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Story Publication logo December 30, 2013

Turkey: When Elephants Fight

Turkey Under Protest

When protests flooded Turkey, they revealed deep problems. Police brutality, authoritarianism, and a...

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Riot police position themselves near the Taksim Square metro station on Dec. 27, 2013, waiting for anti-corruption protests to begin. Image by Jenna Krajeski. Turkey, 2013.

On December 27, 2013, just as the sun began to set, uniformed riot police began parading into Istanbul's Taksim Square. They came in waves of 15 or 20, loosely packed and walking slowly like a very jet-lagged Olympic team at the opening ceremony. Swinging gas masks by their hips and holding long, transparent shields barely above the ground, they noiselessly arranged themselves around Taksim. A line formed by a silver and white Christmas tree at the entrance to Gezi Park, where in May an environmental sit-in grew into the largest anti-government protests in decades. Others clustered in front of the Metro entrance, which in June was a box of tear gas. A large group near a bronze and marble statue commemorating the foundation of the Turkish Republic would later, in a smooth motion like squeegeeing rain drops off a car window, use their shields to push protesters from the square onto smaller streets where, in a country determined to be a "high risk" for protests in 2014, tear gas canisters and retaliatory fireworks would ring in the new year early.

Ten days had passed since the early morning raids of the homes of dozens of prominent Turkish businessmen, a list which included the sons of cabinet ministers and the head of a state-controlled bank, who was found with shoeboxes full of cash. It was an eruption, and one uncomfortably close to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party—by the 27th it showed little sign of stopping. For Erdogan supporters, it was a blow. Loyalists often refer to the party not as AKP, the full acronym of its Turkish name, but as the "AK Parti." The subtle difference has a deeper meaning. "Ak" means "white" in Turkish and, in the context of the party, it is intended to convey purity, honesty, incorruptibility.

Erdogan, in behavior reminiscent of the Gezi Park protests, reacted with a seething anger. He blamed foreign conspirators like the U.S. and Israel and suggested also that the Turkish military, which had been systematically defanged under the AKP, was behind the scandal. He fired some hundreds of police officers involved in the investigation as well as the Istanbul chief of police and, later, the head prosecutor. When Fethullah Gulen, a Pennsylvania-based Turkish imam with a worldwide network of schools and businesses and a former Erdogan ally, was named as a potential perpetrator, Gulen erupted in turn. "Those who don't see the thief but go after those who chase the thief, may God bring fire to their home," he said in a video message. On Christmas Day three ministers resigned and Erdogan spent the remainder of the day firing and hiring until he emerged, visibly exhausted, from a meeting with President Abdullah Gul (who has to approve the new assignments) with a new cabinet reinforced by ten ministers whose most common attribute seems to be their loyalty. He wore the new cabinet like a warm winter coat.

The saga has transfixed Turkey, in Istanbul unfolding in the news and particularly on social media with breakneck, and often breathless, updating. Erdogan and Gulen—who for years were happy to fight a common secular enemy—seemed in the midst of the kind of messy divorce that ends with the family home in ashes. Would the AKP survive the scandal? Would elections, scheduled for March, be held early? How hard would the economy be hit? A friend complained to me that she paid her rent in euros; she had written to her landlady to ask that, given the new exchange rate, it be reduced.

Turkey's Kurdish population fretted over their own future, which Erdogan periodically brightens like a moody, grudge-holding firefly. Gulen, for his alleged control over the security forces that have terrorized the Kurdish southeast for decades, "is against the peace process," Nazmi Gur, an opposition BDP politician told me.

Almost everyone, AKP supporters aside, seemed concerned about the new minister of interior, Efkan Ala, a close ally of Erdogan and former Diyarbakir governor who reportedly called the Istanbul chief of police during the Gezi protests to urge him to respond more aggressively. It was Ala's police who sauntered into Taksim Square the evening of December 27.

Among the practical worries, like rent and personal safety around riot police, were deeper, more existential questions about what was really happening and what it meant. The opacity of Turkish state quickly emerged as the real enemy. Turkey operates on many levels like a democracy—no one really disputes that the the AKP won the majority of the votes—but outside the ballot box citizen participation is meager. During the Gezi protests this feeling of exclusion from a government which was busy designing and micro-managing each citizen's future, rallied thousands. Photos of squirreled away cash cracked another thin layer of confidence. It doesn't help that Turkey's journalists are openly muzzled, arrested or threatened with jail or unemployment. When police beat reporters showed up at the stations to report on Erdogan's purging of the force, they were turned away. Their services were no longer needed.

"Even I, as a Turkish observer, cannot fully comprehend what's going on," Mustafa Akyol, a journalist who has written extensively about political Islam, told me. That Gulen was at the helm of a parallel deep state which had its authority in the security and judiciary—and which he controlled from Pennsylvania's Pocono mountains—was, as strange as it may sound at first, a given. "The most obvious thing is that it's a war within the state," Akyol said, but he dismissed, as most rational observers have, any conspiracy linked to the U.S. and Israel (he said it was delusional" and "making things worse"). "The real question is, how valid are the corruption charges," Akyol said. "Is the Gulen movement heroically fighting against corruption? Or is it using the judiciary to discredit the government?"

I called Merve Kavakci, an AKP supporter and former minister who was run out of Turkish politics when she wore a headscarf to the parliament building in 1999. She also acknowledged the atmosphere of confusion, but she was on the side of Erdogan. "It's difficult to distinguish between what's going on, reality, and what it all should be," she told me. "I agree with the prime minister that this is an attempt to overturn his government and impede Turkey's progress… the corruption scheme that we are dealing with is only part of it." She coined a new term—"beauro-coup" meaning a coup launched by bureaucrats — and was the first optimist I'd spoken to in days. "Erdogan and the AKP will only come out stronger," she told me. "Because the stance from the get-go is that he will not condone corruption."

In this environment of speculation, contradiction, and complete lack of transparency theories began to spawn more theories. When I told my friend about my conversation with Kavakci, she smiled sheepishly. "I almost, barely, believe that Erdogan could have done this himself," she told me. "The elections are coming and he has no enemy to make him look strong. So he created one." Erdogan, as was apparent during Gezi, is not terribly interested in convincing his detractors to switch sides. Perhaps he knows how challenging this would be in some camps. While the corruption scandal pushes the opposition further away, it might bring his supporters closer. When Erdogan landed at the airport on December 27, he was greeted by a large crowd and many reporters. Earlier that day he had been speaking at a university where students in the audience periodically interrupted him to say, "Turkey is with you." My friend's theory is outlandish, but in Turkey what might be accurately described as "conspiracy theories" should not be dismissed as such. These theories are not woven from a willful denial of fact, but a terrifying lack of it.

I was relieved, then to reach Hakan Altinay, a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, who wanted to talk about the facts, as scant as they may be. When I spoke to him it was after a particularly frenetic hour on Twitter and my head was spinning. He was calm. He wondered what evidence we had of corruption. "We have had over the last six years these bombastic leaks about indictments and very few of them turn out to be accurate," he told me. "If anything Turks should have learned to be a little wary of the pre-indictment PR."

Hours before the protest was scheduled to start I visited the offices of Capul TV, an internet media group established during the Gezi protests and named after an insult Erdogan threw at the protesters, calling them "capulcu" or looters, vagrants, criminals. About five volunteers sat in front of computers, uploading content to Capul TV and its parent site, A small studio in the back of the office served as a set for their Gezi park live analysis show. Two park benches arranged in a V sat in front of a cross-hatched wood wall decorated with protesting paraphernalia—a gas mask, some plastic plants, a Guy Fawkes mask, a helmet.

Some analysts and citizens had wondered whether big protests might be the deciding factor against the government. "If Erdogan already felt so much pressure that he was backed into turning over his cabinet in the middle of the night, just think about what will happen once real mass public pressure begins to bubble up," Middle East analyst Michael Koplow wrote on his blog. Or, as Ali Ergin Demirhan, a Capul TV volunteer, put it to me: "We know know that democracy is outside of parliament. It is in the streets."

The protest was easily pushed from Taksim and photos, although dramatically lit by fires and fireworks, show sizable but not enormous crowds in Taksim Square. The opposition is angry—they have been for a long time—but without real information there cannot be a consensus about what stance to take. Some worried that a protest would look like it was in support of Gulen. Others thought that their belief in justice should be unconditional, and even Erdogan and his cronies should be innocent before proven guilty. Still others worried sincerely about the impact of this chaos on their jobs, lives.

Regardless of Erdogan's crimes, and whatever may or may not be behind it, the seat of power seems guaranteed to stay within a corrupt system as long as those who wish to challenge it are kept so fully in the dark. If anything, Erdogan has succeeded in reaffirming how little power the opposition activists have; even the events which may lead to his downfall—essentially giving them what they want—will be completely out of their control. Before the protest a friend contacted me on Gmail. He was planning on going, but he was worried about getting involved in a battle between Erdogan and Gulen, both of whom he hates. "There is a saying we use in Turkey," he wrote. "When elephants fight it is the grass that suffers."


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