Erdoğan’s Miracle Reprieve

July 9, 2013

If you’re reading the American press, you might think that the protests in Turkey have died down. Nothing could be further from the truth. On July 6—last Saturday—delivering a stern rebuke to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the Istanbul 1st Regional Court issued a decision cancelling the controversial Taksim construction and the Artillery Barracks project, thus reopening the park for public use.

Happy Istanbullus planned to gather in the park to celebrate this victory at 7:00 p.m. But mere hours before, the Governor of Istanbul, Hüseyin Mutlu, issued a Proclamation by Tweet: “We are holding the much-anticipated opening of Gezi Park tomorrow. The park, which was embellished by the Istanbul Municipality, may bring peace and joy.” That was it.

Puzzled, I wrote back: “Pardon me, Efendim, but I understood that the court had decided the park would be open today. I don’t understand, am I mistaken?”

No answer.

Now, note: The Turkish constitution is exceptionally clear on this subject:

“ARTICLE 34. (As amended on October 17, 2001) Everyone has the right to hold unarmed and peaceful meetings and demonstration marches without prior permission. The right to hold meetings and demonstration marches shall only be restricted by law on the grounds of national security, and public order, or prevention of crime commitment, public health and public morals or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.”

The governor, in principle, does have the right to prohibit meetings on the grounds listed above, but as his Tweet suggested, he offered no argument that any of these grounds were applicable. Indeed, Istanbul citizens have walked through this park almost every day for the past century with no notable incident. His dicta was interpreted thus: You will enter that park when the Party tells you to, not when these uppity “courts” say you can.

The outcome was predictable: Outraged citizens gathered at Taksim Square at 7:00 p.m., brandishing the court order in their hands. They were immediately doused with water cannon and tear gas—which, according to two witnesses, was used without warning, despite recent promises from the government that a warning would henceforth always be issued. (In fact, that has always been the official policy, and almost never observed, but I suppose it sounded good to say it.)

Thousands of tear-gassed, panicking Turks flooded down İstiklal Avenue—which for lack of better translation may be described as the City’s main drag, and which on any normal day looks like this. This is the center of Istanbul, usually packed with happy pedestrians enjoying themselves, and there is no earthly, legal reason it should not have looked this way on July 6. The only reason it didn’t is because the government chose to engage in a massive, violent display of contempt of court (literally), one that targeted children, street cleaners, and the elderly alike. So instead, it looked like this—and I know, because while I didn’t film this, I’m probably in the footage somewhere, obscured by the clouds of tear gas. Silly me for thinking it might be nice to take a walk down İstiklal Avenue on a lovely summer evening.

Many fled to the side streets (also known as “the street on which I live”) trying to escape the riot police. Some 59 citizens caught up in the melee were detained. Hysterical parents tried to convince the police to release their children, but had no luck: Scores were thrown into police vans. Meanwhile, in a tourist area next to Taksim Square, four maniacs brandishing meat cleavers ran around trying to hack up terrified civilians fleeing from the the cops, who in turn ignored the homicidal swordsmen because they were too busy firing tear gas at civilians. It was later announced that the cleaver-wielders had been arrested. Less than 24 hours later, all but one were released—again, with no explanation.

The riot police, or more properly, the rioting police, pursued everyone on the streets of Istanbul within two miles of Taksim well into the early hours of Sunday morning with tear gas, sound bombs, plastic bullets and paintball guns (which are non-lethal in principle, but if targeted at someone who is not wearing proper eyewear can easily blind). So no, these protests have not “died down,” not in the least. Even my cats have decided that tear gas, screaming and flash-bangs are normal smells and sounds that require no special investigation. This is telling, because the sound of a vacuum cleaner sends them into a hysterical panic. And yes, I do vacuum at least once a week.

Interior Minister Güler described these events as “perfectly normal.” I suppose it has become perfectly normal here to see elderly sanitation workers vomiting in the streets, but I’m not yet persuaded that it should be. According to the government, the usually placid homeowners and manual laborers in my neighborhood are “marginal groups” and “communists.” This child, his face covered in tear gas, would thus presumably be a futuremember of a marginal group or a budding communist. I didn’t take that photo, but I did notice that not one member of the police interviewed anyone they gassed about their views on the collective ownership of property—and they certainly didn’t ask me about my views before gassing me, even though I could have persuaded them with absolutely irrefragable evidence that I’m about as much of a communist as Solzhenitsyn. Nor did they ask anyone whether he belonged to a “marginal group” before shooting him with a plastic bullet—and if you’re tempted to think, “Well, they’re just plastic bullets,” have a look at what they can do—and did do—on Saturday night.

On Sunday, the governor announced again—in the same random, inexplicable way—that the park would not be opened “until tomorrow.” Why? No one knows, but I do note that Ramadan begins on July 9. Rumor has it that the ruling party plans to give its supporters tickets to enter the park for Iftar, the breaking of the fast on Ramadan evenings. Make of that what you will.

But you might be forgiven for not knowing that this is happening in Turkey, because neither does the Turkish public, unless they’ve seen it first-hand. Erdoğan is famous for his ability to switch the topic of national conversation in a heartbeat, and famous as well for the discipline he asserts over the Turkish media. For example, on December 28, 2011 an airstrike on the town of Uludere, near the Turkish-Iraqi border, killed 34 Turkish civilians, all of Kurdish ethnicity. By late May, the main opposition party, the public and the media were expressing growing outrage with the government’s failure properly to investigate or shed light upon this “operational mistake.” Suddenly, out of absolutely nowhere, Erdoğan proposed to ban abortions and C-sections—an issue that until that day had been of no concern whatsoever to the Turkish public, particularly because Islamic law has nothing to say about either subject. Suddenly, Uludere was pushed from the headlines, replaced by endless discussions of abortion and parsings of Erdoğan’s bizarre objection to C-sections. It was a political masterstroke.

He is so well known for this trick that we knew immediately, following the May 11 terrorist attack on the Turkish-Syrian border town of Reyhanlı—which killed 52 Turkish citizens and prompted massive criticism of Erdoğan’s Syria policy—that the media would be put on lockdown (which it was) and that Erdoğan would soon do or say something so attention-grabbing that the country would focus on nothing else. Thus did the Turkish parliament rush through strict legislation that would severely curb alcohol sales in Turkey, and voilà—Reyhanlı became yesterday’s news.

Still, the Gezi protests were so massive, and so widely publicized, even internationally, that none of us could figure out how he’d change the subject this time, even with the customary media lockdown. “Frankly,” I said to a friend, “the only way he could do it is by announcing that he’s always felt like a woman trapped in a man’s body and announcing that he’s scheduled himself for immediate gender reassignment surgery.” I was wrong. God intervened. He handed Erdoğan a coup in Egypt, instead.

Now, to put this in context, the Turkish media barely noticed the coup in Mali, and I’d be astonished if more than 100 Turks were aware that in recent years there have also been coups in Honduras, Guinea-Bissau and Niger. But as of the Fourth of July, one would have thought, from reading the local press, that one was not in Turkey but in Egypt, which was more than passing strange. And while the world seems to believe the Egyptian coup was a “nightmare” for Erdoğan, putting an end to his ambitious foreign policy fantasies (and this is true), it it important to understand that it was simultaneously a dream come true, not only turning all foreign attention away from Turkey, but enabling him to turn all domestic attention away from Turkey, and lending credibility to his absurd claims that the Gezi Park protesters were in fact coup-plotters, despite extensive, serious research indicating that they were anything but.

Meanwhile, the PKK raided a military post in Hani, a town in Diyarbakir province, and claimed to have killed a soldier—which if true would deal a severe and perhaps fatal blow to the “peace process”—but this was scarcely reported. Wave upon wave of Gezi protesters were detained, along with their doctors and lawyers, but this too was scarcely reported. The Turkish lira fell to a record low against the dollar, but this too was scarcely reported. What was reported was that opposition CHP and ruling AKP deputies had to be separated in parliament lest they come to blows while discussing Egypt. (But what wasn’t reported was the content of the omnibus bill they were there to pass, or whether they passed it.) Even more strangely, there has been little news about what’s actually happening in Egypt—the entire conversation has been a metaphor for Turkey. This is notably different from Turkish coverage of Syria, which has in fact been very informative and much superior to American coverage of Syria.

Now, of course I understand why this story of a coup in Egypt would be interesting to a Turkish readership, but the fact of the matter—consult a map if you doubt me—is that Egypt isn’t Turkey. And notably, pro-Mursi marches in Ankara and Istanbul were permitted, rather than tear-gassed, even though the grounds for banning them on “public safety” grounds might, arguably, be stronger.

The strangest thing about this is that Turks paid almost no attention at all to the initial uprising in Tahrir Square. I documented this at the time in this video footage. “The sentiment among Turks,” I wrote, “was that there was something really fishy about those Egyptian protests: I mean, Arabs couldn’t organize their way out of paper bag, so it must be the Americans behind it.” Another interlocutor: “We’ve been suffering just like the Egyptians, and when did the Arabs ever protest for us?” Still another: “I don’t feel any pity for the Egyptians. They betrayed us.” (The Turks have very, very long memories.)

Meanwhile, Egyptian Twitterers became so irritated with Turkey that they took time out from Tweeting the coup to tell them to shut the hell up and stay out of their business:

Turk: @nasilbirdemkrsi @Nervana_1 if British agents and Sabbetaists hadn’t demolished the Ottomans, sure, Ottomans could have endowed what Egyptians have requested.

Egyptian: @Nervana_1 @nasilbirdemkrsi Ottomans were colonial power. Egyptians despised them. Wake up!

‏Egyptian: @Nervana_1 The fact that Turkey once ruled Egypt does not qualify it to preach to Egyptians what’s right and what’s wrong. It is our mess, not theirs!

Egyptian: @imen1 1st major Egypt wide revolt in Egypt was in early 19th century against the Ottomans!

Egyptian: @Nervana_1 If Erdoğan understands how many Egyptians are turning against him for dictating to them, he will carefully chose his words.

American: @ClaireBerlinski @Nervana_1, if he can’t grasp how many Turks are turning against him for dictating to them, why would he grasp this about Egyptians?

Egyptian: @Nervana_1 Epic MT @GurkanOzturan Turkish gov’t claims Gezi protesters rise up to draw attention from Egypt & trivialize Egyptian coup

Egyptian: @Nervana_1 Suddenly Egypt has become part of Turkey’s domestic politics. Pardon me, since when has the Sultan conquered Cairo?

Turk (in series): @JonJons362406965 @Nervana_1 LOL, the revisionist nationalism they pumped into your brain is hilarious. An Albanian Ottoman servant took over your country with bands of Circassian mercenaries, and the dynasty he established became a puppet regime after the British took over. I’m sick of this lie: “Ottomans were colonial power.” If they were, you towelheads would be speaking Turkish.

[Editor’s note: So much for the eternal friendship between Turks and Egyptians. I suspect @Nervana_1 then blocked him.]

Egyptian: @Nervana_1 Ha! MT @WashingtonPoint Erdoğan: most important square in democracies is ballot box. Democracy is not something you can manage with media.

Egyptian @Nervana_1 Meanwhile, Egypt State TV airing a programme about Cairo’s ancient mosques. #ParallelUniverse

Turk: @ekizilkaya Turkish cable news. Fail. Again. CNN Turk broadcasts a documentary on construction, NTV on Botox, while #occupygezi is on the streets again.

So this sudden Turkish obsession with Mursi’s downfall is, I suspect, a bit more complicated than one might think at first blush. And no, the unrest in Turkey has not died down. Indeed, I suspect the protesters who chant Bu Daha Başlangıç, Mücadeleye Devam —“This is only the beginning, the struggle continues”—may prove to be right. And if they are, Erdoğan may well be forced to announce his imminent gender reassignment, because I just can’t imagine what other cards he has left to play—although I must concede his skill at dealing them from the bottom of the deck.

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