The Protests in Turkey, Explained

Mother Jones

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Turkey is experiencing its largest and most violent riots in decades as tens of thousands of young people voice opposition to the moderate Islamist government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Hundreds of protesters and police have been injured as authorities try to quell the fourth day of demonstrations with tear gas, water canons, beatings, and a tightening grip on the media. Today, Erdogan accused the protesters of “walking arm-in-arm with terrorism.” Yet his defiant response is only making the crowds larger. In an echo of the Arab Spring and the Occupy Wall Street protests of 2011, the movement has been galvanized by images disseminated on social media, such as a picture of a policeman spraying tear gas at a young woman in a red summer dress, her long hair swept upward by the blast. “The more they spray,” reads a popular Twitter caption, “the bigger we get.”

Click here to go directly to the latest updates.

Why are people protesting? Nominally, the protests were sparked by a government plan to replace Istanbul’s leafy Taksim Gezi Park with a touristy shopping mall—what the country’s leading historian, Edhem Eldem, sardonically derides as a “Las Vegas of Ottoman splendor.” Trees are especially precious in Istanbul, where only 1.5 percent of land is green space (compared to 17 percent in New York). But the protests quickly became symbolic of much broader concerns about Erdogan’s autocratic and socially conservative style of government.

Istanbul’s secularists chafe at the way he has rammed through development projects in this cosmopolitan cultural crossroads with little regard for the European and non-Muslim aspects of its history; a 19th-century Russian Orthodox Church may be destroyed as part of an overhaul of a port. What’s more, Erdogan has placed new restrictions on the sale of alcohol and availability of birth control. And he has jailed political opponents and members of the media.

How widespread are the protests? Since Friday, there have been demonstrations in 67 of Turkey’s 80 provinces, according to Turkey’s semi-official Andalou News Agency. At least 1700 people have been arrested.

What about damage and injuries? Photos show fires in the street and overturned and burned-out cars. One protestor was killed on Sunday night when a taxi slammed into a crowd, but the government’s press office claims the death was accidental. According to CNN, 58 civilians remain hospitalized and 115 security officers have been injured.

Is Erdogan just another Islamist dictator? Not according to Washington, which holds up Turkey as a shining model for democracy in the Islamic world. Since coming to power in 2002, Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) has twice returned to office with large pluralities of the vote. In recent years, Erdogan has kept up the pace of democratic reforms in Turkey by enshrining individual rights in its laws and placing the military under civilian control. “Yet even as the AKP was winning elections at home and plaudits from abroad,” writes Foreign Policy‘s Steven Cook, “an authoritarian turn was underway…”

In 2007, the party seized upon a plot in which elements of Turkey’s so-called deep state—military officers, intelligence operatives, and criminal underworld—sought to overthrow the government and used it to silence its critics. Since then, Turkey has become a country where journalists are routinely jailed on questionable grounds, the machinery of the state has been used against private business concerns because their owners disagree with the government, and freedom of expression in all its forms is under pressure.

How bad is the crackdown on the press? Pretty bad. At the same time CNN International was broadcasting live from Taksim Square on Friday, CNN Turk, the network’s Turkish-language affiliate, was showing a cooking show and a documentary about penguins.


In 2009, Turkey’s tax ministry levied a whopping $2.5-billion fine against CNN Turk’s parent company, Dogan Yayin, in a move that was widely viewed as punishment for its critical coverage of the government. Some journalists who’ve written negative stories about the government and its allies have been fired or imprisoned. See this year-old CNN report on retaliation by the Turkish government:

So how are people in Turkey learning about the protests? Mostly through social media. “Revolution will not be televised; it will be tweeted,” reads a popular Istanbul graffiti scrawl. According to an analysis by NYU’s Social Media and Political Participation Lab, the Twitter hashtag #direngezipark had been used in more than 1.8 million tweets as of this morning—far more than the Egyptian hashtag #Jan25 was used during the entire Arab Spring uprising. And about 85 percent of those tweets that are geocoded have come from within Turkey.

Here’s a taste of what people are sharing:

Facebook has also emerged as a major source of viral Turkey content as citizen journalists use it to post videos of violent protest scenes. The Daily Dot‘s Joe Kloc has compiled some of the most widely shared street scenes:

A tear-gassed protester getting brutally kicked and beaten by police:

This morning, Erdogan called social media “the worst menace to society,” saying it has been used to spread lies about the protests and the government’s response. That’s probably not the best way to look like you care about what the protesters are saying.

What do hackers think about this? Over the weekend, Anonymous launched #OpTurkey, an anti-government hacking and DDoSing operation that resembles its work in Egypt and other countries during the Arab Spring. It has also given activists tools to skirt government internet censorship.

So is this the next wave of the Arab Spring? Not exactly. For one thing, most Turks are not “Arabs,” and they don’t necessarily view their nationality through an ethnic or religious lens. Compared to Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, or Syria, Turkey is much more Western-oriented, stable, prosperous, and egalitarian. From 2002 to 2011, the Turkish economy tripled in size. Per capita income in Turkey is $15,000 (compared to $6,600 in Egypt), and income inequality is less pronounced than it is in the United States. For now, at least, the protests seem less likely to spark a revolution than simply pull the rug out from Ergodan’s political agenda and electoral prospects. That said, Turkey’s last coup was just a little more than 30 years ago. The power dynamic could change quickly if Ergodan overreacts.

Who do I follow for more news about the protests? The blog What Is Happening in Istanbul has been rolling out updates. The leading Twitter hashtags are #direngezipark and #occupygezi. The Guardian is live-blogging the protests. Check back here for updates.

UPDATE 6/3/2013 5:15 ET: During a press briefing on the Turkey protests today, White House spokesman Jay Carney voiced “serious concerns” about the violent crackdown on protesters, whom he characterized as mostly “peaceful, law-abiding citizens exercising their rights.” That’s a far cry from how they’ve been painted by Erdogan.

UPDATE 6/3/2013 5:55 ET: Using a crowd-funding website, Turkish protestors have raised enough money to publish this letter to Erdogan as a full-page ad in the New York Times.

UPDATE 6/3/2013 6:54 ET: Turkish media is reporting that 22-year-old Abdullah Comert, a member of the opposition Republican People’s Party, died tonight of wounds to the head. Turkey’s Star Gazette reports that security forces are investigating the incident. Activists on Twitter immediately blamed police for the shooting, which, if true, would mark the first instance of security forces killing an #occupygezi protestor. However, the allegation hasn’t been independently confirmed.

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The Protests in Turkey, Explained

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