“It was quite a night last night,” said one of the American teachers. He had just arrived at the school. Outside it was a drizzly, cold morning.
“Yeah, my flatmate got arrested,” said a Canadian teacher. She was busy preparing her morning lesson.
“Was it another anti-government protest?” I asked.
“It was about the leaked Erdogan telephone calls,” the American teacher said.
According to my compatriot, who was on his way home to Kadikoy (where we all live) from a company lesson, the majority of the protesters were in the center of Kadikoy, near the Bull Statue. The traffic was all backed up, and police ended up using water cannons, tear gas and rubber bullets in an attempt to disperse the demonstration.
“I was walking home when I heard the ‘poof! poof!’ sounds of the canisters,” he continued.
I went to Today’s Zaman, one of the English newspapers, and scanned the headlines. According to the paper, the protest was one of many such demonstrations throughout Istanbul and around Turkey.
The journalist in me was a bit envious of what my compatriot had seen. I had spent the previous night at my flat teaching an online lesson. It just so happens that my flat is located on a street that was out of the way of the demonstrations, so I had missed them.
Not that I’m a stranger to the protests. The past year or so has been highly eventful. We’ve learned to live with dissent. And why not? Life seldom feels dull.
Last summer, anti-government protests were a nightly occurrance – these were over controversial plans by the government to redevelop Gezi Park in Taksim Square. Every night at precisely 9 p.m. the protests would begin, to the sound of people banging pots and pans and blinking lights on and off, waving Ataturk flags from their windows, and then waves of people would begin passing in the streets shouting for Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to resign. In what would later become a trend, Erdogan dismissed the protesters, saying he would not let the country be ruled by what he called “looters,” “marauders.”
By autumn, those protests had faded. But then in December, a massive corruption scandal – reaching the government’s highest levels – hit the headlines. The scandal, which involves alleged bribery and rigging linked with public tenders, has pitted Erdogan and his ruling AK Party against supporters of Fethullah Gulen, a powerful religious cleric who lives in the United States. The embattled prime minister has accused Gulen and his supporters, known here as the Hizmet Movement, of running a “parallel state.”
Erdogan further infuriated his opponents by introducing a controversial new bill that put restrictions on the Internet, a bill that President Abdullah Gul signed this past week. Bear in mind, Turkey is a country with a long history of cracking down on the press and on freedom of expression. It already leads the world in the number of jailed journalists. Erdogan insisted the new law was aimed at protecting children, and labeled critics as belonging to the Porn Lobby.
It was at this time, I think, that some of us began to see the pattern. Any time one disagrees with the prime minister, they are put down in some degrading fashion. Last summer, they were called looters and marauders for protecting a park, now they are porn freaks because they want to protect Free Speech. To be honest, I kind of find these labels amusing; I mean, they are at least more creative than the ones we use back in America. Erdogan seems to understand the power of making issues black and white, and then using his enormous political acumen to draw his supporters to him. You may not like it, but as Bush showed with his “You are with us or against us” speech on the eve of the Iraq War, it can be a bloody effective approach.
Until now maybe: There is the latest newsflash: a tape recording in which Erdogan back in December reportedly warned his son of the impending bribery arrests and to hide his cash. The tape was leaked to the Internet, and had more than 2 million views on YouTube. The prime minister angrily asserts that the tape is a “fake,” while the opposition calls upon him to resign.
Meanwhile, the protesters have taken to the streets again, as they did on Tuesday night. As usual, they call on the prime minister to resign. As usual, the police come with their water cannons, tear gas and rubber bullets. It’s amazing how used to it we’ve all become. On Facebook, one of my English friends joked: “Walking home last night, caught my first whiff of tear gas in the New Year.” Others affectionately refer to the demonstrations as Istanbul Gas Festivals. (On a serious note: many people have been arrested, injured a a few even killed in anti-government over the past year.)
As for me, well, I’ve tried to just keep the whole equation in my head. One of the lessons I learned while covering politics for The Times-Standard, is that the story always marches on, whether you are there or not. It’s important to reserve judgment, keep your eyes and ears open, and watch as events unfold. Talk to as many people as you can, and get as much information as possible.
One of the more interesting developments is the upcoming elections, which are slated for April. They are the local elections. It will be interesting to see how last year’s Gezi Park protests, the corruption scandal, the controversial Internet law and the alleged tape recording will affect Erdogan’s ruling AK Party, which has been in power for the past decade.
Some of my Turkish friends seem to think that the overlapping scandals will do little to shake AK Party’s grip, as they remain popular in much of Central and Eastern Anatolia, which tend to be poorer and more religiously conservative. Also, tens of thousands of Syrian refugees who have poured into Turkey the past couple years have been given Turkish citizenship, and are sure to vote for the incumbent government which has given them refuge.
Others, such as one of my old flatmates, suggest that the split between Erdogan and Gulen, who were formerly allies, could strike a substantial blow, as Gulen’s supporters could leave the AK Party and vote for the opposition.
I see I have drifted perhaps too far into this political quagmire, at least too far for it to be of much interest to friends back in the States. What I meant to portray from the beginning, was how it is viewed by those of us foreigners who live here. Most of the time, as foreigners, we sort of coast along, buoyed by our love of adventure and the excitement of living in a different culture. Istanbul is a vibrant, fascinating city, with thousands of years of history, and Turkey offers a wealth of culture – from the ancient city of Troy to the fairy chimneys of Cappadocia, and the Roman ruins at Ephesus, enough to keep your wanderlust busy for a lifetime.
But Tuesday night’s protests – and they are merely the latest, and surely not the last – are a reminder that the country is in the grip of a power struggle, an identity crisis, where the endgame remains elusive, out of sight. As foreigners, perhaps we’re better off minding our own business. But as the tear gas canisters go off outside in the night, and the streets fill with looters, marauders, porn freaks and God-knows-what-else, it’s getting harder to do so. Maybe that’s not such a bad thing.
James Tressler was a reporter for The Times-Standard. His books, including the recently published “Lost Coast D.A.,” are available at Lulu.com. He lives in Istanbul.