Some light at the end of the park
After two weeks of social clashes and outbursts of mutual anger, Turkey seems to have seen some light at the end of the tunnel. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, after many days of condemning the “looters” in the streets and the alleged “dark powers” behind them, finally agreed to do what he should have done in the first days: Meet with some representatives of the protestors in Gezi Park.
Although some of the names he met were ridiculously irrelevant - such as actor Necati Şaşmaz, Turkey’s answer to John Rambo, just less buffed - others were relevant. At the end of a series of meetings, government spokesman Hüseyin Çelik, always a reasonable voice, announced the decisions: The construction in Gezi Park will be halted as far as the court decision that decided so remains in place. Then, again, the government will not move on unilaterally but will rather have a “referendum” (more precisely, a public vote) in Istanbul about the future of Gezi Park.
Istanbul Governor Hüseyin Avni Mutlu, too, had a five-hour-long meeting with some of the “youngsters” of Gezi Park, and seems to have built some positive mood. Meanwhile, the government announced that some of the police officers whose “disproportionate violence” has been documented have been “suspended.” (Although they should be taken to courts as well.)
There is still some risk for a re-escalation, because of the signs of ongoing rigidity on both sides. Some protestors at Gezi Park say they do not accept a referendum - they rather want an immediate decision to keep the park as it is. But this is a bit of a silly move on their part, I must say, as it looks outright anti-democratic. On the other hand, the government, which calls on the “occupiers” in the park to vacate it right away, may “lose patience,” in Erdoğan’s words, and unleash the police on them once again.
It is true that a public park can’t be occupied forever by people sleeping in tents. But I remind the government that the Occupy Wall Street crowd was allowed to stay in New York’s Zuccotti Park for about two months. If Erdoğan can keep his “patience” for that long, and take more positive steps, many people will probably go home willingly.
In the longer term, both sides in this conflict should do some self-criticism. Most protestors were non-violent and civilized, but others engaged in vandalism and used disgusting insults against Erdoğan and his family. A militant group in Istanbul’s Kabataş district even harassed a young veiled mother, a relative of Erdoğan, who had her baby with her, again with disgusting insults and abuse. Such excesses made the protestors’ message much less heard by the rest of society.
But even more soul-searching is needed for the government and its hardcore conservative supporters. In the past two weeks, they have shown every single trait of Turkey’s shallow and immature nationalism: conspiracy theories about the protests, childish campaigns against the Western media, and a zealous arrogance which lashed out against anybody who called them to reason and restraint. They have proven, unfortunately, that their political culture is no more liberal or democratic than their most bigoted enemies.
Perhaps these lessons will indeed be taken, at least to some extent, and the Gezi Park crisis will prove to be “Turkey’s growing pains,” as Graham Fuller argued wisely in the New York Times the other day. I just don’t want to lose hope.