothers toppled.

So this is exactly where the main problem lies: whereas a window of opportunity is now wide open, the opposition does not have much to offer to the furious people. To see why, simply ask which party in Turkey is the most professional? Which party manages to keep the political and personal scandals of their members under strict control? Which party has a clear political agenda and a clear action plan to implement that agenda? Correct, it is the AKP.

An insufficient, indecisive, unprofessional and vague opposition, which is even deeply fragmented among itself in terms of ethnicity, religion and class, simply will not be able to offer people anything more attractive than what the AKP has for them. Of course Erdoğan has finally been shown that not everything the AKP does will be supported by his growing electorate or given a blind-eye or will only be protested quietly by his current detractors.

But did he not already know that? Turkey has long ago crossed the point where simply demonstrating your discontent to the government is helpful. The government has the support of the absolute majority. The time has come to act and to act differently, cleanly and sharply. The opposition parties must get together. As they are catering to very different parts of the electorate, this need not result in electoral cannibalism. By now, only a united opposition will be able to break through the AKP’s parliamentary majority. This, the opposition can learn from the AKP.

One of the more popular twitter logos employed by protestors - source unknown.

Another lesson that we can learn from #OccupyGezi is that finally, the sense of dissatisfaction has grown enough to push people who would stay away from the dirt and blood of politics back into the streets. For a long time, most people, and especially educated professionals, preferred to withdraw as the feeling of helplessness grew in the face of the unstoppable power of the AKP. Now they are in action again, which gives hope that the new Turkish opposition, uniting different political, religious and cultural views, can find common grounds to act for a more inclusive and liberal Turkey.

The best place to start would be to keep strong and united by not turning a beautiful political struggle into petty acts of vandalism and anarchy as it happened in London and in so many other places recently. Though playing clean is difficult when you are being targeted by teargas, water cannons and plastic bullets, only an angry, but non-violent game will deny the government and its supporters the chance to label the protestors as hooligans.

The thin line between exposing the truth about the AKP and turning the protests into empty aggression must not be crossed now. Instead of leading the people forward in their revolt against the totalitarianism of the Islamic rule, it will only give the AKP the opportunity it needs to introduce an even more reactionary policy.

Darja Irdam

Darja Irdam is currently pursuing her PhD degree in Sociology at the University of Cambridge. Her current research covers the areas of economic sociology and public health, with particular emphasis on post-Communist transitions, privatization, mortality, gender and class. She has also holds an MA in sociology from Koç University in Istanbul, where she worked and studied for several years.

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