Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Turkey's Lady in Red: The Symbol of the Protest Movement

Movements need symbols. The Lady in Red has gone viral through social media and the internet. She is the symbol for those opposed to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. A photo sequence shows a line of riot police advancing on the protestors in Taksim Square on May 28. A woman in a bright red cotton summer dress stands in front of the protestors, close to the police line. One assumes she is a protestor. An officer in front of the police line is directing tear gas at her. He advances to her, getting up close and personal while continuing to spray her in the face as she turns away and tries to escape the spray. Turkey is a divided country, split between the urban secularists and rising middle class, and the religious conservatives in Anatolia, the heartland of Turkey. Istanbul may have 20% of the nation’s population and account for 40% of the country’s economy, but the majority of the people live outside the metropolis. Mustafa Kemal, Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, had a vision for the country. The old Turkey was destroyed by World War I, and the Ottomans, the House of Osman, was a spent force. They were allowed to leave the country if they signed over all their properties to the state. The new Turkey had to modernize, to become Euro-centric even if most of the country was in Asia. Ataturk thought the Ottomans had become soft by moving the capital to Constantinople. Thus the new capital would be Ankara in Anatolia. The governance though would be secular. Civil law would replace Sharia. The overwhelming majority of the Turkish population is Muslim, but the Republic of Turkey is secular. Women were given the vote, before some European countries, and encouraged to become educated. A new secular elite and middle class arose, centered on Istanbul. The Turkish military guaranteed, through coups if necessary, the secular nation. An opposition party arose, the Islamic centered Justice and Development Party (A.K.P.) It won the national elections ten years ago. Mayor Erdogan of Istanbul became prime minister. While Islamic centered, he promised to respect those of other views. Prime Minister Erdogan achieved several successes for the country. He curbed inflation and corruption and set off an economic boom, which insulated Turkey from the economic turmoil of the past five years. He is close to settling the civil war with the Kurds. It looked like Turkey was finally going to gain membership in the European Union, a goal since 1987. Istanbul is one of three finalists for the 2020 Olympics. He won reelection in 2011 with 49.95% of the vote against a disorganized opposition. He won “fairly and squarely” in democratic elections with a coalition of conservatives, the religious, and the capitalists who have succeeded in the past decade. He feels vindicated in his policies. And yet, electoral success can lead to hubris. As President Obama has said “I won.” The secular elite and middle class are alienated. The construction boom in Istanbul has resulted in the loss of open space, the destruction of “communities” and the forced displacement of populations. The plans often proceed without meaningful community involvement, much as they did in America prior to 1970. He is less than tolerant of opposition, and clearly has not heard of our First Amendment. More journalists have been imprisoned in Turkey during his decade in office than elsewhere in the world, giving rise to the sobriquet “The world’s biggest prison for journalists.” He also curbed the military by cashiering its leaders, creating a military which now defers to civilian control, as in the United States. Several “brass” were imprisoned. The 2011 election victory unleashed his desire to transform Turkey into a more Islamic country. He was oblivious or unconcerned by the simmering discontent. Some of the recent developments and statements are illustrative. He is trying to restrict abortions while stating Turkish women should bear at least three children each. Turkish Airlines, 49% owned by the government, banned a short time ago certain shades of lipstick and nail polish by its flight attendants. It also stopped serving alcohol on several domestic and international flights. The Parliament two weeks ago jammed through restrictions on the sale and advertising of alcoholic drinks. He views drinkers as “alcoholics” eventhough Ataturk was both a drinker and smoker. He is against public displays of affection. He wants Turks to abandon white bread for whole wheat. Many Turks are opposed to the large assistance he has provided the Syrian rebels. His opponents view him as increasingly arrogant if not bordering on dictatorial. Prime Minister Erdogan is at the least overconfident. The state sponsored development boom continued with the decision to raze Gezi Park, part of the hallowed Taksim Square, to build a faux Ottoman Barracks containing a shopping mall and high rise housing. Gezi Park is the last “green” space in the city center. Signs of trouble showed on May Day when the government barred demonstrations in Taksim Square because of “construction.” Police ended up fighting unions in the Square on May Day – not your typical European May Day celebration. Bulldozers began taking down trees in the Park, when several peaceful demonstrators occupied the Square last Friday. Someone gave orders to the riot police to break up the demonstration. They went in with tear gas and water cannons. As we know from this country, riot police are often not subtle when they act. Consensus agrees that excessive force was used against the peaceful demonstrators. The police action had the opposite effect of quelling the demonstration. It set off a spark that generated actual riots throughout Turkey. Tens of thousands rallied in Taksim Square. The police abandoned Taksim Square on Saturday afternoon. The cause was no longer to save a few trees, but to remove the Prime Minister from office. The lid was off the pressure cooker. The 250,000 members, 11 union Confederation of Public Workers (KESK) joined the protests by announcing a two day strike to commence today. Another large union has joined them. Prime Minister Erdogan called the protestors “hooligans,” “looters” and “extremists” provoked by the opposition Republican Peoples Party. He showed his disdain by flying off on a four day tour of Africa, promising to resolve the problem on his return. Both Turkey’s President, Abdullah Gur, and the Deputy Prime Minister apologized for the police actions. The President supports the public rights to peaceful demonstrations. Internal friction is showing. The PM is termed out of office in 2014. He wants therefore to run against President Gul for the Presidency, and seeks voter approval of a new constitution, which would substantially increase the powers of the President. The two are co-founders of the A.K.P. Unfortunately for the Prime Minister, the Turkish economy is slowing down, from a 8.5% growth rate in 2011 to 2.5% last year. Very little of the demonstrations was carried on Turkish TV; the long term campaign against journalists had quieted them. However, traditional media was irrelevant in spreading the news. The new social media showed its power with the young Turkish middle class and students being as wired into social media as their American counterparts. Prime Minister Erdogan called Twitter “a social menace.” One female protestor in Taksim Square was drinking a beer and smoking a cigar while engaged in a PDA with her boyfriend, symbolic of what will be the government’s inability to chill the young, liberated Turks. The Lady in Red though is the symbol of the opposition. She didn't seek it, but the camera caught the moment.The picture says it all.

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