How #OccupyGezi could transform Turkish society

Through protesting together, people from different backgrounds are discovering a new power.

There is a fantastic youtube clip which shows anticapitalist youths - men and women - and football ultras building a barricade in the centre of Besiktas, Istanbul. As they form chains to pass rocks from one person to another the camera swings toward the barricade. Atop one sees a young man motivating and inspiring them to increase their pace as police lines seem to advance. The camera re-focuses on the tedious labour of lifting rocks and passing them to the front. These youths are fighting to defend their neighbourhood against riot police. At one and the same time, they are engaged in both a learning process and the production of knowledge. This knowledge will serve future generations and movements to come.

Across the country, in Ankara, my friend Cavidan lectures at a university faculty. She wrote me a Facebook message on Tuesday evening after the first days of university strikes and walkouts. She reports that students chanted many sexist slogans when they walked out. Even worse, clouds of teargas dispersed these upper-class kids. They didn’t succeed to re-assemble for the rest of the day. Her message was one of despair - only a few days into the struggle. While the activists and organisers are worn down physically and psychologically the sexism that Cavidan described hadn’t worn down whatsoever. Yet, Wednesday was another day and the tone of her message was a very different one. Just like the barricade-builders on the Bosphorous, the university students and Cavidan: this mass movement is a learning process for Turkish society as a whole. 

There are various reasons these individuals have joined the ascendant movement. A study by Bilgi University surveyed 3,000 #OccupyGezi protesters in a matter of 20 hours. The study concluded that 70 per cent of the protesters have no party affiliation. Similar percentages are first time protesters and the main reason people have taken to the streets is disproportionate policing. "Authoritarianism" and "respect for individual freedoms" feature as well. Why did people take to the streets this time? What is different?

Mass movements grow when individual grievances, such as personal freedom, attain a collective dimension. As the movement continues Cavidan’s sexist students will be forced to depend on their collective skills of deliberation, decision-making, strategy and tactics just like the men and women building barricades. Through collective resistance, these individuals have discovered their power.

The difference between Cavidan’s students and the barricade-builders in Besiktas highlights the movement’s dynamic, complex and organic nature. Movements are not single celled creatures. Different actors move at different times and pace. While one part carries the lessons of past struggles into the movement others carry the past (sexism, homophobia, sectarianism, etc) into it. But through working together, new knowledge is created - and new alliances can be built.

Another youtube clip, of a Turkish Airlines cabin crew on strike, underlines this process of cross-pollination. With their faces hidden behind the Guy Fawkes/Anonymous masks - the symbol of the new wave of anti-capitalist protest since Occupy – they are lined up in a dance-formation in front of the Turkish Airlines headquarters in Galatar. Rather than performing a dance routine the female strikers subvert the usual safety announcement conducted at the beginning of each flight. They condemn the media for not covering their dispute and go through a list of grievances before fastening their seatbelts – to their necks creating a noose to hang themselves. This is culturejamming at its finest, coming from a group of workers who traditionally vote Erdogan's for AKP.

The parameters of Turkish politics have changed. The previous secular/Islamist divide which dominated Turkish politics for decades is being re-negotiated on the movement's terms. From now on, different classes will articulate their political strategies through – or, in relation to – the movement. On the holy day, Mirac Kandili, the prominent Anticapitalist Muslim leader Ihsan Eliacçık requested that protesters be respectful to one another. The OccupyGezi camp agreed that there wouldn’t be any drinking or singing at the park as in previous nights. The leftist groups won’t be organising their concert. Instead, they organised a prayer and will distribute "simit" (a traditional speciality for this holy day).

By appropriating the language, symbols and discourses of its opponents #OccupyGezi is revealing the fragile nature of Erdogan's power. On Sunday evening, the television station NTV didn’t broadcast anything about the demonstrations across in towns and cities across Turkey. Instead they showed a documentary about penguins. Since, protesters have used penguins as a symbol of their resistance. One image floating on facebook shows an army of penguins with the text: "Tayyip – Winter is coming". This Game of Thrones reference comes after Erdogan said: "We already have a spring in Turkey . . . but there are those who want to turn this spring into winter . . . Be calm, these will all pass." When Erdogan equated protesters to looters (çapulcu), people started to make videos and jokes about his statement or add "çapulcu" as an adjective in front of their names on facebook and twitter. Now people are conjugating this word into other languages like French and English. Facebook statuses have turned into placards at the protests. They attempt to connect with like-minded movements across the world, in the face of a silent domestic media.

Back on the streets of Besiktas, protesters hijacked an excavator to break through police lines. Movements will make use of whatever tools are at their disposal. The direct experience of self-organisation, collective action, and human solidarity lays the foundation for a new society. The parameters of Turkish politics have changed - the question is whether the parameters will be changed once and for all.

Follow Mark Bergfeld on Twitter @mdbergfeld

Protesters build a barricade in Istanbul, near the office of the prime minister. (Photo: Getty Images.)
Azaz, on Syria's northern border with Turkey. Photo: Getty
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Syria's broken people: how Assad destroyed a nation

 Whoever leads the country after this conflict comes to an end will inherit not just the rubble and ruins, but a ravaged people, too. 

For a moment, the residents of al-Fu’ah and Kafriya dreamed of a better future. After living under siege for more than two years, civilians from these two Shia villages in the rebel-held Idlib province of north-western Syria were finally allowed to leave earlier this month.

Buses arrived to evacuate them to regime-held areas in Aleppo province, snaking through hostile territory. They eventually stopped at an agreed crossover point, between regime- and rebel-held areas in the Rashideen district of western Aleppo.

These journeys are long: it can take hours, sometimes days, to travel just a few miles. Checkpoints, angry negotiations and deep distrust between opposing factions (even when they are apparently on the same side) ensure that such transfers are never as efficient as they should be.

As families waited at the Rashideen checkpoint, with some disembarking to stretch their legs or to let their children play outside, a powerful car bomb exploded. More than 126 civilians were killed in the blast – the deadliest attack of its kind in more than a year.

The fatalities included 60 children. The act was made all the more unconscionable by the way that they were deliberately targeted. A truck ostensibly providing humanitarian relief parked beside the buses and began distributing sweets and ice cream, causing the children to swarm towards it. Then  it exploded.

One of the most striking features of this conflict is its seemingly endless capacity to spiral into greater depravity. Both sides have butchered and brutalised one another in a fashion that would make the Marquis de Sade recoil. At times, it can seem as if each side is competing with the other to adopt more sadistic and cruel methods. When they do, it is ordinary civilians who invariably pay the biggest price.

Even children have not been spared from the privations of this vicious war, as the events in Rashideen demonstrate. Last August, it was the image of Omran Daqneesh, the stunned and bloodied five-year-old boy in the back of an ambulance, which epitomised the suffering of another besieged group: the mainly Sunni residents of eastern Aleppo, encircled by government forces.

To characterise the Syrian conflict as wholly sectarian is reductionist, but factional infighting has become one of its defining elements. The imprimatur of sectarianism is leaving indelible marks across the Levant, tearing the region apart.

Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s embattled president, set the tone for this when the uprising first began in 2011. To undermine the protest movement, he characterised the opposition as Sunni extremists who were driven by sectarian hatred (Assad is from the minority Alawite community; a heterodox Shia sect).

His unaccountable loyalist militia, the shabiha (“ghosts”), brutalised the opposition not just physically but also with sectarian slurs, introducing a caustic and corrosive mood to the uprising. This pathology has continued to metastasise ever since.

The current policy of displacing besieged residents has further enhanced the sectarian aspects of this war. For years, the Syrian regime has used siege warfare to bring rebel areas under control. Once the inhabitants have been worn down, the government moves them to rebel-held areas, away from its sphere of control. In this way, President Assad has consolidated control over important and strategic areas closer to home while edging disloyal elements further away.

Occasionally, new residents are brought in to repopulate evacuated areas, typically from minorities more inclined to support the government. What is taking place is a slow demographic recalibration, in which errant Sunnis are moved to the periphery and loyalist minorities are moved closer to the core.

These transfers are now so common in Syria that a dedicated fleet of green buses is used in the process, and has become an iconic image of this conflict. The buses catch the eye and are used for moving besieged people. Their sanctity is not to be violated. In a conflict that has ignored almost every norm, this one had lasted – albeit with occasional violations – until the assault in Rashideen.

There are moments when important leaders appear to transcend the divide. Moqtada al-Sadr, an Iraqi Shia cleric who rose to prominence after leading a militia against British troops in Basra after the 2003 invasion, recently called for Bashar al-Assad to step aside.

In doing so, Sadr became one of only a few prominent Shia leaders to publicly acknowledge Assad’s bloodshed. His comments came after the chemical weapons attack in Idlib earlier this month, which claimed more than 80 lives.

Statements such as Sadr’s have huge symbolic value, but are easily forgotten in the aftermath of the next atrocity. Speaking to the American broadcaster NBC last October, General David Petraeus summed up the mood of many military planners in Washington when he concluded that Syria may have passed the point of no return. “Syria may not be able to be put back together,” he said. “Humpty Dumpty has fallen and again I’m not sure you can piece it back together.”

His comments came even before the most tumultuous events of the past six months, which have included the fall of Aleppo, the emergence of a more empowered jihadist coalition (composed principally of al-Qaeda members), the use of chemical weapons and now the Rashideen bus bombing.

Petraeus’s remarks were prescient. As a result of the cycle of bitter vengeance and retribution, often fuelled by deep sectarian suspicion, the Syrian Civil War will continue its descent into chaos. When Assad first unleashed the shabiha to quash the protest movement, the militia warned the opposition: “Assad, or we burn the country.”

In this respect, at least, it has kept its word. Whoever leads the country after this conflict finally comes to an end will inherit not just the rubble and ruins but a ravaged people, too. 

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a senior research fellow at King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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