A Movement Without a Leader: Turkey’s Upheaval in Taksim Square

By Abigail R. Esman

GEZI PARK, Turkey—Security forces. Water cannons. The killing of peaceful protesters by police. Is this what democracy is made of?

It is if you ask Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who, on June 15,  confronted the uprising now sweeping his country with a menacing threat: Protesters must clear Istanbul’s Taksim Square themselves, he said, or he will send his security forces “who know how to clear it” for them.

He wasn’t bluffing.  By the following evening, civil and military police swept into the area, pounding protesters with tear gas and water cannons filled with water mixed with other agents to cause a mild burning of the skin. The nearby German hospital and even luxury hotels that had been assisting injured protesters were bombarded with tear gas as police arrested physicians on charges of "aiding terrorists."

And here is where so much of the challenge to the protests lie: Erdoğan not only holds all the power of his office, but with his desire to quash the protests and Islamize the state, he has a clearly defined mission—and with a monopoly on state power, a means to get it: He has the power of leadership, and the protesters, ultimately, do not.

“They have no real organization,” says Selin Sol, a former political analyst who owns an art gallery in Istanbul. “The people in the park don’t even want to organize politically in order not to taint the peaceful way it started out.”

Yet without defining their ideals, and, even more, without the power of an organized drive to achieve them, their government will—as it has promised to do—crush them into silence.

Others have written about the lack of a coherent message to the protests. The original cause to save a park from the construction of a shopping center has long since been subsumed by larger long-simmering ones. But all those other causes have a common denominator—the end of Erdoğan’s efforts to Islamize the secular democracy. 

In this, the Turkish “#occupy” movement is unlike any of the uprisings of the past few years that have altered the political landscape of the Middle East. In Libya, Egypt, Syria, and Tunisia, the goal was clear and simple: democracy in place of an autocratic state. The protesters wanted to depose the current dictator and run elections to replace him. What's more, they had never lived in a secular democracy. They were striving for something they did not already know, but longed for.

Turkey is different. The majority of the protesters grew up in a more secularized culture than the current one, in which Erdoğan calls on women to stay home and raise families and imprison journalists. (Turkey in 2012 led the world in the number of incarcerated journalists, according to The Committee to Protect Journalists.) They clearly recall a country where artists were not sent to prison for “insulting” the Prophet Mohammed and where a good meal and good wine were part of living the good life. Yet now, Erdogan’s government has passed a bill to ban the sale of alcohol between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m., a motion many in Gezi Park see as a prelude to further alcohol restrictions to come. This is all part of the conservatism of Erdoğan’s vision for the country, and among the larger catalysts for the current uprisings.

The protesters unlike their counterparts elsewhere in the region, are children of a Western Enlightenment culture. For the past 10 years, they have watched that aspect of their culture being wrenched out from under them, and they want it back.

This is what unites almost all of the protesters, from Istanbul to Ankara and Izmir. It is why they stand against the ongoing bombardment by Erdoğan’s police and security teams despite the danger. So far, over 5,000 people have been injured, a dozen blinded, and five killed in less than 20 days, according to Amnesty International and other organizations.

But a cause alone is not enough.

What the Turkish resistance needs now is a cause leader, a visionary with the gravitas and charisma to represent their purpose and to see it to its end. Whatever their unified ideal may be, without someone to guide and represent them, to be their general-at-arms as much in government discussions as in street battles, they are marchers without a movement. And some fear this dooms them soon to fail.

“I’m afraid,” one woman in her mid-20s who had taken part in many of the Istanbul protests tells me, “that people will get bored or disillusioned. I’m afraid that they’ll give up.” 

But another Istanbul protester, Cem Uçan, remains convinced of the movement’s staying power. “After today’s violence,” he wrote me in an email,  “this cannot fade out. This is now a war by the state towards its citizens.”

Yet whether this indeed becomes a war or remains a peaceful revolution, it is about far more than just deposing Turkey’s autocratic ruler and his party. It is about the future of a nation. And for that future to be the one Turkey’s youth are seeking, it needs not just a movement: it needs someone to lead the way.


Abigail R. Esman is a writer and journalist based in New York and Amsterdam. She is the author of Radical State: How Jihad is Winning Over Democracy in the West (Praeger, 2010). 

[photo courtesy of Shutterstock]


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