I recorded this conversation in a bar just by Taksim on Sunday morning 9 June. The police were to sweep back in two days later. It was an exceptional moment I described and photographed in my openDemocracy report.
I recorded this conversation in a bar just by Taksim on Sunday morning 9 June. The police were to sweep back in two days later. It was an exceptional moment I described and photographed in my openDemocracy report. You have to appreciate the atmosphere: an intense mixture of sleepless energy, anticipation, learning, collective-organisation, cigarettes, fear, self-confidence, a sense of making history and self-discovery accompanied by it quickly becoming a way of living and talking, a different way of being normal. This was the life of Annalena. We just started and talked as quickly as possible for over an hour before our next meetings. The text is based on the transcript, about 25 per cent has been cut back, some of it re-arranged without losing its meandering quality, a few clarifications added.
Annalena writes for oD about Syria. A friend of Magnus, our Editor-in-Chief, I had met her once at an openSecurity conference. The issues we range over here are deeply part of openDemocracy’s coverage and concerns. The Arab Awakening debate started with Tahrir Square and brought Annalena to the site. The potential of the Occupy movement has been an ongoing concern with many contributors. I reflected on its nature after a decade that took us from “the year of the towers to the year of the squares”, in a Raymond Williams lecture on The Long and the Quick of Revolution. The conversation links to the place of nations, a theme addressed in a recent “challenge to the global citizen” a critically important debate edited and mapped by Jamie Mackay, and to the role of urban space tackled in our openSecurity debate, Cities in Conflict, while Annalena’s group, Müşterekler, echoes oD’s engagement with The Digital Commons. A.B.
AB: How are you this morning?
AG: I slept. I’m tired. And just now feeling satisfied that we managed to send support to a movement of resistance in Italy. This makes me happy as an Italian and as a European, because when it’s the Turkish police attacking, everybody gets indignant, but when it’s your own police doubt vanishes: they must have a reason. These years are demonstrating what the state believes it has a right to do in all our cities.
AB: So Prime Minister Erdoğan’s charge of hypocrisy against the European Union has a touch of truth?
AG: Yes, it’s completely right
AB: You have been in Gezi Park from the start here in Istanbul and were also in Tahrir Square in Cairo during the Egyptian revolution. I went to the Plaza del Sol in Madrid when it was occupied by the indignados, and visited Zucotti Park and sat in on sessions in Occupy Wall Street. Clearly, a generational shift with a distinct relationship to politics is emerging, yet these were also traditional confrontations. I’d like to explore this. Can we start with Tahrir Square. Did it surprise you?
AG: Yes, it wasn’t expected. There are a few bloggers arguing it was the fruit of years of struggle. But I was beaten up in Tahrir exactly one year before. We were protesting over Gaza, which should be something that touches the emotions of any Egyptian, yet because of Mubarak’s policy we had the police set upon us and people didn’t even have the courage to look at us when we were being beaten up, they passed on by. So that was my understanding of Egypt before. Whatever they say about it being prepared by a lot of networking, it’s not true: it really exploded.
AB: Were you also part of the early protest in Cairo?
AG: I covered it as a journalist while having personal reasons for being there. Then I quit my profession. I realised I was too much involved. Even from the beginning when I was simply reporting what was happening, in the night I would stay on.
AB: Did it start with a small group staying put in Tahrir?
AG: Trying to stay. It started with rage when the Egyptian police went too far on January 25. I interviewed people asking them “When did you start being in Tahrir and why are you here?” They all joined after the 25th when they saw what was happening. They were very depoliticised youth; mostly middle class. Not middle class as we understand it in Europe - a lower class, but educated with middle class concerns and appetites, yet poor. So yes, it had economic reasons. But I think what really exploded was purely affective; it was seeing what the police were doing.
Suddenly, a whole generation who had never been in the streets, were suddenly in the streets. Of course, then other things happen: from the moment they got to the square there was the same problem as here, that they are in a square, they are trapped. You need to get out of there.
AB: Watching developments in Egypt live on Al Jazeera, there was a moment when they came across the bridge, attacked and drove back the police to retake Tahrir Square. People said the Muslim Brotherhood were important in achieving this.
AG: No, it was the Salafis. The Muslim Brotherhood was not present in the square. They had a stage but it was the Salafis who were pivotal, especially later in the battle of the camels, they really won our respect. I remember that night well.
AB: Is there any equivalent of the Salafis here in Istanbul?
AG: No, I wouldn’t say so, especially because the Salafis are from a very working class environment, they are not so much working class as definitely from that environment. You can try to see the football support groups here as also having preparatory training for clashes with the police. But the level of confrontation in Tahrir was quite different.
AG: Much, we were marching under machine guns. I saw people dying in front of me. It wouldn’t happen here. We are still in Europe.
AB: But when you occupied Tahrir there were barricades as there are here around Taksim?
AG: Here the barricades exist to remind us. There, as well as barricades there were tanks. They were different barricades with different behaviour associated with them. Women were not allowed on them for a start. We were allowed to crush the stones and bring them to the barricades but we weren’t allowed close to them. I would try to use my camera as an excuse to get nearer but still there was an issue. I tried to make it a class discourse, but a lot depends on the schools. Everybody has genderised discourses; here they are more educated to not make a difference between a man and a woman and men and women fought on the barricades. In Egypt it is different.
AB: In Gezi Park men and women are extraordinarily equal not just in numbers but attitude and organisation.
AG: You have to remember the tradition they come from and the narrative of Kemal Ataturk, who used to say that females had more intelligence than men. The first woman pilot ever was Ataturk’s adoptive daughter.
AB: But it’s hardly easy for women in Turkey!
AG: This is Istanbul. It’s different. You have problems in other areas of Turkey, but not in this area of the city or this kind of crowd. Turkey is a country of many countries, which is why this square is so good with the countries meeting often for the first time. Being a Kurdish woman is different in Diyarbakir from being a woman in Ankara or from being a woman in Taksim. But in one thing I definitely agree with you, it’s very equal here.
Because party hierarchies are very male oriented, this is going to make a change. But I’m not used to seeing gender as an issue in Turkey. I’m a bit of an anti-feminist, I don’t like to make gender an issue in general. But you’re right, there is an extraordinary equality, especially when it comes down to the organization in this movement: here women are much more active. I think this is going to make a difference inside parties because women are now going to claim this share.
AB: Which is very different from Tahrir?
AG: It is, it is. Another thing that is important to say: in Tahrir there were checkpoints, there were barricades but moreover there were checkpoints with huge crowds queuing and people inspecting you to make sure you had no weapons, people from the crowd on a volunteering basis; women and men, of course, because men wouldn’t touch you.
AB: And the police were pushed right back?
AG: The police disappeared.
AB: As here.
AG: Yes. But in Tahrir there was still the Baltagiya
AB: The army?
AG: No, the Baltagiya, the regime’s thugs, loyal to Mubarak and paid by his businessmen. They remained outside the Square and there were areas we couldn’t go to.
AB: So there was a sense of being besieged, which you do not have here at the moment.
AG: Yes, which was useful at the time because it kept people feeling they had to defend the square. Here you don’t have the sense of being besieged these last two or three days. Other cities in Turkey are besieged. I think it’s good because people are still here. They haven’t won anything yet. They’re organising. The leftist organisations in Taksim Square might feel besieged by each other as they compete for support, the old groups and small parties, the ones that have military wings. But in Gezi Park, it is different, you have all sorts of things going on. There are even areas for students to prepare for their exams.
Egypt was a bit like Turkey is now. You have police that are very attached to the government with very loyal chiefs and then you have an army which is on the other side. Here, for example, I was afraid that some of the Kemalist groups would invoke an army intervention. It’s a problem for Erdoğan who cannot ask for the help of the army. So whatever police he has, that’s all he has.
AB: It is tremendous that he has pushed out the Army.
AG: Indeed, the army has a terrible history in Turkey, we are lucky that Erdoğan succeeded in the Ergenekon case. Without the clean-up it could have gone worse with a state of emergency and, really, an army intervention.
AB: Physically, Taksim is very large, is it an equivalent size to Tahrir Square? The Plaza del Sol was a smaller, very central but an eighteenth century, semi-circular space
AG: This is bigger, huge. One difference is that Tahrir is a very round square. I remember when we finally got the square we started nervously walking in circles all the time to guard the roads, going round in circles like a permanent merry-go-round! There was a joke that the revolution was in parliament street because the more politicised would go there and have their meetings as it was a bit quieter. The rest of the crowd would come to Tahrir, because, like Taksim, it became an attraction.
AB: A kind of festival?
AG: As here, yes, families would come to look at us. The crowding could put you under stress.
AB: I like the way families are visiting.
AG: It’s really good. Instead of sitting home it really is about reclaiming public space. It’s about many things but it’s also a new public space. Erdoğan’s idea of family life is: you wake up, you have breakfast, everybody goes to work, makes money, then goes out shopping, and shopping is the moment out for the family, then you stay home and you watch television and that’s it. Plus occasionally you meet the rest of the bigger family.
And now you have this! You have a chance to exchange. What is winning is a different idea of how people should live in a city. You might find it a very academic or Italian discourse, I’m using, but that is exactly what these families are after. Now they have their square and they want to go, watch and see it. I was late today because there was this march from Şişli of grandmas and aunts who came chanting and singing all in a crowd. They could have stayed home and watched television.
AB: Are they all political opponents of Erdoğan’s ruling AKP?
AG: I think he lost a lot of following. In Şişli, which is my neighbourhood, for example, there are a lot of Christians. They voted for him as there was this normalization, if you can call it that, now they won’t. I was talking with a friend yesterday who told me in his neighbourhood with new immigrants who normally vote for AKP, people are divided 50/50 now. When we talk about AKP, we talk about many things, for example schools run by people close to AKP or anyway Islamist-oriented, that are for poor people who cannot afford the state schooling system, where you advance to certain levels only if you can afford the extra. With religious schools providing the extra for free you have a parallel country being formed and we don’t know this from here. The danger of being stuck in Taksim is that we don’t know about the rest.
AB: The danger of becoming inward-looking…
AG: In Tahrir we eventually opened the square. People started marching out as well as in. Here, so far, I only see people coming in. This may change.
AB: But Istiklal, the long pedestrian shopping street, is packed with people moving and marching both in and away from Taksim.
AG: Only now for the first time. Before whenever there were more than ten people the police would come and gas them. You have no idea how militarised it was a month ago. And they would gas in front of tourists. They would attack just like that.
AB: It seems to me that in the end Erdoğan is going to go, he has been defeated,
AG: No, no. There is no alternative to Erdoğan at the moment. I’m worried about his resigning because the alternative is the CHP, which is completely unprepared to take over, is Ataturkist and racist. OK it is a social democrat party, but it is racist.
AB: Against the Kurds?
AG: Against anyone who’s not this invented Turk, that never really existed, the Sunni blonde with blue eyes.
AB: But there are a lot of Ataturk images and nationalist flags in the Park as well as the Square.
AG: The meaning of these flags and images is changed. They are not going to leave Ataturk behind, but it’s going to mean something different, the flags are going to mean something different. I think that the park is like a slope where everybody is converging slowly, and the more they stay there, the more they will keep on going down the slope. So yes there will be Ataturkists, there will always be Ataturkists. It’s like telling someone put your Che Guevara flag away! But it will mean something different for these people, while the parties will not have the same control over their own youngsters.
AB: You say we are still in Europe here. One of the striking aspects of both the Plaza del Sol in Madrid and Occupy Wall Street in New York’s Zuccotti Park was, if in different ways, a tremendous commitment to process. In Madrid there was a daily general assembly, it was very big. And millions were involved across Spain. Every day in the general assembly there was a team providing sign language with people on either side of the speaker translating what he said into sign language, a symbol of access - and there was a collective discussion about whether they should leave Plaza del Sol and when.
AG: The big difference is that here they have it for the groups and forums for non-affiliated people: it’s not completely or visibly centralized. I think this is good because if you have a general assembly with most people doing politics for the first time, they will not be able to come up and say their own opinion. If you have smaller groups that’s how you really have an interaction. The smaller groups report, so we all know what’s happening, we all send reports to each other, everybody can ask information from everybody. It may look wild but remember we are not native Turkish speakers. In my group for example, we talk and interact with each other all the time. It’s not fragmented, it’s distributed.
When it comes to basics like food or blankets, or the cleaning when the garbage lorries can’t get through the barricades, we are always organising and interacting with each other. It’s organisation that really links people and you don’t have that in usual politics. In the square we have practical concerns like “Can I attach my generator to yours?”
AB: Yes, but Occupy Wall Street was both Zuccotti Park, which was small and much visited and the atrium above the Wall Street subway station where intense meetings took place including the facilitators group which I sat in on. There was a training in what Tony Curzon Price calls thin or sensitive democracy, stepping back for others rather than imposing your views and facilitating the people’s microphone. They managed the process of deciding on large amounts of money – with enough donated to send a group to Tahrir to express solidarity and observe the Egyptian elections.
AG: This sounds very American to me. Here we get food more than donations. Yes, we have sometimes some money to buy a fridge or to buy a generator but it’s much more horizontal as a thing.
AB: It was American, this was a strength. It did not have anything like the scale of direct mass support there is here, but the slogan “We are 99%”, broke through an ideological barrier and reintroduced the language of class politics into America, and this altered the structure of feeling in the US. A real achievement.
Also the police were there constantly. They were confined, there were big police towers watching everything over this very small area. It was permitted legally, but in no way could you say that the police abandoned OWS as they have here at the moment.
AG: It might be harsh and probably romantic, but for me the moment a police and state allows you to be, your protest stops being a protest in the sense that it comes under their control: so how far can you go? It means you’re not scary, there is no rupture. If you’re protesting the system that your government is part of, why does your government let you be?
AB: No, if the government is under the rule of law and the rule of law allows you to protest despite what the government wants you’re certainly inside the system but they’re inside the system too and there can be a fight over it. Here the protestors are also inside it.
AG: No they kicked the system out. It was pretty brutal I must say. The thing is that you’re legally allowed to protest in Turkey, but in the end it’s the government that decides what is dangerous and what is not.
AB: I think the difference is that in Spain and the US, with the Indignados and Occupy movement, influential as they were, there was nothing concrete that could happen that would allow them to say they’d won “this”. In Egypt, in contrast, Mubarak had to go. Here something has to stay: the Park - and the laws about drinking and so on will be pushed back in some way.
AG: You have a huge depoliticised middle-class that is basically running an anti-capitalist discourse. It would be unthinkable in my own country Italy. To have such a radical anti-capitalist discourse from a bunch of protesters, it wouldn’t happen, because this is something that we have left behind a long time ago, like discourses of class struggle. Here you do have it, and from what was a very depoliticised class.
AB: From outside it seems that the Italian five star movement has a class politics against the system?
AG: No, no, no. Not at all. It’s a scary phenomenon. I’m really concerned about my country when I look at them, and I’m even more concerned when I find myself agreeing with such an extremely populist and violent movement. They get people into the streets out of emotion and when they are in the streets there is no networking anymore. They use the internet as a selected channel and it creates an illusion you are reaching everyone. Here, you are in the zoo, there is a tremendous mixture, and that’s what makes it different. We compare the rise of the five star movement with Weimar and Nazis. They are also a scary as they are right on many things: because there is a political class that has to go. They want anti-corruption, immigrants out, you know there are no moral values behind it. I’m very ashamed of my country when I look at them, even though I find myself agreeing with much of what they fight for and when it really looked like we were going to have the tanks in Rome stopping them, I would have gone with them.
AB: You would have supported them but you’re also against them...
AG: I’m afraid of the fact that they are the only ones representing struggles that need to be fought.
The five-star movement uses discourses that a very frustrated and depoliticised middle class, prone to conspiracy-theories, embraces because they feel attacked from all directions. But the five star movement really is a big enterprise. They want to be smarter and they think that internet is the way to understand the universe. In a sense they are a ridiculous phenomenon, but I think that politically my country is quite ridiculous at the moment. Erdoğan cuts down five trees… We never got anything like this for Berlusconi.
AB: The lack of opposition to Berlusconi is astonishing.
AG: We had opposition. In 20 years of my life, we had I don’t know how many marches with 3 million people. But at the same time there was never the effective political opposition to it. The party system completely collapsed in on itself. In the recent presidential elections in the Assembly they refused to support a candidate that 70% of Italians wanted just because of internal party struggles. Basically the majority party, the social democrats, refused to vote for a candidate just because he was proposed by by the five star movement even though he was a historic candidate of the social democratic party, a representative of the struggle for the commons, such as over public water which everybody in Italy is for, even rightwing people. He had a huge backing, he was a clean person, the parties are hopeless.
AB: But these struggles change something, in Spain in the United States. On the face of things they have been frustrated but the system’s cultural supremacy is breached.
AG: Let me be a bit nasty. You’re European so you know Spain before, more or less, and you know the States. You know Spain to be a very combative country that had a civil war. Turkey was a flat country. There was lots of political activity and struggles but politically flat. Flat. People wouldn’t care and also this generation is the generation that grew up with all the fears of the parents after the coup d’etat of 1980. They’ve been through hell, we don’t know this because there is so little history coming out of Turkey, but they’ve been through hell. Huge numbers of political prisoners in the 80s. It’s not just the Kurdish struggle, it is so many struggles and the left wing parties, the ones that were active, they also were militarized. These events have exploded all this. Whatever happens, they know now that politics is an everyday matter, like going to the park. They know that it belongs to them. It’s their own concern. All these people, all these kids who would only listen to rock music and get drunk...
AB: So there’s also a defeat of traditional militarized left groups
AG: Yes and I’ve enjoyed it so much. Although they were active on the barricades for sure, but yes. The 1st May, one month ago, we were a few thousand and we had to go back home after we tried to gather in Taksim. The police didn’t allow us in: we were gassed and that was pretty much it. It was very depressing. Now everybody is coming from all neighbourhoods, the grandmothers think that this is their concern. If this hadn’t happened Turkish people wouldn’t have known that they were all unhappy one by one. They all had something against Erdoğan, they all had something against these economic policies.
AB: I’m not convinced this is a rising against economic suffering - there has been real growth…
AG: With constant growth everybody thought that Turkey was a wonderful country yet when you’re here for any time you will realise how many workers have just lost their employment.
AB: But the army has been removed from politics, the fear has lifted, life is much better, you don’t see men walking around Istanbul with huge piles on their backs, being broken.
AG: No they are, they’re in Gaziosmanpaşa, you don’t see them in Istaklal because they’re not allowed here anymore. But poverty is still there, it became more rigid because schooling became more rigid, access to university became more rigid. Social barricades are higher now. And again, like in Europe, you have a middle class that is falling down.
AB: If the army had still been in control, this would not have been permitted. Something is better under Erdoğan. Now he is pressing people back, but I feel they have tasted a possibility of tolerance, which they don’t want to let go of.
AG: You have to make a distinction. There is a problem with human rights all the time. You have on one side human rights and freedom of expression, which by the way is a facade because Kurdish people kept on being persecuted, and journalists kept on being jailed, people in the square were tortured up until a month ago, universities were under attack by the police, student unions were under attack, it was only a nice European-friendly facade that he was running, a human-rights discourse. He just wanted to have the constitution changed so he would be a President. It was as simple as that.
That is on one side. On the other, what good is freedom of expression if you cannot afford anything in life? Look at the salaries, at rents, for young people the gap was growing. I mean people my age weren’t allowed to have a life, they are sick of sharing houses and apartments and not having a family at 30-35 years old. They are entering a very European trap of being eternal children because they couldn’t afford anything any more. I came from Beirut, I had money compared to my friends here. I could see the difference. I felt like I was in Italy where my friends cannot afford anything. This is the kind of unhappiness that is growing. And of course when you have the police attacking people, everybody becomes emotional, but behind this is an opposition to this government because you are losing something, paying too much for a lifestyle that everyone was promoting.
AB: But if they are paying too much for a new lifestyle there is still a new lifestyle, and finally a peace process with the Kurds, the generals are behind bars, a greater freedom emerging…
AG: We have to be smarter than this British sense of freedom I think. That’s the problem with anti-corruption movements in general. It’s OK to put generals in jail, we need to know what happened history-wise. But they are just putting some political enemies in jail. It’s as simple as that. In the end we got a police chief who is never going to be prosecuted.
AB: Inside your argument, part of which I find convincing, is a little strand saying that nothing really has changed, it is all the same, and that all oppression is the same. I’m suggesting that Erdoğan did create a new kind of Turkey. Then he tried to mould everybody, and people said “No, we’re not having that!”
AG: I understand why you’re unconvinced because for years as an analyst I was a staunch defender of Erdoğan’s efforts. Although I’m no fan of Islamists, to me it was a way out of Turkey for many things. So I understand your point. But it was not a way out, it was a detour. A neo-liberal detour. I know I sound like an old-fashioned leftist: a few years back I would have laughed at myself. But I realise now that the neoliberal policies of Erdoğan, created a new kind of authoritarianism. Seriously. Because, in the end, it’s not any more what the army wouldn’t let you do, it’s what your daily living wouldn’t let you do. It is a different set of rules but in the end nothing changed.
AG: A lot of crimes of opinion, they haven’t been erased. A lot of liberties that are not external, facade liberties, internal important liberties, like a journalist should write what he wants, they’re still not there. Yes, Erdoğan did his bit, in the first years he did very well. But at the same time you are playing with a country that operates under certain rules. In Istanbul you have a lot of young professionals who can make it, who can be graphic designers and live in a material world. But outside of Istanbul you need factory employment otherwise you will not be able to make a living. If all the factories are privatised and if people work outside human rights laws, if this is what you are offering to your people, people get angry. And this is what you’re having in Ismir which is an industrial city, and Antakya, which has also been hit by the whole game with the Syrian refugees providing cheap labour. So, you have Istanbul and these middle class concerns where, for sure, people exploded because they were horrified by the actions of the police. But as soon as you get out of Istanbul you have a different story.
AB: With the sound of the muezzin’s call for prayer in the background, there is another aspect I want to raise – the national flag and the role of nationalism in the protest movements. In the Plaza del Sol, the indignados were, wonderfully I felt, the children of Almodovar, they had the clothes, the colours, the open sexuality, the self-confidence, that bursts from his movies. Then there was the deep commitment to non-violence, which I felt linked back to the Spanish Civil War
AG: There is an issue of pride. I mean the Spaniards have something..
AB: Exactly, but when I said to one activist “this feels a very Spanish movement” her reply was, “I don’t think it means it is Spanish or not. It is very human”. I’m sure this represented the general feeling of the May 15 movement. It wasn’t a pseudo-leftist internationalism, it was an authentically felt refusal of the national. They wouldn’t fly the Spanish flag, there were some flags of the Spanish Republic of the 1930s but not many. Whereas, in contrast, on Wall Street the American flag was flown, quite naturally, in Zuccotti Park by the occupiers. In his book about it, David Graeber who was one of the original initiators, and describes himself as a ‘small-a’ anarchist, says how he surprised himself to find that when he was asked to speak he drew on the American tradition and claimed that Occupy Wall Street was fulfilling the spirit of the American constitution betrayed by corporate power. He called on them to reclaim the tradition of American democracy from those who had stolen it.
AG: You have to look at every single country from its own history. Every country is a child of its own history. In Spain you wouldn’t wave a flag because in Spain, it has many realities, many traditions, many languages. If we had this movement in Italy, you would not see a single Italian flag, of course not.
AB: But Italy doesn’t have different nationalities in the way that Spain does.
AG: You’re right. But at the same time we don’t attach certain meanings to it. Even with the 25th April. I’m a child of the 25th April, all my family was fighting there. But I would never wave the flag. If my father saw me wave an Italian flag I think it would be the most embarrassing moment of his life. We were all partisans, my great grandfather wrote the constitution. So you know every country is a child of its own system of values, of what means what. When I look at the American flag I find it really embarrassing
AB: But here, everywhere there are Turkish flags.
AG: The Turkish people live in Turkey. I think of it as an island. When I compare this to Tahrir this is more European because it’s more of an anti-austerity campaign, it’s more like reclaiming what’s ours. But they don’t even think that they are like Europe, they don’t even think they’re like the Spaniards or the Americans. They just think that they have their own thing with Erdoğan. They just live in their own bubble. It may be related to the internet, but inside a Turkish island.
AB: Which also means they are not embarrassed about being Turkish. The weaknesses of the Spanish, and maybe the same would apply to Italy, is that they would not articulate it as Spanish even though it clearly was. The Portuguese ignored them. The French shrugged and showed no solidarity. In England neither the student movement, which was fast and early, nor the Occupy groups, which were small and inward looking, could possibly fly the flag.
AG: It’s probably a European weakness. In this Turkey is much more outside Europe. In Egypt you would see Egyptian flags everywhere and here the Turkish flag. For example, I am part of a movement, Müşterekler (which you can translate as ‘Network for the commons’) that doesn’t use the word ‘Turkey’ because we have minorities among us that find it, not so much offensive but meaning the denial and burial of many things.
AB: The movement has a Turkish name!
AG: Because it’s the language they speak. We have many Kurds but some don’t even speak Kurdish because they have been denied it. So I don’t know, there are so many Turkeys anyway in the different squares across this country...
AB: This is a national moment here
AG: I don’t know, I don’t know
AB: This is the Italian coming out in you. This is a national moment
AG: No, I’m thinking of the ethnic trauma in Antakya where mostly the protests are Arab or Alawi. They don’t fit into the Turkish Sunni standard of what Turkey means. I think the flag is a comfortable thing to wave in the face of Erdoğan.
AB: Isn’t there still the romance of an internationalism that liquidates the national and cultural history, in the way that the workers represent a class that has no country.
AG: There is always a historical and cultural background to take into consideration. I think what’s really international is the measures that people are fighting against, because it’s an international idea of the economy that people are fighting. But every reality is different.
AB: So why, if you were fighting against it in Italy, would you not therefore put the Italian flag on your resistance?
AG: Because in my country the flag means something different, my point is that the concern is the same. I wouldn’t put Egypt on the same ground because in Egypt the fight was different. Turkey is mixed: on the one hand what really got everybody was police violence, which was really different to Occupy Wall Street. But on another level, what’s really behind it is a set of economic problems. But I cannot forget that every country comes from its own planet. In Italy the Italian flag would mean something different.
Whereas Tahrir was huge, completely different in so many ways. What was similar was the attachment to the square and the fight to conquer and to keep it. And also the psychology and the emotions attached to the square were very similar, in the ups and in the downs, and the explosion of writing everything everywhere, and then this: that the square gives the country a new country - the fight for the square is turning people into something new. Whatever one thinks of what can happen after.
AB: Yes, there was something revolutionary about Egypt in the profound sense. Before, Egyptians were ashamed of being Egyptian, after Tahrir it felt they had stood up, they had become a people. Whatever happens, they had made Mubarak fall. They had done it! This won’t happen here in the same way.
AG: No because the demands are different.
AB: To come back to how I think we disagree. It’s not just the demands. There was, is, already a pride in Turkey. Turks were not like Egyptians before Tahrir Square. Turkey feels like a proud, growing country. Strong enough to have an argument about its future. In Spain they knew their country and its corporations had helped create neoliberalism especially across South America. It was a country that felt it could make its own future, unlike Greece or Italy. There was another layer of self-confidence too at the time: the young generation in the Plaza del Sol were the generation that won the election for the Socialist government after the Atocha attack in Madrid in 2004. Their mobilization voted in Zapatero, they felt he was their person. Their disgust with him forced him out. There was a sense of self-confidence, as well as anger and frustration and humiliation at what was happening with the economy.
AG: But I think once again we have to keep in mind that Spain is part of Europe, Turkey is part of Turkey. Here they don’t even know what they belong to. They are not part of Europe because Europe is a losing horse to them, but at the same time they’re not part of the Middle East who are Arabs. They are in their own bubble and they’re ok with this bubble. In Egypt you wouldn’t have people proud of being Egyptians: also they are Arabs and they have this conflict over Palestine. Then, in Tahrir, there was no discourse on Palestine. To me, as much as I care for the struggle of Palestinians, it was a sign of maturity. Put the projection of emotions aside and just think about yourself, your future, your children’s future. This was a new Egyptian pride.
AB: Some would reply that the first struggle is the anti-imperialist struggle in Palestine
AG: The anti-imperialist clown is always there. Even here you will hear anti-imperialism a lot. It’s 2013, come on, we have other problems. When you have a government who can just take your house because it is investing in renovating the neighbourhood, is imperialism your problem?
There is something much more important that as an academic has been troubling me since Tahrir. I cannot explain how this happens. I cannot explain how people get organized. I cannot explain how they change. I mean, if I walk in my neighbourhood now everybody’s smiling, everybody’s happy because they feel in control. The romantic part of me tells me that the more people stay in the square together, the more they get organised and politics come after.
In Tahrir people were initially depoliticized. They got into the square and they wanted Mubarak not to pass on the Presidency to his son. As soon as it became clear that Gamal was out of the game they wanted the resignation of Mubarak himself. When the resignation of Mubarak was clear, they wanted it now. When they got it, they wanted the whole system to collapse. It’s like people grow up in a square at a fast pace. The romantic side of me looks at it and feels reassured. At the same time, what if this doesn’t go anywhere? So I’m also really troubled. Troubled because we live in years where the square means something it has never meant before. This is the real revolution of 2011, 2012, 2013. Politics is not the same. But I don’t know where we move from the square. I don’t know where we move on to from Tahrir, or from Taksim. I don’t know where they moved to after Wall Street. What do they have?
I’m trying to be optimistic and I’m trying to be pessimistic and I don’t know which one of the two I should choose. Knowing Turkey, this is a miracle and I would have never have bet on it. A month ago it was normal for us to go home defeated, as after the 1st May. That was what was normal. Two weeks ago it was a daily matter to be evicted from the park when we were a hundred: with individuals collapsed in the park crying and we wouldn’t know what to tell them. Now look, I don’t know how it happens.
AB: And they are planting trees in the Park
AG: They are, which will die because it is a disaster. We’re not prepared to understand and analyse what happens in these situations on the psychological level, on the mass psychological level. I don’t know if it’s a scary phenomenon, I don’t know if you can call it politics even, what do you think is happening to it?
AB: I think what is happening goes very deep. The system of political representation that is officially called democracy was developed by elites using a limited, property-based male franchise to prevent dictatorships, like Napoleon’s. They needed standing armies to expand their power and defend themselves as the industrial revolution took off, and to counter the threat of army rule over their commercial interests they embraced controlled elections. The extension of voting to a universal franchise accompanied what came to be called consumerism, the epoch of analogue power that started with the telegraph and the development of electricity. In this political civilization democracy was always designed from the centre to recruit enough satisfaction for loyalty but keep people at arms length from power, even if the constitutions needed to achieve this created difficulties. Today, inflamed and possibly panicked by the potential of the internet corporate capitalism has hollowed out representative democracy which is becoming much more obviously a form of disempowerment: its promise of self–government mocked by the realities of its corruption. There is a kind of race taking place. The internet is now being used as an instrument for intensifying rule from the centre but only because it really could be a means, not least thanks to the transparency it makes possible, of having direct participation that genuinely decentralizes power. This great fight over the internet is now taking place in the streets because any new politics has to combine the net and the street, as Burçe Çelik argues is happening here.
AG: I think the most powerful is the square. The internet is a network. It leads you where you’re going.
AB: A combination of the internet and the square?
AG: No, for me the square, the urban space is more powerful than the internet. I am after all a human geographer. The new phenomenon is that 90% of the people of the world are in the cities. 90% of the world. If they decide to go into the square, there are a lot of people and they have lots of ways to interact. 30, 40 years ago, when the economy was different you had a much more rural environment. Now you have huge, mega-capitals that just gather everybody. Which is why this protest is not properly linked to Antakya. It is linked to Ankara, the large capital city, but not Antakya in its rural environment. The protest is an urban phenomenon. The cities are changing the world. I’m not completely happy about it because I am not a big-city lover but the fact is that this started out against a certain concept of the city. They seek to control the way people interact on any level, political, social, economic, leisure. Control is on the streets more than on the internet. This too should tell us something.
AB: Resistance to such control needs a form of party politics.
AG: Maybe when politics is working. Maybe politics created this process in the beginning.
AB: Protest against it has to last if it is to effect change. To last, to sustain itself, any politics needs organisation. Organisation needs organisers. Organisers need to be held to account, to prevent the rise of a new political class, but there need to be people committed to an open form of politics and organising
AG: What I’m seeing is youngsters who are working at the tent wondering why their elders are the undiscussed leaders - not because they imposed themselves but because they were the ones doing the thinking. They are wondering this when they pick up the garbage. They feel empowered to say so. This process, I think, will take decades. But for the moment the real political value of our years is not the internet, because you can play with the internet wherever you like, it is the city. We are all in the city, we are forced into the city. The way you conceive the city is the way you conceive politics.
We have central squares that mean nothing to anyone because no one lives by them. Here we are lucky because we still have extremely poor people living metres away from Taksim. They’re all visible to each other. This is an Ottoman city, it’s a horizontal city. I’m pushing my point of view, I realise. In Europe, you know, gentrification has already worked very well. In Florence, for example, the poor people are kilometres away from the centre, even if they organise they will never be visible, unless they set the whole thing on fire. As in London, or Paris, they really have to do something big to be noticed because if they just march to a central square nobody’s going to notice. It’s the city that is changing politics, it is the city that is defeating traditional politics, because the more they get together, the more the old representation doesn’t work the way it used to.
Call it an act of civilisation that is taking place from top to bottom.
But at the same time we’re fighting over resources and in a way the urban space, in the way it is becoming completely different, is itself becoming a resource, a huge resource like water. It’s money that we’re sitting on. It’s not the same money that it was 20, 30 years ago. In England, you’ve seen before what is happening now with house prices and ups and downs. This is completely new here. Cities are being sold in chunks to Qatar, they are being invested in, even when they’re empty. It is a completely new phenomenon. In Beirut even if people get together they go nowhere because they have no city centre left. The fight to occupy the square must become a fight to take over our cities.