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Gezi protests: Milestone in Turkey’s history 14 octobre 2013

Posted by Acturca in Turkey / Turquie, Turkey-EU / Turquie-UE.
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Arab News (Saudi Arabia) October 14, 2013, p. 7

Aylin Kocaman *

Turkey has a checkered history of coups. Some elements within the Turkish political system are always on the prowl to push an advancing country backward and impose its agenda on the millions who wish to leave behind a sordid political past.

The most recent and sinister of them all was planned by Ergenekon, which was exposed in time and thwarted to the relief of the majority in the country. However, the Ergenekon coup plot trial exposed the influence of the “deep state” and shocked the Turks who are left wondering as to what extent this organization could go to realize its objectives.

For those not well versed with Turkish politics, it would be imperative to explain the terms, “deep state” and “Ergenekon.”

Ergenekon is an alleged clandestine secularist ultra-nationalist organization with ties to members of the armed forces. This organization is believed to be a part of the “deep state,” which is alleged to be separate group of influential anti-democratic coalitions within the Turkish political system.

The coup plot trial exposed the deep penetration of members of this organization in almost every stratum of society. Most of the people tried and sentenced in the case were former army officials, former politician, journalists and academics.

Despite their failure in overthrowing the government, one of the convicts in the case, Mustafa Balbay, a politician, did not lose hope and tried to sow seeds of fear by proclaiming, “This fall season will be a hot one!”

This articulated threat was perhaps an attempt to link the Gezi Park protests to the verdicts in the Ergenekon coup trial. These people were sadly mistaken. Let’s talk about the protests that saw a new kind of “citizen politics” and if studied carefully could help understand the changing dynamics in Turkish politics. Those protests were a healthy sign for democracy in the country. But the ensuing violence and vandalism startled many a Turk. They had no problem with the idea of protests, per se, but use of violent measures and destruction of public property was never part of the plan. It did not take the nation much time to realize that the dark forces of the “deep state” were in action and all set to hijack the protests.

The actions of those elements were condemnable, as they served neither the cause of democracy nor civil liberties. They were representatives of a mentality that sought to maintain status quo in Turkey and a repetition of a bloody coups that will remain a blot in the history of the country.

I would like to take this opportunity to clarify it to many foreign commentators and analysts that the Gezi protesters had nothing to do with the violence that ensued. They were exercising their political right. It is heartening to know that Turkey has a young politically dynamic population that could rise to the occasion and is very well aware of its national interests and the red lines that if crossed will prove to be detrimental to the country.

However, coup-mongers were quick in their attempts to hijack the protests. Although they failed in their bid, they still are on the  move. They are still trying to gain traction in one way or the other; not even realizing that Turkey has evolved over time. Turks will no longer act on the whims and wishes of a few. They are no longer hostages to a tiny minority who in the past had succeeded in imposing its will on them.

Interestingly, Balbay’s thinly-veiled threat played the trick. At the end of the protests, the nation waited with bated breath for the “hot season.” Everybody, whether directly involved in the Gezi protests or not, was waiting for things to heat up. Came September. The youth who mobilized the Gezi protests were nowhere to be found in the streets. That was a major shift in the political dynamics.

The Gezi protests, undoubtedly, has awakened the Erdogan’s Justice and Progress Party (AKP) to reality. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s initial response to the new phenomenon “citizen politics” — that sparked the largest wave of protests in Turkey’s history — was as expected. But it did not take him long in assessing public sentiments.

The dispute that started the Gezi protests has ended up with three times more trees being planted at Taksim. The Gezi project was canceled. It has been decided in principle that any major change in the city would be referred to a public referendum. That is called change, the democratic way. It shows that Turkish society has come a long way and evolved into a large body of responsible individuals who are aware of their rights and responsibilities and the elected leadership is also part of the same society.

On the heels of the protests, came the announcement of the “democratization” package. Prime Minister Erdogan began his address to the nation by offering a piece of advice for the pro-coup factions. He said: “The democratization package will make our people smile and keep the pro-coup factions up at night.”

He knew the reforms would not make everyone happy but he was sure that the package was a step forward in the direction of a “New Turkey.”

The reforms include allowing election campaigns to be conducted in languages other than Turkish and decriminalizing the use of Kurdish letters not found in the Turkish alphabet. All primary school students in state schools will now also no longer have to recite a deeply nationalistic vow at the start of each week, which begins with the words: “I am a Turk.”

Erdogan has invested much political capital in the peace initiative, which has drawn strong public support.

One of the highlights of the reforms is the enhanced freedom for governmental employees and the lifting of the decades-old ban on wearing headscarves, saying women employees would be allowed to cover their heads at state institutions except in the military and security services, and for judges and prosecutors.
The reforms sought to salvage a peace process with the Kurdish citizens by granting them special rights.

The package pleased a large part of the country, as well the United States and the European Union. Some people said, “Not enough but yes.” Some thought this path to democratization was realistic even though they were not pleased with Erdogan. Had another Gezi incident started off in the wake of this development, the protesters would have lost their credibility. Wasn’t this the message they longed to send? “We are here as Turks, Kurds, Sunnis etc., as well as believers and unbelievers.”

These developments indicate emergence of a new Turkey, a pluralistic society. In the coming days, we will better understand the ramifications of this democratization package as it is more broadly implemented and the results become known. It is even possible assuming positive results, new packages may be announced and perhaps a new Constitution may be drafted. However, the fact remains the Gezi incidents were a milestone in the history of Turkey. The government was genuinely in need of this vocal criticism. Will the protests continue? Of course, should the need arise; the world will once again see a peace-loving nation united for a just cause. This is the beauty of democracy.

* The writer is a commentator on Turkish TV and a columnist.

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