The mass protest movement that has flooded through Turkish society, over the last few weeks, is of great importance to the future of international politics, not least because President Erdogan’s reaction has been so ham-fisted and unacceptable. As the head of government of a NATO allied nation with a constitutional mandate for secular government, Erdogan, leader of a religious party, has always had to walk a fine line; the protest movement has shown how superficial some of his moderate language may have been.
With what is considered to be genuine popularity, Erdogan has accumulated what many believe is an unhealthy amount of power, and he has allegedly been impatient with dissent of all kinds. What Taksim Square represents for Turkey, however, is the first true modern movement in defense of stakeholders’ rights. And that, many believe, is the 21st-century liberation struggle which even the most advanced democracies will have to confront: freedom of speech is one thing, freedom of the press another, both necessary for any genuine democracy to exist, but without a real, and influential voice, for stakeholders, any process of decision-making must be described as less than entirely democratic.
The Taksim Square protests began as a non-violent resistance to planned demolition and commercial redevelopment of Gezi Park, a public green space. (As such, the protests have been referred to by both names and by hybrid names: Taksim Square, Gezi Park, Occupy Gezi, Occupy Istanbul/Gezi Park, Taksim-Gezi Park protests, etc.) It is one movement. And that movement, embodied by a simple, nonviolent sit-in, in a public space, was confronted by an amazing backlash of extreme official violence.
The violent backlash—including the use of tear-gas and other chemical agents, water cannon, physical beatings and other “less than lethal” combat techniques—amazed protesters and observers alike, because Turkey is allegedly interested in joining the European Union, which requires a certain level of human rights observance. But Erdogan’s government’s reaction much more closely resembled the extreme intolerance of dissent exhibited by some of the dictatorial regimes ousted by the Arab Spring uprisings.
It was amazing also, because of the extreme distance between the government’s rhetoric and the views of the Turkish people: While Turkey is a proud, secular democracy whose people pride themselves on having no patience for tyranny, the government has not only attacked non-violent protesters, but arrested people for using Twitter. The President even went as far as to call Twitter a “scourge” and a “the worst menace to society”.
The official reaction to the Taksim-Gezi movement has revealed a shocking lack of clarity about the technological and democratizing moment in which we now live and would suggest a near pathological unreadiness for anything like the democratic protections the EU would demand of any new entrant. The widening gulf between the government’s aggressive attempts to crush dissent and the Turkish people’s view that they already live in a stable and vibrant democracy has led many to speculate that Erdogan has grown impatient with the requirement that he behave as if he wanted to be a secular leader of a democratic state.
For seasoned observers of the nonviolent protest movements that have spread across North Africa and the Middle East, Europe, North America and South Asia, over the last three to four years, it was predictable that this kind of primitive, violent response to democratic protest would cause the dissent to spread across Turkey. It has.
The government’s plans to build a shopping center on the grounds of the park sparked outrage among the people, who immediately began to set up overnight tents and to plant trees in response to the demolition of one of Istanbul’s few remaining green spaces. So began what has been described as a war scene over the last few days.
But this protest has expanded into a resistance movement far beyond the modest protection of parks and trees.
And that resistance movement has a very clear, very global and very significant meaning: People across the world expect to have a voice; they expect for the democratic principles enshrined in the edifice of the laws that built their nations (whether it is the Turkish, the American or the Iranian constitution—all of which guarantee freedom of speech and the right to protest government overreach) to be real and to remain inviolate in the practice of government.
That, clearly, is most often not the case, and so people across the world are wrestling with choices:
- To get actively involved in politics and take on all the personal inconveniences or even serious risks that come with that;
- To organize non-violent movements to resist acts of irrational and unjustifiable tyranny, however petty or severe;
- To withdraw from the public sphere and surrender the civic space to those who want the power and the problems;
- To launch violent uprisings against dictatorial and genocidal regimes.
What the Taksim-Gezi situation, and the wider Turkish resistance have revealed is that the first three choices are being actively made, on a regular basis, by people in populous, powerful democratic states, and governments are never guaranteed to know what to do about it. Even in Sacramento, Oakland and New York City, in the United States, non-violent Occupy protesters were attacked with chemical agents, while having done literally nothing in defiance of any law or taken any physical act to threaten anyone.
Muammar Qadhafi was arrogant and ignorant enough to throw his life, his regime, his family and his supporters into the dustbin of history, because violence seemed smarter to him than democratic negotiation with a smarter, more relevant, better informed and more principled opposition. Bashar al-Assad has truly earned the description “evil” assigned to his regime by the administration of George W. Bush: Assad’s violent suppression of dissent has led to more than 80,o00 deaths in two years in a civil war that is now being treated as an ongoing campaign of genocide being carried out with the aid of foreign fighters.
Assad, who decried protesters as traitors because they received moral support from people around the world who wanted to see a free Syria is now actively inviting mercenaries into Syria from Lebanon, Iran and elsewhere, to slaughter Syrian civilians in horrifying numbers. Erdogan is not Assad, but the situation Erdogan finds himself in is reminiscent of the French protests, which led to barricades, arson, looting and other forms of active resistance in over 900 cities and spread beyond the borders of France.
Erdogan’s absurd and inhuman remarks in response to non-violent pro-democracy protests now suggest to any even minimally astute observer that he is not fit to lead a democratic nation, and the people of Turkey, in cities across the country, are now actively declaring their resistance to the regime of Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Even as his government began to hold talks with non-governmental organizations and union leaders, to negotiate a solution to the Taksim-Gezi protests, and with officials under him saying there never were any finished plans for a commercial development of Gezi Park, Erdogan called the protesters “extremists” and “destroyers” and demanded they end their movement, pledging to go ahead with the redevelopment plan.
Erdogan’s rhetoric is not only extreme, it is rife with hubris, and puts Turkey at a worrying turning point: will a popular protest movement end up demanding the ouster of a democratically elected Turkish leader who simply would not, or could not, honor the principles of the democracy he was supposed to lead? Will that mean a re-examination of Turkey’s constitutional order? Will it reinvigorate it?
Accounts have emerged from witnesses who are not part of the Taksim-Gezi movement, and this account, in US News & World Report, which includes video from just off Taksim Square on the night of the first government attack, clearly shows security forces fired chemical agents indiscriminately into huge crowds of civilians in the surrounding streets, with no regard for public safety.
All of this to resist stakeholder rights? All of this for the right to seize a public park for commercial development?
Either the level of direct cash-for-service corruption in Erdogan’s government is so extreme, and so pervasive, that this project really is equivalent to the survival of his authority, or the Taksim-Gezi moment has revealed how deeply and extremely Turkish officialdom is opposed to allowing for genuine, democratic recognition of the rights of stakeholders—those directly affected by the decisions taken.
The Taksim-Gezi movement, having now spread across all of Turkey, is a vote for democracy and stakeholders’ rights. How the international community reacts to this confrontation between brute force and nonviolent democratic resistance will determine, to some extent, how much freedom any of us will truly be allowed by our own systems of government. Independents of principle across the United States want the US to first echo Sec. of State Kerry’s call for an end to the attacks on civilians, but to go further and demand a process of investigation into the crimes committed by Erdogan’s government.
Democracy has no place for violent authoritarian rule. That is the story here.