Tension brings Turkey to the Brink

This morning we took the Metro to our office in Nisantasi. Over the weekend Prime Minister Erdogan has been making bellicose speeches that seem designed to divide the nation, and ‘his’ Police force  (he always uses the possessive adjective)  locked down Taksim and the surrounding areas in order to prevent protesters or trade unions gathering. To even try to protest in Taksim, according to the AK Parti, makes you a terrorist.

In the underground this morning people were tired and wary after a tumultuous weekend. There is an air of tension and distrust – people probably thinking am I sitting next to a rioter/political agent/AK Parti Fascist/Secular Fascist?

Coming out at Osmanbey and immediately the tear gas stings your nose / eyes / throat. The confrontations went on until the early hours but the gas still gets you at 10am.

Pavements have been ripped up in an attempt to make barricades. HSBC cash machines have been smashed, but not AK Bank ones next door. Erdogan repeatedly blamed ‘international forces’, ‘international media’ and ‘interest rate lobbies’ in his speeches, stoking the anger among his followers. In the night there were many reports of AK Parti gangs out with batons, looking for ‘capulars’ and shouting islamic slogans.

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People working in the  market will know that the divisions in society (broadly speaking between secular and islamic points of view) are present in the Turkish ‘education travel’ agencies, like all things here. Levant Education warned about these issues and the lack of trust in the state or the law last year, in the ‘Turkish Market Report’ written with support from English UK and published by the British Council. Aware of its position as a cog of British diplomacy, however, the British Council redacted the chapter (you can read it here).

What is happening now is that existing divisions are being widened and made more hostile – not because of an environmental protest or democratic demonstrations, but by a seemingly deliberate strategy of tension that will harden existing AK Parti support for the ‘strongman’ leader with elections due in the coming 18 months. The lack of united, effective opposition, despite the millions protesting in one way or another, makes this strategy likely to succeed unless opposition leadership can harness peaceful protest. A similar ‘strategy of tension‘ was allegedly used in the 1970’s and 1980’s by right-wing groups to shut down communist and then islamist opposition. Erdogan himself was imprisoned for ‘inciting hatred based on religious differences’, and the AK Parti narrowly avoided being closed down in July 2008 for allegedly plotting an Islamic state. The Party’s pursuit of  the ‘Ergenekondeep state within the judiciary and military (who have  overthrown several democratically elected governments) has been praised by  David Cameron, who spoke recently of  Turkey’s ‘remarkable’ journey.

The Gezi Park protests were peaceful, joyous and colourful. The park became a forum for debate, a place to  share stories, and a place for music and dancing. These are the pictures I took on Friday 14 June, the night before Erdogan’s Ankara rally and subsequent forceful ‘clearing’ of the park using indiscriminate firing of gas canisters.

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How this will continue or end is unclear. Everybody wants to get on with their lives and jobs, but the climate of tension and continuing repression of human rights of protest and opposition means we are taking things day by day. People have to be able to express dissatisfaction in a democracy, and the more the government tries to suppress the energy that is driving the peaceful protests, the more that energy will emerge in other forms.

Today we closed the office at 4pm and took a taxi home: the metro closed down again, Trade Unions and protesters trying to march in Sisli and Osmanbey, and the area filling up with ‘Erdogan’s’ police forces…

Would we advise education industry professionals to still travel to Istanbul? The UK FCO advice is to avoid protests. But with Taksim locked down, transport chaos, and protests cropping up unpredictably, anybody can get caught up in a protest, and that is a dangerous possibility. So this week we advise to stay away if you can: after this we can only guess that a sort of normality will return, people are taking stock and coming to terms with what appears to be the new reality. The battle lines have been drawn, but the street confrontations can’t go on (can they?) and hopefully Mr Erdogan is due a holiday…

© Words and Pictures, David Mitchell. Follow @LevantEdu for updates about Turkey.

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