This is what we do with protesters—the photo that went viral of an Erdogan adviser kicking a demonstrator when the prime minister received a dusty response on a visit to the Soma mine-disaster site
It is a year since the most outstanding and extensive uprising in modern Turkish history took place. On the night of 31 May 2013, no one expected that such a groundbreaking civil revolt could come into being all around the country, gathering millions from various backgrounds and ideological dispositions.
Founded upon a language of solidarity and freedom, the Gezi movement gave way to myriad forms of highly creative and non-violent manifestations of protest, which took their power from symbolic politics—humour, art performance. Discussion continues about what compelled these people, most participating in a protest for the first time, to take their claims on to the streets. Despite such diverse origins, one palpable point of convergence in the movement was the call for greater individual rights and liberties. Those adhering to a worldview which did not agree with that of the conservative, neo-liberal agenda of the government were feeling more and more marginalised and suffocated in the little political space left for them.
On the eve of the Gezi protests, Turkey had become what Reporters Without Borders called the biggest prison for those accused of threatening national security, “glorifying terrorism” or “plotting to overthrow the government”. Owing to the problematic legal framework laid down by “anti-terrorism” laws and the penal code, freedom of expression can be easily criminalised, as evidenced by the alarming number of political prisoners.
This parallels the tendency in official discourse to securitise various social groups and forms of protest, presented as existential threats jeopardising the unity of the nation and the well-being of the polity. Two years before the Gezi events, this trend was clearly evident in a speech by the then interior minister, Idris Naim Şahin:
[T]he work of a terrorist organisation doesn’t just take place in the mountains, the plains, the cities, the streets, simply by setting itself up in back streets and callously attacking in the night, it is not solely armed terror. It has another wing. There is psychological terror, scientific terror. There is a back room, feeding terror. In other words, there is propaganda, there is terrorist propaganda. How does this get transmitted, maybe he is drawing a painting and reflecting it on the canvas, in a poem, in a column in the newspaper, in a joke.
With the onset of Gezi Park—an argument, originally, over the detrimental environmental impact of a commercial development—the security discourse has been ever-more accentuated, as government officials have increasingly resorted to rhetoric equating protest with “terrorism”, opposition with “the enemy within”. In the early days of the protests, the minister for European affairs, Egemen Bağış, announced that “anyone attempting to enter the park will be treated as a terrorist”—and, indeed, numerous participants in the movement, including bands performing in the park, were arrested on the grounds of being members of a terrorist organisation. The prime minister, Recep Erdoğan, chair of the ruling conservative AKP, also opted to dismiss protestors as “atheists”.
Erdogan’s fierce stance has been widely criticised for fostering antagonism: after the death of a fourteen-year-old boy, Berkin Elvan, hit on the head by a police tear-gas canister, once again he framed the incident by implying that the boy was affiliated with a terrorist organisation, thereby legitimising police brutality. The aggressive and intolerant stance of the AKP government reached a zenith during the prime minister’s visit to Soma, where a mining disaster on 13 May left 301 dead. Shocking footage was released of his adviser Yusuf Yerkel kicking a man, held down by soldiers, who turned out to be a relative of one of the dead miners. There have also been allegations that Erdogan himself punched and beat up one of the protesters. While events since Gezi has demonstrated that accountability for police violence is non-existent, violence perpetrated personally by government officials has heralded the normalisation of state violence par excellence—since those that revolt against the establishment implicitly deserve to be treated in this way.
More recently, among the groups deemed an “existential threat” has been the erstwhile ally of the AKP government, a religious order known as the Gülen movement with well-entrenched networks in the judiciary and the police. Once the alliance was broken, due to unresolved power struggles, shocking corruption claims emerged in December, indicating a close network between business circles and the government and leading to the arrests of major businessmen and relatives of government officials. While the government condemned these operations as a “judicial coup” by a parallel state structure controlled by the Gülen movement and reshuffled the prosecutors and police officers in charge, audio-records of private phone calls involving top government officials, including Erdoğan, started to circulate on social media.
What followed was not only the targeting of individuals reckoned to be affiliated with the Gülen order but also a clampdown on social media, with bans on Twitter and YouTube. Social media had already been denounced by the prime minister during the Gezi protests as a “troublemaker”, due to their pivotal role in providing real-time coverage of the demonstrations amid the silence of mainstream media networks. With the release of the controversial recordings, the government relegated social media to a tool in the hands of “enemies of the national will”.
Yet still, amid the securitisation of dissent and the increasingly authoritarian policies, AKP once again prevailed in local elections in March, accruing more than 40 percent of votes. The results bestowed on the government greater confidence, as Erdoğan taunted his opponents, vowing to “enter their caves” and to eliminate the structures of the “parallel state” purportedly jeopardising national security.
Reflecting on how events have unfolded in the past year, some have been driven to despair that the spark of hope ignited by the Gezi movement has been extinguished. An unrelenting government has become even more hostile towards opposition with its last electoral victory, taken as a “vindication of the national will”. Nonetheless, as we witness the divorce of democracy and individual liberties in the political scene, there is another dynamic at play. The Gezi movement has instigated an irreversible grassroots socialisation, which still finds expression in daily life—through local forums, civic initiatives and a process of deliberation across different social cleavages. It has paved the way for greater political awareness and cultivated democratic values of civic involvement.
One promising manifestation was the large number of volunteers in the last elections who worked day and night around the country to ensure that the counting of the ballots was fair. A group called Oy ve Ötesi (Vote and Beyond) garnered over 30,000 individuals through social networks to volunteer at the polling stations. The result was the uncovering of widespread evidence of corrupt practices: suspicious power-cuts, mistakes in counting votes and recounts still taking place in certain districts.
The spirit of solidarity and freedom unleashed by Gezi hovers above a political landscape in which rights and liberties are stifled. A year on, the people of Turkey have been made aware that real democracy requires the effort and devotion of its citizens.