On Monday, June 3rd, it was business as usual in Istanbul’s old city. A cruise ship was in port and tourists were scurrying across the square between the Hagia Sofia and the Blue Mosque in a blur of flowerpot hats, DLR cameras, shorts, and sunburnt skin. At a Starbucks near the Grand Bazaar, a tourist from the Arabian Gulf shared the highlights of his trip to Istanbul: “Cevahir is good, but you need to go to Istinye and Forum…” he said, reeling off a list of new shopping malls dotted throughout the city.
He seemed unaware that a couple of miles away, across the Golden Horn in the center of European Istanbul, a large and defiant protest sparked by the construction of another new shopping mall was well into its fifth day. Normally, in summer, tourists would also be there, in Taksim Square, Istiklal Street, and Talimhane, a small district of newly cobbled roads, hotels, nargile cafes and baklava shops. But since the previous Friday, when police, with imperfect brutality, tried to disperse a small peaceful protest against the destruction of Gezi Park, the surrounding area had swelled with up to a million people.
What started as an environmental protest against uprooted trees and plans to house a shopping mall in reconstructed Ottoman military barracks has turned into the biggest challenge to Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s decade-long tenure as prime minister of Turkey. The demonstrations have been a perplexing congregation of leftists, ultra-nationalists, staunch supporters of the military, Kurds, environmentalists, and the apolitical urban middle class. So far this fragile coalition has been marked by surprising civility. Basak Can, a human rights activist who went down to the park most nights of the protest, told me, “Erdogan is talking like he’s an engineer and he owns this place. This is a resistance for our honor. If there is something that unites all these people, it is that they are so humiliated. He speaks to us as if we’re his children, but we’re not.”
With each self-styled “crazy project” and redevelopment plan, a prime minister deaf to opposition has threatened the markers and memories of daily life.
Many of the protestors feel that Istanbul is a city slipping away from them. With each self-styled “crazy project” and redevelopment plan, a prime minister deaf to opposition has threatened the markers and memories of daily life. In the last five years, as the economy and Erdogan’s government have both grown in strength, the central district of Beyoglu (which is home to Taksim Square) has experienced a rapid physical, social, and demographic transformation. Turkey’s oldest movie theatre, Emek Cinema, has been demolished to make way for a shopping mall (Turkish and international film directors protesting the destruction were tear gassed in April). Next door, a 19th century stone arcade has been replaced by a mock Levantine building, housing another shopping centre. The top two floors were built illegally, without planning permission, so that the building looms over its older neighbors, hinting at the machismo of Dubai-style development. Across from Gezi Park, a massive scar in the earth, like a sinkhole, gives notice of yet another real estate project, San City, that will house offices, retail outlets, and entertainment and cultural venues. All this has been achieved with little public consultation and the full support of the state, the police, and the courts.
These new building projects, which have been farmed out to favored construction firms, including one owned by the son-in-law of the Prime Minister, do not stand alone. The physical transformation of bricks and mortar has been matched by attempts to alter the habits of the residents of the city center. Outdoor seating at bars and restaurants has been severely curtailed, silencing the once boisterous side streets that branch off Istiklal (many bar owners believe the new directive was issued directly from Erdogan when his motorcade was blocked by tables and chairs on a narrow street in Beyoglu in 2011). And last month, new alcohol licensing regulations were rushed through parliament in two weeks with little consultation.
In this discombobulating atmosphere, it is not only anti-capitalists who worry that Beyoglu’s independent spirit is being lost and its social make-up is changing. Before the protests started, Mete Goktug, a former member of the Turkish Chamber of Architects who has worked on the local renovation of the Galata neighborhood, told me, “[The government] has started to kill the whole historical and cultural identity of the area, it is becoming unknown. It doesn’t belong to history and it doesn’t belong to today.”
Beyoglu has always been a permissive part of the city, a district of protest and play that has troubled authorities of all political stripes. Just after the Second World War, a nationalist-Islamic commentator raged, “Beyoglu has remained a tumor in the Empire’s brain, a syphilitic presence… It is a dagger on its side that sucks the blood, the labor, the essence of the Turkish nation, of all eastern nations… It is a disease that eats away at national unity.” In 1955, an anti-minority pogrom (aimed primarily at Greek Orthodox citizens and residents of Istanbul) focused on the Beyoglu neighborhood. Shops, churches and houses throughout the district were smashed, looted and burnt. The riots, which were planned and supported by the government, were a modern clinical reckoning, an attempt to eradicate the physical residue of history—as if by erasing the architecture, they could wish away a culture.
This district, as a contested space, has been susceptible to the grandiose vision of successive Turkish leaders.
Subsequent projects have suggested a similar potential for demographic transformation through urban development. In the 1980s, demonstrations erupted when the Mayor, Bedrettin Dalan, demolished over three hundred Levantine buildings in the centre of the Beyoglu to build a new highway. The demolition officer on the project, Fevzi Aydin, had said, “We want to clean up Beyoglu. We are going to clean out the vermin from their nests.” This district, as a contested space, has been susceptible to the grandiose vision of successive Turkish leaders.
It is hardly surprising, then, that the rapid redevelopment of Istanbul, which Erdogan oversees to the smallest detail, is viewed as something more than the destruction of buildings. Many of the houses that his projects raze are inhabited by the shoe shiners, mussel sellers, paper collectors, and lottery ticket vendors that serve Beyoglu as part of a vast informal economy, too concerned about making a living to unionize or protest.
When he ran for Mayor of Istanbul in 1994, Erdogan courted such votes, standing on the side of new migrants barely surviving in informal housing. Erdogan’s Refah Party sent out a populist message, arguing against the “global city project,” which sought, through new real estate ventures, to turn the city into an international centre for commerce and tourism. When, during the election campaign, news broke that Erdogan had built his own illegal dwellings on state land in the Asian suburb of Sultanbeyli, he used it to show he was a supporter of the city’s poor migrants, residing in informal shacks.
Now as Prime Minister, he continues to use state and private land for his own ends, but not in the cause of the downtrodden. A lawyer from the Turkish Chamber of Architects has called his urban regeneration projects, often in predominantly Kurdish neighborhoods such as Ayazma and Okmeydan, “a kind of genocide.” In Tarlabasi, less than 100 meters from Istiklal, the municipality (run by Erdogan’s AKP) has evicted hundreds of tenants and owners for a new mixed-use development. In 2011, Baris Kaska, a lawyer representing many Tarlabasi residents, told me, “If they demolish the buildings and there’s a hospital or park going to be built, you can say there’s a public benefit. But giving buildings to a company to make a hotel, mall and fourteen suites and flats, it’s breaching all laws in Turkey.”
Erdogan may see himself as a Faust, sacrificing Philemon and Baucis for modernity. But the Faustian pact of people-for-progress has been distorted, serving a small coterie of friends and sycophants rather than the public at large. Two weeks ago, protesters burned the banners draped over the derelict buildings of Tarlabasi announcing the redevelopment. They show Erdogan presenting the Beyoglu mayor, Ahmet Demircan, with an award for the most beautiful urban regeneration project (in the world? Ever? Nobody knows what it means).
The protests have been fueled by a range of perceived government misdeeds, from his handling of the Kurdish issue or Syria to his curbs on alcohol sales and licensing. The unrest has also spread to numerous cities throughout the country, each with their own flavor. But, in Istanbul at least, it is how Erdogan manages and polices public space that has become the most tangible aspect of his authoritarianism.
This is not the first time that a Turkish prime minister, overreaching and puffed up by electoral success, has been defined by his treatment of Istanbul.
On June 14th he finally said, through a party spokesperson, that the government would abide by a court decision on the future of the park and even put its fate to a referendum. But the feeling remains that one way or another he will get his beloved barracks (that in their original incarnation were the site of an Islamist rebellion in 1909 against the nationalist and republican forces of the Committee of Union and Progress, a precursor to the creation of the modern Republic). His mega infrastructure projects, which he says are needed to join the ranks of the most civilized nations, will go ahead. He may have his imperial Ottoman dreams, but he also has the muscle memory of a nationalist century. The old paternalism of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the Republic, runs deep. Erdogan is determined to get his Istanbul, as much in the cause of the nation and modernity as in the cause of Islam.
This is not the first time that a Turkish prime minister, overreaching and puffed up by electoral success, has been defined by his treatment of Istanbul. Adnan Menderes, elected prime minister of the Democratic Party in 1950, was deposed in a military coup ten years later, following student demonstrations in the city. At his military trial in 1961, Menderes’ micromanagement of Istanbul redevelopment was used as evidence of his hubris. One witness, eager to please the military prosecutors, noted how the whole development of the city hung on the prime minister’s every word. “While Menderes was inspecting the construction sites with his technical personnel in his automobile, he suddenly had an attack of hiccups and began to generate noise, ‘hik, hik, hik…’ Yet the engineers misunderstood him as ordering, ‘yik, yik, yik…’[demolish, demolish, demolish]. And eventually one street was demolished entirely.”
Erdogan has often likened himself to Menderes, a somewhat tragic figure in Republican history who was executed in 1961. These last two weeks he has repeatedly invoked the 1960 coup, as well as the 1997 ‘soft coup’ in which the Refah Party, the AKP’s predecessor, was forced to resign from government following pressure from the staunchly secular military. Erdogan may want to style the protests as an attempted civilian coup, but he will not be deposed and that is progress. Indeed, it is unclear what happens next. Basak Can told me, “Many people here don’t want to get rid of the AKP. They just want to show that they are worth something and that they can do something.”
The likelihood that he will face a political challenge from outside his own party remains small. Cenk Sidar, a consultant and an advisor to the opposition CHP (speaking in a private capacity) says, “[The protestors] are united around the most important values: freedom, democracy and rule of law. In terms of party politics, it is the opposition parties’ responsibility to unite these people around them and mobilize this support for the upcoming election cycle in 2014 and 2015.” But the “Respect the Will of the Nation” rallies that Erdogan held last weekend have illustrated the strong support he still holds as hundreds of thousands have gathered in Istanbul and Ankara to chant his name (the rally in Ankara was held in the neighborhood where tanks came to the street preceding the 1997 soft coup).
Before Taksim Square was cleared of protestors on June 11th, the mood in Gezi Park was of an old Istanbul carnival. The sense had been growing amongst protestors that they had taken back what they saw as their city. A sign on the threshold of the park read, “Welcome to an AKP-free zone.” In the park itself, candles were arranged to read, “Taksim is the people’s.” Erdogan’s intransigence seemed to have stirred the collective memory of past state oppression and pointed the way to a more pluralist future. Protestors had written signs of remembrance to massacres and government violence long buried in the Turkish psyche. And then, by a small tree, there was this: “Surp Hagop, Armenian Cemetery 1551-1939, You captured our graveyard, but you can’t capture our park!” referring to a previous Istanbul modernisation project on this spot more than 70 years ago.
But the next day, following a fresh bout of police brutality in clearing the square, this moment of catharsis had passed. Two friends lingered on the threshold of the park, fearful and debating where they would be least likely to be hit by tear gas canisters. The yellow hard-hat had become ubiquitous. A flimsy form of protection against rubber bullets and canisters, it gave the strange impression that the park had already turned into the construction site that the protestors so feared.
And then on Saturday, June 15th, following an Erdogan rally in Ankara in which he reprised his increasingly bizarre list of grievances about the protests—they were caused by the “usury lobby,” an international conspiracy, terrorists, twitter was “a menace to society”—the park itself was cleared. Tear gas canisters and rubber bullets consumed the senses of both protestors and non-protestors, including children and the elderly, who had come to soak up the atmosphere on a weekend night. By Sunday, four people had died and almost 7500 had been injured over the course of the protest movement (five were left in a critical condition and ninety-one people had suffered head traumas), according to the Turkish Medical Association.
In a zero-sum game, it would be unclear who had more support, Erdogan or the protestors. There have been snap polls but nobody really knows. In truth, it doesn’t matter. Erdogan is not for listening. Criminal investigations have been launched against Twitter users and doctors who had set up informal infirmaries to help the protestors. His police force has been inculcated with a culture of impunity reminiscent of the Turkish Army and their war against the Kurds in the 1990s. On Sunday night, June 16th, following another inflammatory Erdogan rally, his supporters took to the streets of central Istanbul brandishing knives and sticks.
Istanbul was never truly cosmopolitan in the modern sense, but for it to become so in the 21st century, the city had to “privilege the suffering of others [minorities].”
Trying to make sense of it all, I thought back to an academic conference entitled “Istanbul in a Globalizing World: Prospects for Cosmopolitanism” held at Bahcesehir University in December 2010. Several speakers endorsed the idea that the city was moving towards cosmopolitanism, but there were two notable exceptions. The journalist Ece Temelkuran, who was fired from Haberturk for writing articles critical of the government in 2012, argued that it was impossible to talk in terms of cosmopolitanism when new development in Istanbul was leading to “political segregation in terms of settlement.” Then historian Charles King got up and started talking about the old communities of Istanbul that had been decimated by the reconfiguring of the city in the Republican era. He argued that Istanbul was never truly cosmopolitan in the modern sense, but for it to become so in the 21st century, the city had to “privilege the suffering of others [minorities].”
If Erdogan really wants his Istanbul and Turkey to rank among the most civilized nations, he needs to stop talking in shopping malls and real estate projects that segment the city further, and start listening to the other voices that inhabit the country. On Monday, an eerie calm had descended on Istanbul and the protest had evolved into a single, simple act: standing in silence in Taksim Square. But the government was still full of bombast. The deputy Prime Minister, Bulent Arinc, told the media that if the police could not quell the protests, the army could be called in. Erdogan is still talking like an embattled minority oppressed by a secular establishment. What he fails to realize is that he has become a likeness of the military generals he once so feared and despised.