“I had no idea . . . I had no idea we could muster up this much of a movement.”
The words came from a woman in her late fifties squatting on the pavement beside me. She was gaping at the crowds roaring
the ‘istiklal marş’ (one of Turkey’s most popular national songs) around us. The Republic Square in Antalya was a carnival of Turkish flags, placards, singing, jumping and whistle blowing, while the fountains in front of the old town hall twisted and spun to illuminate a patriotic light show. From where I was sat it looked more like Glastonbury than a gritty political protest.
I turned to the lady. “I’m in awe. I’ve never seen anything like it,” I said.
And I hadn’t. What has unfolded in Turkey over the past few days is jaw-dropping. Like most of the nation, I’m riveted to
my facebook page avidly imbibing the feeds coming in from my friends scattered throughout the country.
The lady by my side nodded slowly. She looked an average older city lady dressed in slacks and a T shirt. She was
middle-class, perhaps had a couple of grown-up children in other cities. She had probably been fairly apolitical up until this moment. And the reason for her political abstention would have been because she had no doubt lived through
Turkey’s many coups back in the seventies and eighties. She represented a generation traumatised by the horrors of Turkey’s dark days.
The young, however, have no fear, no shadows of ‘disappearances’ lurking in their minds. They grew up in the late nineties and noughties – Turkey’s heyday – when we could all say what pretty much what we liked. And it’s that youth that is the energy behind a movement which has the power to change the face of democracy not just in Turkey, but elsewhere.
I first visited Turkey in 1988. Back then Turgut Ozal was prime-minister, before he was finished off (many say) with a
poisoned glass of lemonade. Turkey was a very different place in those days. There were continual water shortages and power cuts, the police were highly unpleasant, and getting business done was nigh impossible. Turkey’s civil
servant class generally wax lyrical about these times, but as I recall it wasn’t a particularly democratic place. Conversations were mine-fields. The Kurdish situation, religion and Ataturk were all very much off-limits.
But by the late nineties it was as though Turkey stepped into a new era. Between about 1998 and 2006 we experienced a
democratisation of civic society that was staggering in its swiftness. AKP played its part in that process as Muslims demanded the right to be able to wear headscarves in public offices and universities. The concept of freedom of self-expression was born in Turkey.
But the past four years has seen all that change; Army
chiefs were ceremoniously thrown in jail, many without trial. Then the education system transformed from secular to Islamic (it is currently impossible to send your child to a school without Islam – and a fairly narrow-minded kind of Islam at that – being rammed down her throat). The prisons bulged and jostled with journalists and writers.
This affected me directly. I’ve been running a small independent on-line newspaper, but two months ago I decided to give it up. It was impossible to pen freely, comment on politics or expose government misdemeanor without the threat of imprisonment. Large black buds of fear began to bloom throughout Turkey. We braced ourselves to become yet another United Arab Emirates; wealthy but undemocratic.
And then The Tree Revolution happened. Quite how it happened is a mystery. But, as is so often the case in Turkey
things changed (and are still changing) overnight. After four years of nothing constructive being done to curb the increasing infringements, the Turks stopped sitting on their dissatisfaction and Taksim exploded.
Everyone knows the rest. For the first time since he came to power it looks like Erdogan has gaffed politically. The
government’s absurd overreaction to the protests with tear gas and water cannons coupled with the gagging of the national media turned even the most apolitical disbeliever into an anti-government activist.
Yet this revolution is transforming day by day. On the first and second days of the protests, I would have cautioned that
civil war was very much on the cards, as images of violent scuffles with police began to fill up my news feed. But Turkey is adamant that this is not an Arab spring. And they are right. Erdogan was elected democratically. He is not an Arabian monarch, nor an Ottoman sultan. He is a prime minister.
There is a tendency for Western media to depict the situation in Turkey as one of Muslims versus secularists. Whether
there are vested interests lurking behind that portrayal is not for me to say. But it’s irrelevant, because the Turks are refusing to be sucked into what has become an outdated polemic. Social media is flooded with calls not to bring
anything that could be construed as a weapon to protests, to avoid provoking the police and to demonstrate peacefully. Secularists, nationalists, students, the mainstream, environmentalists, disillusioned AK party followers and devout old ladies have all joined arms to condemn the lack of
On days five and six of the revolution a shift was clearly visible as actors, musicians, comedians and celebrities galvanized the public to turn the protests into a carnival. Gezi park opened its eyes on Tuesday morning to a group of yogis unfurling their mats and sliding into downward dog. A small library was erected in the centre and crowds swarmed
in to create a festival atmosphere. Meanwhile the diggers and bulldozers sit unmoving on the sidelines.
Back in Antalya, a CHP (opposition party) stronghold on the south coast, the atmosphere is nothing short of euphoric.
Night after night the Republic Square heaves with protestors, dancing and making merry. So far it shows no signs of petering out. If anything the rallies are swelling as Turks from all walks of life revel in the air of solidarity and freedom that pervades.
“I’m inspired and so moved. This is incredible!” said Brent, an American tourist who was tear gassed within an hour from disembarking from his flight in Istanbul. “In the States nothing like this ever happens. People are marginalised into fringe groups. And when the police start beating them, they become so angry they retaliate. Everyone here is so jovial.”
They are jovial because they’ve won. Whether Erdogan ever returns to Turkey to deal with the revolution, whether he
resigns today or tomorrow or next year is irrelevant. Something far more significant and powerful has emerged from that severed tree trunk in Istanbul. No one is afraid any more. The Turks have made a choice. They have chosen
democracy and freedom of speech over economic success. As an estate agent friend of mine said:
“I don’t care if the economy collapses, I want my kid to be able to say what he likes.”
I was going to finish this commentary with the following line; The Turks have already proven they are ready for democracy. Erdogan has proven he isn’t. The only question remains is whether the international community step up and support them.
But what I’ve been experiencing over the past week has made me stop and take note. In a world where vested interests and anti-democratic processes are at work in
every single country, where our environment is destroyed without so much as a by-your-leave, where there are places like Guantanamo, where people are tazed to death in airports, where we are told we can’t grow our own vegetables without a patent, where our education systems force our children to sit behind a desk and shut up for eight hours a day, where our media is for the most part nothing but
disinformation , it is not the Turks who need to prove anything.