Emails from Arda İbikoğlu, M.A.I.S/Ph.D. alumnus.

Insight from Istanbul, Turkey.

The following emails from Dr. İbikoğlu were reproduced here with his permission. Please note that they were sent to a friend and so the language is informal.

Dr. Ibikoglu has been posting about the Turkish protests on his blog.

Message 1 (March 31):
Hey, we are all fine. A long explanation would take pages. But, it started as an Occupy Movement couple days ago to protest and prevent government plans to uproot a small park in Taksim Square – Istanbul’s very central entertainment district. The police used tear gas, etc., to dissuade protesters, but more and more people have kept showing up over the past two days.

From what I hear, protesters are mostly people like you and me – not organized at all. Police violence brought more and more people and it completely got out of control last night. Even though just a few TV stations are broadcasting the real extent of the events, people heard about the massively disproportionate use of force online and hit the streets last night. People were on the streets all night. We are talking about thousands of people.

Why? Hard to tell really. The government’s Syria stand has been polarizing, but more importantly two recent events: 1) a new anti-alcohol law that bans selling after 10pm and restricts advertising and consumption in public spaces. 2) the ceremonious beginning of a third bridge on the Bosphorus which was named after Selim the Grim, an Ottoman Sultan known for his massacre of thousands of Anatolian Alevis during his conquest of Egypt back in the 16th century. Both of these (and the plans to change Taksim Square) were begun without any public debate.

I think the real cause is people’s anger in the government which received 50% of the votes in the last elections and now perceives itself above public debate. People supported Erdoğan and his party to overthrow the military’s antidemocratic control over the country. Having done that and having received 50% of the votes, now he sees himself as a Sultan-reincarnate.

I am still quite surprised with seeing so many people on the streets. It is an unlikely coalition out there at the moment. Socialist, Kemalists and whoever is pissed at the government are out there. I really do not think it can last. It would die out if the government comes back to its senses and avoids further violence on peaceful protesters. An economically prospering country and its historical capital out on the streets – really bizarre…

Even though I fail to understand it completely, it is overall pretty awesome. We got rid of the military’s anti-democratic control, and here people are on the streets when the popularly elected government seems to pursue increasingly authoritarian policies. This is gradual reform at its best.

Message 2 (June 1):
There are rumors about Twitter and Facebook shutting down but nothing of the sort happened yet.

It is crazy here. While I am writing this, my street is full with noise – people blowing whistles, hitting pans together in protest.

There are pictures of 40k people crossing the Bosphorus Bridge on foot.

This is all very exciting for public dissent. However, as you can imagine, I have mixed feelings about this. The protests about the park are all right on; the protests about the government’s anti-democratic policies and procedures are all right on. However, the bulk of the masses on the street right now are the supporters of the political movements that I find the most difficult: the Kemalists.

Who are the Kemalists? The supporters of the old regime where a bureaucratic elite (mainly the military and the judiciary) ruled Turkey with an iron fist from WWI. It is the first time a truly popular government took office and undermined these traditional arbiters of power. So some of the people protesting right now are no more true democrats at heart than the ones they are protesting against.

But does the government deserve to be criticized? Hell yeah! They overthrew the old elite but they owe a great deal to them ideologically and they do not see any problems in utilizing the power and coercion networks of the old elite – as seen on the streets today with tear gas and other examples of disproportionate use of police violence.

On a more personal note: Is there ever going to be a political movement/protest that I will feel at home and not over-analyze to oblivion?

Message 3 (June 2):
That Tüfekçi post is great. [Here, Dr. İbikoğlu is referring to a Dr. Zeynep Tüfekçi authored blog post that compares Egypt and Turkey and asks whether there is a social media fueled protest style.] Very accurate observations and analyses. The self-censorship of the media is true and very disturbing. On the other hand, she is also right about the limitations of comparisons to Tahrir. After all, AKP is a truly democratically elected government. It is excessive even to call it authoritarian. Plebiscitarian or majoritarian would be more accurate.

Anyway, as things have changed, I’m now worried about you posting these emails. I’m worried about criticizing the protesters now because it has become so politicized. I would not like to be publicly critical of them now even if there might be things to criticize.

Yesterday and earlier today, Erdoğan talked about the uprisings. He upped his own horribleness. He was very critical of the protesters, called them names (like brigands and marginals), and linked them to CHP (the Kemalist main opposition party). All inaccurate. He is either completely unaware of the extent of the spontaneous nature of the public uprising or he is intentionally misidentifying it to his own electorate who won’t hear about the story from their own media sources because of the media blackout.

But then, I was outside just earlier and many people with Turkish flags were blocking the street, honking, chanting, etc. just as I was about to come back inside, a group about at least 500 people were slowly marching down the street.

I hate the use of the Turkish flag in this context. It is suddenly a nationalist event… so go ahead post my e-mails if you like. I don’t mind being a bit critical of some of the protesters because I am supportive of the cause of protesting too. It highlights many of the divisions here.

Message 4 (June 2):
I have read some accounts of the protests today. There are some quite simplistic ones that identify the conflict as a Muslims vs secular protest. I don’t think you can boil it down to that…

This started as a small protest of the environmental activists but when the disproportionate violence they faced was shared in social media, more people kept rushing in and it escalated into a scale that practically no one foresaw.

But as it stands, I think the composition of the participants differ from place to place. Those people at Taksim, those people who have been clashing with the police at Beşiktaş for the past 24 hours, and those people who were clashing with the police and were dispersed and/or taken into custody only an hour ago at Ankara, are mostly (socialist, environmental, human rights) activists in their 20s and some others who are trying to hijack the protests and turn them into even more violent clashes. However, those people protesting on the Anatolian side of Istanbul, or at other cities (like at my hometown Balıkesir) are somewhat older folks who are more likely to identify themselves as secular nationalists and CHP supporters. Here, we see lots and lots of waving the Turkish flag and singing nationalist marches. As I wrote to you earlier yesterday, I feel a lot closer to those people literally fighting for the ground they are standing on at Taksim and Beşiktaş than the flag-wavers at the Baghdad Street.

Anyway, I think what the Prime Minister Erdoğan is missing (or intentionally avoiding) in his outrageous remarks yesterday, and earlier today, is the composition of this unlikely coalition on the streets that quite literally he himself has forged. All these people are united against his majoritarian/authoritarian rule but he insists calling them as “birkaç çapulcu”, a few marauders.

These spontaneous protests may prove to be the undoing of Erdoğan’s own coalition within which he had successfully incorporated liberal democrats, including influential public intellectuals. Only very recently, he had enlisted the support of influential public intellectuals such as Murat Belge, Mithat Sancar, Baskın Oran and Yılmaz Ensaroğlu to render support for the government’s efforts in forging a peace with the Kurdish movement. I am quite sure, Erdoğan and his party AKP will lose such liberal-democrat support after these protests.

In any case, I think Erdoğan’s resistence to appeasing the protesters and adding more fuel to the fire with increased police brutality is forging a stronger coalition against him and it is possibly weakening his own coalition. These protests may yet prove to be the biggest opponent for a party who ended the military authoritarian rule in Turkey.

** The photo attached to this post has been distributed widely but is attributed to REUTERS/Osman Orsal in this article. **

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Arda İbikoğlu is an alumnus of the M.A. in International Studies Program. He also has a Ph.D. in Political Science from the UW and Middle East experts from JSIS served on his doctoral committee. He is an expert in Turkish and Middle East politics and his research focuses on Turkish political prisoners and changing state-society relations in Turkey from the Ottoman Empire to the present. He has published articles and book chapters on this subject, including an article featured in a Special Issue of Studies in Law, Politics, and Society that highlighted the “next generation” of interdisciplinary legal studies. He is currently a postdoctoral researcher at Boğaziçi University in Istanbul.

You can follow Dr. İbikoğlu on Twitter here.