One of the most arresting sights of the past few days in Turkey has been football fans of rival teams protesting together. Fierce young men who would, in normal circumstances, rather swear off kebabs than endure a minute in the company of a single rival fan have been wearing each other’s colours as they link arms, chanting support for long-standing enemies and carrying each other aloft in a show of solidarity against the Turkish government. I cannot emphasise enough how powerful an image this is for the Turkish protest movement. Organised via Facebook, it is also a significant example of the role of social media in collecting and organising protesters, a role which the Prime Minister, Tayyip Erdoğan, acknowledged and attacked when he insisted on national television that Twitter is a bed of lies. Small children and the elderly, strangers to social media, stand outside their doors and bang pots and pans in the streets of Turkish cities at 9PM every night to show their support.
Erdoğan has shown no sign of hearing any of this, and claims that when he returns from Morocco “everything will be sorted out”. He sounds like an indulgent parent talking about the tantrums of a spoilt child – he has, in fact, a genius for saying exactly the wrong thing when his authority is challenged. It is the President, Abdullah Gül, who has done the best job so far in calming the situation and being conciliatory towards protestors. He understands the enormous implications of these protests on Turkey’s image abroad, and on the economy, much better than the Prime Minister. Everyone is waiting to see what happens tomorrow when Erdogan returns from his Moroccan jaunt – will he be counselled successfully by Gül and the deputy Prime Minister, Bulent Arınç, or will he brush off their advice and continue to play the strongman role?
If the political opposition were as powerful as the public show of feeling in Turkey, Erdogan would be in real trouble, but it has taken the occupation of a small park to achieve what the main opposition party should have achieved years ago – awareness of the scope and intensity of Turkish people’s concerns with increasingly autocratic governmental decisions. Those protesting represent every walk of life but that of the religious right, although Erdogan has insisted that the main opposition party, the Republican People’s Party, has organised the recent demonstrations. Nothing could be further from the truth – while a few politicians have piped up in their usual ineffective manner, it is the masses who have really spoken. Erdogan makes wild claims that “foreign powers”, extremists and plunderers have driven the protests (does that remind you of a neighbouring Middle Eastern dictator?). Not so – the people waving flags and yelling their demands look like they could have just walked out of a café or library. Urban professionals, students and people in their dotage have marched in 67 cities across Turkey in huge numbers, Kurds standing by nationalists, headscarved women shouting alongside secularists and Communists. They represent the estimated 50% of the population who did not vote for the AKP at the last election, or those who might have voted in the absence of a credible opposition but who certainly do not approve of Erdogan’s current behaviour.
I have spoken to several people who admit that they voted for Erdogan in 2011 and have bitterly regretted their decision in the last two years. There is discontent about a number of things, which include: his increasing involvement in Syria, which many have blamed for the recent Reyhanli bombings on the Turkish-Syrian border, the recent bill restricting the sale and consumption of alcohol (now in jeopardy as Gül hesitates over signing it into law in the light of the protests), and most of all the holier-than-thou, “we know better than you” tone that authorities have taken over moral issues. There was a furore recently over a “moral warning” announcement on the Metro in Ankara, which followed CCTV footage of a couple kissing on a metro platform. A demonstration was staged in protest, with couples kissing ostentatiously in front of the metro station in question, overseen by riot police. The fact that police armed with batons and shields were overseeing a bunch of people kissing on a fine Spring day speaks for itself. Turks also object to being told that if they drink alcohol, they are alcoholics. Apparently, it is immoral for a man and woman to sit next to each other on a bench and flirt. They shouldn’t drink wine, they should eat grapes, and – by the by – the Turkish national drink is now ayran (a non-alcoholic drink made form yoghurt). All these things have been announced by the Prime Minister with all the pomposity of a blustering headmaster lecturing children in his care. Turks don’t like being patronised, and having grumbled quietly for years without doing anything, they are now making their feelings very clear. Erdogan is not used to being opposed, and he doesn’t like it. If it were up to him, every one of us would be in Detention.
Juxtaposed scenes of chaos and jubilation are everywhere. Taksim Square and Gezi Park have morphed into a huge carnival as people dance, play music, drink, picnic and generally celebrate their occupation of the area in the (current) absence of police. Down the road, it looks more like a warzone. Forbidding barricades made of railings, paving stones, old sofas and bric-a-brac in the middle of empty streets remind everyone that, come evening, police might try to force their way back up to the square. A common anger against Erdogan has galvanised these people into organised camaraderie and resistance, and the more he labels them anti-democratic extremists, alcoholics and plunderers, the more incensed and determined they will become. “Where’s the gas?” shouted protestors last night. “Come on, we’re hungry for more!”
If Erdogan really wanted to sort this out, he would apologise (in person) and promise to consult the public on matters like the re-construction of Taksim Square, instead of dismissing their concerns and advising them to wait until the next election to express themselves. He would ease off on laws concerning civil liberties like the sale and consumption of alcohol. Instead, he refuses to listen to criticism and talks darkly of restraining his millions of supporters now spoiling for a fight. If he is not mad, he is tragically out of touch. The opposition party will not capitalise on this situation, but luckily the public have taken matters into their own hands and it looks like they will sit it out. Erdogan may not fall now, but his position in the upcoming presidential elections looks increasingly precarious. Most importantly of all, the Turkish public has found its political voice, just in the nick of time.