Analysis: The hopes that blaze in Istanbul


Unrest in Taksim Square - watch Paul Mason's full Newsnight report

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To any student of social history the sight of an urban middle class using its fingers to dig up cobblestones, form a human chain and pile them 3ft (1m) high to make a barricade screams the words "Paris Commune".

That is what I saw in the streets around Besiktas stadium last night and the comparisons are ominous.

This was the third big night of fighting in Istanbul.

The protesters methodically erected barricades to seal off Taksim Square, which is on a hill. By now some of these barricades are six or seven feet high and movable only by bulldozer.

In the park, earlier, there were three or four meetings going on, with the left-wing nationalist Youth Union of Turkey the biggest, and a more impromptu samba-band thing for the more anti-globalist protesters.

It was good-natured, and the two main social types were educated young women, dressed I would say 90% in Western style, and young men with football scarves and shirts.

They made a massive thing out of the fact that they were standing shoulder to shoulder, on a big plinth, the rival teams of Istanbul who hate each other's guts.

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There is a pent-up anger - and when I point to the impressive growth, and fiscal solvency of Turkey, they point to the fact they can't afford a flat, and that 'the money ends up in the pockets of those in power'”

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Then, around 21:00 (18:00 GMT), the crowd streamed down the hill towards Besiktas and the clash with the police started. I was close to this, and have to say it was standard if very heavy riot policing: baton rounds, CS cartridges in abundance, and finally water cannon.

Only about 10% of the people are fighting, and this is in fact testimony to the social depth of the movement.

There were a large majority of people you would expect to find on an engineering course at college, or sitting over a laptop in Starbucks, the young, global, secular urban middle class.

Most of them had not come to fight, but fighting is what they have been drawn into. The men and women in masks are doctors, teachers, students, as well as the typical urban poor youth ducking and diving, who remain a minority.

Around 02:00 I went out again. By now the barricade right outside my hotel was under attack - though the protesters beat the police back this time.

People started to tell their stories.

The main meme - as with the flags - is "we are sons of Ataturk". That is, we are a secular republic and we are worried about the autocratic use of power by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, combined with a creeping Islamisation.

"We don't want to become Iran," one man said.

The secondary meme tends to contradict this.

"We're all here," one masked woman told me. "Communists, anarchists, democrats. It's not an Ataturkist movement."

Reactions to my reports on Twitter tend to echo this division too.

So what has caused it? Everybody is clear that the park - intended to be bulldozed to make a shopping mall shaped like an Ottoman Empire military barracks - is not the issue.

"The issue is freedom," one woman told me.

I have been to the Taksim emergency hospital tonight. I met a volunteer doctor who ended up a patient after being shot at close range with a CS gas canister. Another man came out covered with lacerations and bruising.

The patients alleged deliberate police brutality, the connivance between police and what sounds like an unofficial militia from the ruling Justice and Development (AK) party, police using knives at close quarters to stab people in the legs, and the persistent use of orange smoke canisters that cause severe distress.

I did not see any attacks of this nature, but there were enough claims for the allegations to be taken seriously and investigated.

When I have expressed surprise at the way this escalated into an all-or-nothing confrontation, the rioters too say they are surprised. There is a pent-up anger - and when I point to the impressive growth, and fiscal solvency of Turkey, they point to the fact they cannot afford a flat, and that "the money ends up in the pockets of those in power".

By pulling back from Taksim, for the past 48 hours now, the Turkish police have lessened the tension inside it.

'It's a revolution'

Walking around at 04:00, among little groups squatting around fires and others huddled under blankets in doorways or on the grass of the park, there is again the echo of that event in Paris. Then, too, the state pulled out, leaving the urban middle class and workforce of Paris to run the city for 100 days. But it ended in tragedy and bloodshed.

Footage shot in Taksim Square on Sunday evening

One woman working as a medical volunteer pulled me aside just now.

"I'm telling everybody to stop fighting," she said. "This can't end with massive bloodshed."

There is a sense among some of the protesters that the scale of injury, the out-of-control nature of the policing at times, and their isolation from the rest of Turkey (Turkish TV is not exactly covering the events in great detail), means they have to back down.

Others though are clear.

"It's a revolution," says a man in a mask, face lit by the flames of a burning car. And some people are clearly high on it.

I have covered Syntagma, the Occupy protests and reported from Tahrir Square. This is different to all of them.

First, it is massive. The sheer numbers dwarf any single episode of civil unrest in Greece.

Second, the breadth of social support - within the urban enclave of Istanbul - is bigger than Greece and closer to Egypt.

"Everyone is here - except the AK party," insists one young woman.

People nod. In Greece, the urban middle class was split. Here the secular middle class are out in force, united across political divisions, to say nothing of football hatreds.

All eyes on the workers

Is this the Turkish Tahrir? Not unless the workers join in. Turkey has a large labour movement, and a big urban poor working population, and Monday is a work day, so we will see. It is certainly already something more than the Turkish version of Occupy.

Could it spill over into the wider Middle East conflict? Most definitely. Because Mr Erdogan has been the lynchpin of Western power in dealing with Syria.

Some read his willingness to ditch his liberal supporters and push for the low-level Islamisation of society (alcohol bans, anti-abortion policy etc) as part of a wider willingness to carve out a role independent of the US in the region.

The opposition know they are weak, they have no leadership and do not want one, and the official strategy is about the park and police brutality, whereas the hopes that blaze behind the eyes of people in masks are about getting rid of Mr Erdogan and making Turkey a secular democracy.

All I know, stumbling through the detritus of a week of urban conflict just now, is that there is a weird lull, a whole city district without police for two days, a quiet order. But it is not clear how long it is going to last.

The Paris Commune of 1871 was long studied by revolutionaries as a test case in how not to act. It was isolated from the rest of France, which voted conservative, it did not know what it wanted, it revelled in its apparent freedom and then was crushed.

As I read tonight the US state department urging "restraint" on Tayyip Erdogan, it is possible that the parallel has occurred to someone there as well.

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Paul Mason Article written by Paul Mason Paul Mason Former economics editor, Newsnight

End of an era

After 12 years on Newsnight, Economics editor Paul Mason has moved on to pastures new and this blog is now closed.

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  • rate this

    Comment number 22.

    gadfly55 @12
    "He knows it, they know it"
    Age of Crushing
    Frank or masked, of dictatorship

    Paradox. A dictator - if benign - by now would have ensured education for real democracy

    Under sham, voting between rival (willing or resigned) Quislings of Mammon, escape to equal freedom will need 'harsh truths to dawn'

    On the street, the insecurity of individuals. In power, the instability of economies.

  • rate this

    Comment number 21.

    I'm intrigued that you go back to the Paris Commune and not to the much more recent, and some would say relevant, Tiananmen Square.
    Is that because the Second Empire is long dead and buried and the Chinese are still very much with us?

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    Huge sympathies for the citizens, but his country was being groomed and courted for eu membership.
    Brings a perspective to the dangers in even the most secular parts of the Arab world.

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    I love the comments on here. Calling a government elected democratically 3 times authoritarian then calling for a military coup, the irony of it all! We saw in 1989 in China how liberal elitists tried to derail the progress of a country and failed miserably. Perhaps Erdogan should take a leaf out of Deng Xiaopings book.

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    The PM is seeing is this as nothing but a few rioters, trouble makers. By locking down the media he is blinding people, he is blinding the uneducated and has been doing so for years. Thats how he has come in to power. Used the mindless soft-spots of the people in this country to makes only his fellow men rich. There is no objectivity, no freedom and no laws of protection for the liberals.

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    It's no accident that the AK party tried passing these laws when the army is busy trying to keep the syrian border under wraps.

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.


  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    Fortunately Church was kept out of government in UK over 100 years ago. Ireland is still getting to grips with the problem, but countries like Iran have allowed Clerics in total charge, with all the ghastly violence, abuse of human rights, that goes with it.

    It is very bad news if Turkey slides in same direction. I believe that several years ago the Turkish army intervened to put a stop to it?

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    You have to think the beebs coverage of this is different from how Egypt and other middle eastern countries was/are reported.
    You have to wonder why as well.

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    This is young & educated, western leaning majority, doing their best to stop Turkey sliding eastward into the hands of belief and superstition. The chaos and violence of ghastly Sharia Law.

    If that is allowed to happen, girls education would be first to go, then strict dress codes applied, burkhas, beards, the whole rigmarole?

    No sensible intelligent person wants to behave like that

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    Always good to hear from you, Paul, you have been missed. Erdogan will crush these people, as sure as rain will fall. He knows it, they know it, and neither of them care. Turkish Tianamen he does not want, so he will bide his time, and then smash whoever is left standing around.

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    "My+citizens" = pronomen possessivum+subjects

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    An elected party is trying to dismantle the very democratic system that gave them power in the first place. The Turkish amry need to boot them out, then they need to ban islamist parties from office pretty much for ever. Seperation of church and state is a must. Lets hope that the have not been quietly arming the police in the hope of using them as a military wing of AK party.

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    Specialist @6
    "try the soap box"
    As in Syria?
    Innocent eloquence met with fearful brutality

    Yes, authorities can have 'reason to fear', beyond commercial. Maybe dissent 'should' be silent, offered-up for its disturbing pain to be silenced, treasured awaiting the Second Coming

    But, humanity is such, we spring in the moment to each other's defence

    The avoidance of tragedy is also for government

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    "Best wishes (for) secular, respectful culture
    shame for it to get lost due to.. Erdogan"

    Democracy should not perish abroad for want of such understanding as might come from UK citizens, by successive regimes left vulnerable to the next 'take-over', equally Quislings of Mammon

    The freedoms we desire, of speech & religion, can exist only as shared, with state guarantee of our belonging

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    What's the army up to - I thought they saw themselves as the guardian of the secular state. Welcome back Paul. Visit here more often, your views are needed.

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    I'm afraid I'd have to agree with Mr Erdogan in this matter. Opposition, not being able to unseat AK party with elections, they are rooting for "revolution".
    Despite not agreeing with his domestic policies, Mr. Erdogan and his party made the country prosperous against the odds.
    Opposition shoul try the soap box & the ballot box before start using the bullet box.

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    Steveio @2
    We ask much of Erdogan, that setting side the forces and tactics to which his empowerment is owed, he should rise to the prime duties of his office, to promote Turkey's place and honour in the world, and to deserve the trust of his own citizens in securing and advancing their equal individual freedom, under rationally shareable democratic law. We ask for his rising above all vice.

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    My best wishes go out to the protestors in Turkey. Having been there a number of times, I appreciate their secular, respectful culture, mixed with an eastern warmth and humanity - it would be a shame for it to get lost due to the authoratarian and regressive government of Erdogan. Liberalism is about equality and respect, it is not about an immoral lifestyle, as Edrogan, and his ilk, claim

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    Has this been a carnival gone wrong, a mix of naive NIMBY-ism, of alcohol-indulged adolescence, of 'the usual suspects', in which everyone aspiring to be anybody just had to be seen?

    Or is this a moment of truth, for at least awareness, of the choice or not - for us all - of equal individual freedom? That choice until now has been made by default: chaotic conflict between would-be dictatorships


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