Turkey’s agony – how Erdogan turned a peaceful protest into a violent nightmare

The view from Taksim Square

15 June 2013



By now, everyone has heard of the brutal suppression of protests all over Turkey, which began with a peaceful sit-in in Istanbul to protect a hapless apology for a park from demolition. Right by the city’s unofficial centre, Taksim Square, Gezi Park had been slated to become yet another one of the ruling AKP’s signature Ottoman-cum-Disneyland construction projects. It was hardly much of a park, by London standards, but it was one of the last remaining places in the area with a few trees and a bit of room to stroll around. The protesters found the idea of losing that tiny refuge from Istanbul’s urban chaos unbearable.

The police removed the inoffensive tree-huggers in a surprise dawn raid, using violence so disproportionate and sadistic — and unfortunately for the police, so filmed — as to set off enraged demonstrations around the country. These, in turn, provoked even more psychotic retaliation from the police. Every story you’ve read of the brutality the cops inflicted on peaceful protesters is true, and more. I saw it. I’ve been seeing it with my own eyes for weeks, but by far the worst took place on Tuesday, when the police descended in the early morning to retake Taksim Square, directly after Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan had lulled the protesters with promises to meet them the next day to listen to their concerns.

The surprise attack began at 7.30 a.m. Black smoke quickly rose over the square, and tear gas enveloped the entire neighbourhood. Then the water cannon arrived, half a dozen, followed by another burst of gas. While at least six cameras from Taksim were feeding this scene live to the entire country, Istanbul Governor Huseyin Avni Mutlu assured the public, on Twitter, that ‘some protestors used materials that release fog and smoke. We should all know that their purpose is making the impression that the police used excessive gas.’ It didn’t occur to him, I suppose, that it is not just fog and smoke that indicates the presence of a lachrymatory agent. He also promised the protesters that only Taksim itself would be ‘cleaned’. The protesters and the park, he swore, would ‘never’ be harmed.

Three hours later, protesters formed a human chain around the park to prevent the police from recapturing it, but the cops shot rubber bullets, beat up journalists, and detained not only countless protesters, but their lawyers — 79 lawyers, according to the Istanbul Bar Association. The government is now dropping hints about an ‘operation’ against ‘provocateurs’ on Twitter — not an idle threat, for many have already been detained for writing ‘misinformation’, which apparently encompasses, among other things, tweeting the phone numbers of physicians on duty. A Turkish journalist reports that prosecutors have obtained warrants to seize any mobile phone they require. I have not yet been able to confirm this, but it wouldn’t in the least surprise me.

But this was just the beginning. After an afternoon of calm, on a lovely summer evening, some 30,000 people returned in force to Taksim Square — their square, after all, as it has always been. The police responded with an even more vicious strike, blanketing the massive crowd with a cumulonimbus cloud of gas accompanied by sound grenades. Terrified and choking, the crowd — students, street vendors, women in dresses and summer sandals — stampeded into the surrounding streets. Parents were separated from their young children. Someone tweeted frantically that her sister had fallen and the panicked crowds had run right over her. The police shot water cannon at a man in a wheelchair who had been brandishing the Turkish flag.

Writing blood types on their arms, volunteers ferried the injured to a makeshift field hospital. Chanting gangs of extremist opportunists (who bore little resemblance to the peaceful demonstrators in the park) taunted police in the streets leading toward the Golden Horn, drawing tear gas and water cannon through the whole of Istanbul’s old Pera district. International reporters, who have become accustomed of late to police crackdowns, described this as the worst in recent memory.


After a fortnight of clashes, four deaths have so far been confirmed; an untold number have suffered severe brain injuries; and at least ten young people have lost an eye after being shot by plastic bullets. Reports of injuries are coming in fast, but they are hard to confirm. The Turkish Human Rights Foundation is now placing the number at some 5,000, based on hospital reports. But keep in mind that not everyone who is wounded goes to the hospital. A gas grenade to the leg can cause a great deal of injury, but for those who can’t afford medical bills, it’s a hell of a hassle to go to an already overflowing state emergency ward — not least because the cops have been chasing protesters right into those very wards and gassing them there, too.

Moreover, many doctors, presumably under state pressure, don’t record ‘clashes with police’ as the cause of injury, but report instead that the victim has ‘had an accident’. (It is also possible that doctors are trying to protect their patients from subsequently being arrested as ‘rioters’.) I obtained records, however, from the hospitals in my neighbourhood, which is close to Taksim Square. I was stunned by what I read: each hospital listed hundreds of injuries — ‘A 22-year-old male has lost his left eye due to a plastic bullet … a 19-year-old male is being watched closely with a subdural haematoma diagnosis … trauma in the testicle … trauma of the left eye … has lost all eyesight … maxillo-facial trauma … brain haemorrhage … life-threatening condition…’ The reports went on for pages, and the doctors were quite firm that these were not ‘accidents’.

Perhaps the most painful part of the whole thing so far was the glimpse of peace we enjoyed for several days in Taksim Square and Gezi Park in the lull between the attacks. That was when we saw, all too briefly, what this city could be.

Last Friday was peaceful — despite Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s strenuous effort to aggravate the situation by making speeches so unrepentant and inflammatory that the benchmark Istanbul Bourse tumbled with every word that came out of his mouth. One speech, in particular, caused the stock exchange to tank by 7.5 per cent. (I leave it to the mathematicians to calculate the per-word cost of that speech to the nation’s GNP.)

Nonetheless, somehow the command seemed to have come down from above — from where, no one knows — to call off the dogs for the day. Several days earlier, Erdogan, thank God, had scuttled out of the country to attend some exceedingly urgent North African pourparler, leaving his beleaguered underlings to handle the chaos. Within hours of his departure, the police withdrew from Taksim, leaving only their burnt-out vans as mementos. And for a few days, Taksim and Gezi Park became the City of Evet.

Let me explain. In 1978, Jan Morris — to my mind one of the century’s greatest travel writers — visited Istanbul. She wrote a superbly observed essay titled ‘City of Yok’, which would be loosely translated as ‘City of No’, but ‘No’ doesn’t quite capture the entirety of it. ‘I don’t speak Turkish yet,’ she wrote, ‘but yok appears to be a sort of general purpose discouragement, to imply that (for instance) it can’t be done, she isn’t home, the shop’s shut, the train’s left, take it or leave it, you can’t come this way, or there’s no good making a fuss over it.’ The opposite of yok is evet — meaning yes, and it has no analogous counter-associations, which tells you something right there.

But on Friday night, I strolled through Taksim and Gezi Park, and for the first time in the decade I’ve lived in Istanbul, I found myself in the City of Evet. It felt like a free country. I have never seen anything like this before in Turkey. I walk through Taksim all the time, and it is always full of cops, uniformed and plain-clothed. Don’t misunderstand me: they are there for a very good reason. In 2010, I narrowly missed a suicide bomber dispatched to Taksim by the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons, a splinter group of the terrorist PKK. The bomb went off at 10.34 in the morning. Were it not for my laziness — I had slept in — my limbs would have joined all the others splattered across the square’s pavement. The PKK and its affiliates have attacked Taksim four times since 1995.

Taksim and Gezi Park, last weekend, were different, and the most obvious difference was the absence of that special gloom imparted by the sight of phalanx upon phalanx of heavily armed coppers giving every passer-by the hairy eyeball. And it was glorious — a huge innocent carnival, filled with improbable (I would have hitherto thought impossible) scenes of nationalist Turks mingling amiably with nationalist Kurds, the latter dancing to some strange ghastly species of techno-Halay, the former pumping their fists in the air and chanting their eternal allegiance to something very nationalist, I’m sure. Balloons lit with candles sailed over the sky; hawkers sold every species of Gezi souvenir, and the only smell of pepper in the air came from the grilled meatballs served in hunks of fresh bread and sprinkled with chilli powder.

Among the protesters’ grievances was the prime minister’s imperious effort to pass restrictive new laws on alcohol sales, so in a gesture of special defiance, entrepreneurial protesters — or maybe just entrepreneurial Turks — sold ice-cold beer from coolers. (I’ve never before seen anyone sell beer from coolers in the streets of Istanbul.)

There were commies and pinkos of every species sharing that beer with right-wing whackjobs of every stripe — groups that in the 1970s fought gun battles here, drenching the streets in blood and leading to the 1980 coup. The communists didn’t seem the sort to worry about — when people complained that the price of beer had risen in response to demand, they shrugged: ‘What can we do? If people want to sell it, we can’t stop them.’

There were trade unionists and doctors and ordinary yuppies and, mostly, college kids; there were gays, Alevis, Sufis and yogis; there were impromptu skits — all making fun of the government, and some of them very funny but untranslatable both linguistically and culturally; there was impromptu dancing (innocent and sexless by western standards), barkers enjoining the crowd to jump up and down for the liberation of the park (and everyone did), a stall that advertised itself as the park’s new free lending library, and vast crowds of people smiling in a silly, carefree way that grave Istanbullus, serious people, people who dress in dark colours and worry terribly about what the neighbours will think, rarely do.

Imagine Glastonbury, perhaps, without so much as a whiff of weed. I know that’s an oxymoron, but it’s the best I can do. These (mostly) kids were nothing like the Occupy Wall Street crowd; they had no idea what they were doing, politically — no leaflets, none of that creepy human microphone stuff, no idea who Saul Alinsky is, no one using the streets as a urinal. Everyone was happy. Everyone was doing precisely as they pleased. For once, I could see what Turkey would be like if it could only get its damned omnipresent, omni-meddling, always-watching, always-listening state off its back.

But by Tuesday night, the City of Evet was long gone. Scores of those silly, innocent tree-huggers have been hospitalised, and the casualty count is appalling.

The worst of it is that no one has any idea why this happened. Erdogan has doubled-down on his insistence that the protests represent a complex conspiracy against his person, cooked up by foreigners and terrorists and what he has termed ‘financial institutions, the interest-rate lobby and media groups’. (I leave it to the reader to ponder and parse the historical significance of these references to conspirators who control the banks and the media.) Officials in his own party are publicly asking him if he’s trying to start a civil war.

On Wednesday morning there was an uneasy calm in Taksim Square, but there was and will be no return of the City of Evet. Istanbul is once again the City of Yok.

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  • Altuğ Güven

    best one ever written about here… cheers!

  • Rene Ames

    If Istanbul was, to travel writer Jan Morris, “the City of Yok,” Turkey has now become the Country of Olmaz – my thought after reading this great piece. Olmaz translates as “no don’t…not possible” and in light of the recent developments in the country: “not allowed!” Erdogan doesn’t use this word in promoting 3+ babies per Turkish couple though :)

  • http://www.jackscott.info/ Jack Scott

    Erdoğan’s increasingly paranoid nonsense about foreign devils and domestic subversives attempting to wreck the Turkish economy may play well to the party faithful but global capitalism has no morals and abhors instability. As foreign capital takes flight, he may be forced to eat his words as the crisis starts to hit his big business cronies where it hurts most – in their pockets.

    • Rene Ames

      Unfortunately, Erdogan established the AKP and came to power when Turkey just had its financial crash in 2001, so he won’t pay heed to anything and anyone reminding him that things can’t be done his way or the highway. After over a decade in power, having been propped up by western and regional powers as a viable alternative to the Assad and the Iran mullahs, he has taken on an omnipotent fuehrer persona of not being answerable to anyone. The vicious attacks on the peaceful demonstrators in Taksim Square is a rehash of every world despot’s version of an SS midnight raid.

      • John of Kent

        Er, no. He came to power in November 2002—after Kemal Dervish had restored the Turkish economy to health in a miraculously short space of time. They simply carried on with an existing recipe.

  • Kiril Iliev

    “Yok” has a meaning of it cannot happen, “not happening” in American usage, whereas “Evet” is agreement on the part of the speaker.

    The protests in Turkey bring to mind something else: there is no “half democracy”, oppressed discontent will erupt sooner or later. And something else: protests against “half democracy” they are always channeled towards the existing establishment personified in its formal leader.

    • Rene Ames

      Ah…but the question is, would the protests and even an insurrection budge the leader to relent instead of tighten his grip on power and trappings that would then culminate in tragic proportions? Short of his own party’s rebellion, in the case of an increasingly megalomania-cal Erdogan, there seems to be only one outcome.

  • John of Kent

    Great piece of writing. Lucky Mars didn’t invade!

    (But why has the British government kept mum about this? And some British newspapers too.)

  • Sam Paul

    Turkey is a democracy. There are elctions next year.
    The thugs on the streets, burning people, don’t want elections.

    • ilhan nebioglu

      Sam Paul, on which planet are you living?

    • Jackson Five

      “burning people?” seriously, you must not be from earth.

    • Burak Dikkal

      Interesting, I didn’t know the police didn’t want elections.

    • Emrah

      not only burning but also we cook and eat people too.

  • Newcombe

    Erdogan is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. The fact that Obama will not utter a word against his friend the Islamist, all the while freely lecturing on the rule of democracy to Burma, Israel, India etc. speaks volumes of the US president.

    • Üntaç Güner

      Erdogan is an imam by profession like many other politicians governing his country and those, islamists, are the main political actors, supported by EU and US for years. Obama is only following up the “US way of approach” to the Middle East Politics.

  • Newcombe

    I leave it to the reader to ponder and parse the historical
    significance of these references to conspirators who control the banks
    and the media.

    Are you perchance talking of people that Guardian/BBC don’t like much either?

  • Kingbingo

    Erdogans won his third term by creating an unprecedented boom. Based on Sharia interest rules, the scam demands that interest rates should never be higher than inflation. It’s dangerous mumbo-jumbo rather than economics, but nevertheless it makes people feel generally well-off and ready to vote for him….until it starts to unravel.

    Erdogan is causing boom, prices in the shops are rising, asset prices like house prices are rising and the lira is weak and weakening against other currencies. This is all happening because Erdogan crazy economic policies are creating a credit
    bubble that will temporarily make it appear that the economy is booming but
    will actually only be an illusion, the people will find that constant price
    rises are eroding any improvement in their situation. Eventually, and who
    knows when exactly, all bubbles pop. In much of Europe, UK and US there was
    this credit boom in response to the 2001 dot.com bust, the boom drove up house
    prices and lead to a crash. The only reason house prices survived in this
    country is because of draconian planning restrictions that makes it almost
    impossible to build new houses. In countries like the US, Ireland and Spain
    where the house price boom was matched by a building boom prices were
    massacred. Now I suspect that in Turkey there is currently a building boom to
    go alongside the inflation?

    Actually what Erdogan is trying to do is adhere to Sharia law that states that you can’t charge interest on loans. But he is trying to achieve that by making the real interest rate zero. This is an term to describe the interest rate after you have
    subtracted inflation, thus supressing interest rates while tolerating high
    inflation. But effective it means people can borrow money for free. If you can
    borrow money for free why wouldn’t you? It will create a boom of activity,
    however what about the other half of the equation, saving? Well if someone can
    borrow for free it means that you save money and get nothing for it. What then
    happens is savings collapse and eventually all the existing stock of saving is
    consumed on loans and then the whole edifice crumbles. Boom will lead to bust,
    and house prices will collapse as surely as they did in US, Ireland and Spain.
    At least in the US they created a credit bubble to try and counteract the
    dot.com crash. And Spain and Ireland had a credit boom because they entered the euro and their credit risk was mispriced. Erdogan is doing it because he thinks
    he is on a mission from God! He might look good temporarily while Turkey
    appears to be booming, but I can guarantee it cannot last. Turkish
    government economic policy is a clown show.

    • Eliyahu100

      The French political scientist Guy Milliere has little hope that the EU can escape from its several current crises. My view is that the eurozone is a death pact and he agreed with me in conversation when I asked: “Est-ce qu’on peut dire que l’Union Europeenne est un pacte de mort?” So the crazy economics are not only in Turkey. Maybe Turkey belongs in the EU for precisely that reason.

  • saleboter

    Turkey is proving, as did Libya, Egypt, Iran and Tunisia before it the incompatibility of Islam with democracy. Islamist countries always go away from freedom

  • pragmatiker

    What Erdogan seems to be telling the world is that as long as the economy grows, the people should be happy and shut up about abuses of power. They are better off now than they were 15 years ago and he deserves near unlimited power for making that happen.

    This is a man who sees democracy as a means to an end, not as an end. A man who blames outsiders when reality encroaches on his world view. A man who genuinely feels that he does what is best and is bitter that the rest of the world doesn’t see it that way. This is a man on the verge of destroying 100 years of Turkish history to fulfill his own twisted vision of what the country should be. In short, this is a dangerous man. The world should beware.

  • Mehmet

    the worst is yet to come. Erdogan is spying after human rights activists and protesters. Some were arrested tonight

  • Mehmet

    Erdogan is now using the intelligence agencies to spy on human rights activists and protesters: http://www.cia-news.com/turkish-ahtapot-intelligence-sub-system-revealed-aci-the-sting-trojan-horse/

    • Rob Hruska

      Takes after Obama, I see.

  • Terry Field

    Erdogan is an anti-democratic Islamic radical.

    His actions and his attitudes guarantee the isolation of Turkey from Europe over the long term. That will prove to be a strategic error, particularly as the Turkish lands suffer the early depredations of global climate change, with their lands and rivers drying out, and their agriculture suffering greatly.

  • John of Kent

    And he’s done it again!

    On-the-spot report from Agence France Presse. early Sunday morning.

    Meanwhile al-Hague and al-Cameron press on with their war against Syria for infringing its citizens’ human rights. No comment for weeks from them on any of this.


  • Howienica

    It is no coincidence that Erdogan has a special relationship with Obama.

    Obama is a classic Muslim tyrant like Erdogan.

  • http://www.well.com/~cynsa/bulb.html SeamusRmoney

    I did not read this and I don’t know which side of any Turkish issue this article may have taken.

    But, I know it’s garbage.

    How do I know this? Because it was written by Claire Berlinski.

    Claire was, just this this past spring, outed as one of the US conservative bloggers for hire in the Malaysian government’s social media buy/scam. The Malaysian government paid off a bunch of (basically nutjob) conservative bloggers to write favourable opinion pieces for them and splatter them all over various websites masquerading as legitimate opinion pieces…


    Claire’s little part of this utterly corrupt and unethical dirty business netted her a cool $6,750…

    http://www.fara.gov/docs/6152-Registration-Statement-20130124-1.pdf …. (last page)

    Everything she writes, one can therefore conclude, is of dubious origins and quality as she has proven that her opinions, thoughts, and written work are for sale. And, of course, the readers are never informed that her writing is basically just a paid advertisement.

    How the heck did the Spectator not know this before hiring her?

    Turkey is a big story. I think it’s important that the reports emerging from Turkey aren’t tainted by the stench of not knowing whether or not they are being straight up paid for by one of the stakeholders for a few bucks!

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