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

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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 42.

    #38 Deren

    -- As you imply, this is going to be a difficult balancing act for Turkey --to please everybody.

    -- My view is that AKP (with unions ?) should build a secure secular welfare state -- this would cut into the support of Milli Gourusch (?) and other fanatics.

    --the middle class will then ´fall into place´ --with little to lose --but taxes.

  • rate this

    Comment number 41.

    Erdogan says protests 'are not Turkish Spring' As he leaves Turkey behind him.

  • rate this

    Comment number 40.

    #39 Sophro

    -- I fear the latter.

    -However Gul is attempting to defuse the situation as is Mayor of Istanbul. It would be a pity if economic success of Erdogan is ruined.

    -- The unions must be careful and act responsibly --strike is being considered -- but news is that Erdogan is still shaking from the unexpected response.

    --some in AKP will be disappointed --a back track on laws is best way

  • rate this

    Comment number 39.

    Everything depends on Erdogan's true intentions and loyalties. Is he merely giving the Islamists some small victories in order to avoid more extreme Islamification and preserve the basic secular and democratic character of the state? Or is he trying to turn Turkey into an Islamic state, doing so little by little, in the hope of not arousing serious resistance?

  • rate this

    Comment number 38.

    Yes, the secular, educated, middle class people have always criticised the government in Turkiye. But, the middle class is not a majority there. Millions of people receive state-aid and benefits in Turkiye, and there are millions of religious working class people. It is highly unlikely that they would follow these rioters. Turks want stability, this type of riots do not attract the majority.

  • rate this

    Comment number 37.

    quietoaktree @33
    Turks deeper into division
    Middle-class rivals "wanted secular state"
    Freedom to be: equal v unequal
    Inequality forcing poor back to 'faith'

    By 'example' in sham-democracy: idleness, luxury, alcohol, drugs, partnership devalued "without the other" monopoly

    By cyclical poverty: needing 'faith community' for relief, literacy, solidarity, belonging, even at the price of 'barbarity'

  • rate this

    Comment number 36.

    Before Islam is massively condemned, remember Nasreddin Hodja.

    ´Nasreddin Hodja is Turkey's (and perhaps all of Islam's) best-known trickster. His legendary wit and droll trickery were possibly based on the exploits and words of a historical imam. Nasreddin reputedly was born in 1208 in the village of Horto -- he died in the Islamic year 683 (1284 or 1285).

  • rate this

    Comment number 35.

    Erdogan has shown his true colors for some time. Let's hope that one of the opposition parties rises as a clear leader or for a new alliance of existing parties.

    Unfortunately, I fear that Erdogan's jailing journalists and military leaders dedicated to upholding secular democracy, and controlling the media may yet win.

    Courage, hope, and perseverance, protesters. You have friends in the USA.

  • rate this

    Comment number 34.

    Turkish commune?
    Reaction begets
    Until all content
    Free to move on together

    Games go on - exploitation, unionisation, blacking, radicalisation, infiltration, disappearance, resurrection - but the stakes ever more frightening

    So much to lose. Not 'just' the life-from-the-land that second-sons had to leave anyway, not 'just' a few fine towns & cities again to be razed People & Planet

  • rate this

    Comment number 33.

    The Turk. middle class was very small 1977 (Taksim massacre) when they supported the military --Communists and Anarchists were the enemy.

    All wanted secular state, but without the other. Tourism was non-existent, the 100 meter mosque alcohol ban affects the ´old towns´ tourist hubs where the old mosques are.

    The poor now see jobs in danger and the rich middle class --their profits

  • rate this

    Comment number 32.

    2. Steveio
    - Either Erdogan will be removed or I worry Turkey will become a poor man's IRAN

    What is the hatred of Iran? What about China, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, Burma- Oh that's right, all them Countries are friends with the sheeps Govt..

    End the Iranian Xenophobia

  • rate this

    Comment number 31.

    Where is David Cameron, Merkel and Obamas voices in all this? Quite happy to codemn Assad but slow to tell Edrogan that police brutality and state thuggery will not be accepted, Turkey's youth and secularists have all our support, its a shame own own democratic leaders in the west wont speak out.

  • rate this

    Comment number 30.

    Turkey's EU hopes? Ahahaha! Erdogan never had eu hopes. He knew that France and Germany would never allow it so he's just using it to gain trade concessions from the eu (it's called a political game). Wake up Europe! The wealth of the world is in Singapore, Hong Kong, Mumbai, São Paulo and arguably Istanbul, who would want to join the eu austerity union? Britain is trying its best to leave.

  • rate this

    Comment number 29.

    For those not familiar with the Paris Commune...

    Because of social media are the people now strong enough not to face a repeat of the Paris Commune, i.e. their slaughter at the hands of the authorities?
    Remember it was the reaction to the Paris Commune defeat that led to the argument for a vanguard party from Lenin.

  • rate this

    Comment number 28.

    Why are riots in Istanbul the lead BBC news story, while the far more serious ones in Stockholm aren't even mentioned ?

    Although I think we can guess.

  • rate this

    Comment number 27.

    Very bad news for Turkey's EU hopes.

    Erdogan is a very dangerous man indeed.

  • rate this

    Comment number 26.

    The writing has been on the wall ever since Mr Erdogan, whose personal wealth is legendary, forgave Israel for the boat killings & declared support for the Syrian opposition

    All of which was orchestrated by the US & is now looking increasingly fragile & dangerous as extremists factions take hold & destroy any chance of peace talks

    The al-Nusra Front is not something Turkey wants on it's doorstep

  • rate this

    Comment number 25.

    Concernedcitizen @19
    "elected democratically"
    Love the meaning?
    Of, For, By the Equal People?

    In human charity, public service is we trust part of every leader's mind

    None though has omniscience. Election-to-power cannot be taken as a blank cheque for policies widely seen as irrational, unfair & intolerable

    Bad enough a state without formal guarantee of citizen equality. Folly to rub it in

  • rate this

    Comment number 24.

    Of course this is an an-Islamist, Ataturkist movement. Erdogan provides a semi-urbane cover for the weird beards who increasingly pull the strings.

    Look at the Turkish provocations of Israel, & the support of Sunni fanatics in Syria (not to mention continuing repression of the Kurds). NATO should have booted Turkey out long ago... We should support secular Turks who are resisting Erdogan.

  • rate this

    Comment number 23.

    Every developing country has a corrupt elite that profits from stealing from the people rather than being productive. In china these people were crushed in tiannemen 1989 and the country progressed so much since. Perhaps these riots are good for Turkey as Erdogan can identify and punish the corrupt and Turkey can take its rightful place as a world power.


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