Now that the Gezi Park occupation is over, everyone wants to know who won. At first Erdoğan looked ready to compromise: after discussions with some of the participants, he said he would honour a court decision suspending the government’s plan to demolish the park, and added that, if his project to build a replica of the Ottoman barracks were cleared by the judiciary, he would take the decision to the public. At this point the protesters in the park had a brief opportunity to declare victory. But as in the various Occupy movements last year there was no central command; there were more than a hundred different groups camped in the park, and it would have been impossible to reach any consensus short of a very long forum. In any case, Erdoğan did not even wait until daybreak.
Claiming that the protesters had vowed to continue with the occupation, he ordered the police back into Taksim Square and Gezi Park. By Sunday morning, following a long night of tear gas, arrests and vicious beatings against large crowds throughout the city, the centre of Istanbul was under police rule, with the minister in charge of EU relations declaring that anyone entering Taksim Square would be considered a member or supporter of a terrorist organisation. Skirmishes continued on Sunday, but this episode seemed to be finished.
Before and after the raid on the park Erdoğan staged massive rallies, in Ankara on Saturday and in Istanbul on Sunday, which he claimed were the opening salvos of AKP’s local election campaign. He was showcasing his preferred brand of politics: the populist leader holds forth, the crowds cheer. The message was that these crowds represented the majority of the real population. The resistance in the park was a conspiracy against his government and its roots were outside the country; the world media were biased and aiding the demonstrators; there was evidence that nefarious lobbies abroad were involved in co-ordinating the protests. This was a cartoon version of the nationalist rhetoric of yore (now laced with a larger dose of Islamic conservatism), maintaining that the nation is a solid block, and any dissent is the fault of ‘enemies’, internal or external. Turks are familiar with this; it was the favourite trope of the military coups in 1960, 1971 and 1980, but more saliently it is still the dominant tenor of school textbooks. The question is whether it still resonates.
Almost all the protesters in Gezi Park were young people with no direct experience of military rule or state repression. They were the beneficiaries of economic growth and greater openness to the world. They now wanted the basic rights that they knew existed elsewhere: they wanted to be able to defend public space against neoliberal incursion, and they refused to live under the authoritarian guidance of a self-appointed father of the country. They felt at home in a collective way of life with gender equality and respect for diversity — a recipe for a new covenant that makes irrelevant the pretensions of Erdoğan’s supposedly benevolent (and now wrathful) paternalism. It might once have been possible for the political class to dismiss their demands as the aspirations of a cosmopolitan minority in Istanbul, but their resistance found widespread (and unexpected) support in many urban areas, with a rich mix of civil disobedience, demonstrations and street politics.
Erdoğan has to take some of the credit for this. His regime has achieved the rare feat of ridding the country of military tutelage and presided over a decade of stability. Young people were diverted away from the baroque politics of earlier periods, for which they were unjustly accused of being apolitical. At the same time, Erdoğan’s government allocated more money to education. Turkey now has some 200 universities and more than four million university students; 2.5 million new graduates have been added to the population since 2008. These figures portend a new middle class in formation, whose members work in relatively modern workplaces, with leisure time and consumption habits much like their global counterparts’. But they also look for new guarantees for their way of life, for their environment, for their right to the city; and they resent violations of their personal and social space.
The Gezi protests were the first social movement to stem from this new reality. It is evident that the old guard don’t know how to respond to a challenge that lies outside their understanding of politics as a struggle to rule. The government’s response is at the level of greater coercion: they keep trying to find ‘the culprits’ and redouble police powers to repress any hint of dissent. In their panic they variously rage against the haute bourgeoisie of Istanbul, the European Parliament and their former supporters. They seem to have given up on hegemony and are banking on violent domination. Meanwhile, the protesters’ displays of fraternity, resistance, creativity and humour expose the failure of the tutelary regime. Erdoğan’s project to be anointed an omnipotent president through a change in the constitution is now no more than a dream. The newcomers to the political arena may not yet be in a position to draft a new set of rules, but they have shifted the keystone that supports Turkey’s patriarchal firmament.