Turkey protest demands: The good, the bad, and the ridiculous

Ceylan Ozbudak
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Over the past week, the whole world has watched as a modest protest over plans to revise Gezi park morphed into a national convulsion in which grievant of every stripe hit the street to air all manner of barbarous yawp, none of which, in the end, appear to have had much relationship to the other or to the original grievant in Istanbul. One positive development: On Tuesday, Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinç acknowledged the excessive force used by the police in the first responses to the protests, and apologized to the Turkish people. Likewise, on Friday, Prime Minister Erdoğan echoed the government’s commitment to investigate any police misconduct, which drew the fine line between the public right of dissent, and the government’s obligation to sustain order. So what would it take to restore the status quo ante, so that people can go about their business in peace? The Deputy Prime Minister met with a small group from the protestors to receive their demands. So let’s break down the demands of the protestors one by one and see the patterns:

1. Gezi Park will be preserved unchanged and nothing new will be built in its place.


This demand could be accommodated or rejected without any injury to the principle of human rights in Turkey, and would have been fairly debatable in a court rather than on the streets of Istanbul. There was no cause for protest, much less for riot, to anyone familiar enough with the democratic process to organize a groundswell of opposition in Turkey’s political assembly. The project as planned would include far more trees and green area than those thirteen trees for which so much injury and even loss of life has taken place over these past days. Indeed, the building of ruined Ottoman artillery with golden domes and the new pollution free underground car traffic plan is far more aesthetic and pleasing than that which is being replaced.

2. The attempts to demolish Ataturk Culture Center must be stopped.

This is a feasible demand if collecting haunted houses is the new trend. This is an
idéefixe which was added to the list without due consideration of what will be built instead because the structure symbolizes a certain period in the republican history of Turkey. Currently the old building, which looks like a rotten warehouse, battered by fire, does not fit the earthquake safety regulations, which means it can collapse during a high magnitude earthquake. But the new structure is promised to be rebuilt by using the empty car park area next to the building, which overlooks the magnificent view of the Bosphorus. It can therefore can be the new balcony of the Taxim square, which will attract more people especially on the rainy days. The sensitivity of the protestors also come from the bias that the government wants to demolish the building because of its name, “ATATURK”, but Prime Minister Erdogan already stated they have no intentions to change the name.

3. An end to police violence, the prosecution of those responsible for the violence against demonstrators, relieve of duty for the mayors and the chiefs of police in Istanbul, Ankara, Hatay.

This is an ambiguous offer. First of all, the Deputy PM Bulent Arınç and PM Erdogan both already stated there is an investigation about the events in the first day of protests, which actually escalated the tension. Second, how do they determine who is responsible for the injuries in the protests when the investigation is still going on? And third, the names of the cities, given by the protestors are another point of unreasoning. Why Hatay? Why not Izmir or another city? There is a saying in Turkish: damp wood, too, will burn alongside the dry. This means the whole group will face the consequences of the actions of those targeted. Innocents and all will share the same fate as the culprits. Of course I do not support spraying water on peaceful protestors in a park without prior warning in any way (which escalated the protests in day one). We all have our freedom of protest and this should be exercised without violence in return. a peaceful protest is hijacked by violent communist factions, people start to vandalize the streets and attack the neighborhood, INNOCENT PEOPLE GET HURT. When small protestor groups turn into propaganda machines for larger, deeply rooted ideological systems, they should leave the protest as soon as possible.

4. Pepper spray will not be used on protestors and those who are detained will be released

Pepper spray is proven to have side effects on the retina and for sensitive people on the inner tissue of upper respiratory system and can be deadly on asthma patients, so I agree with the first part. As for the second component of this demand, it goes both ways. Also in this protest we have seen there are provocateur agents inside peaceful protestor groups who are professionals in igniting people to attack public property. Some of these agents were taken into custody during the protests, including one Iranian. So a complete release of all those taken into custody may not be possible or responsible without a proper investigation of their activities.

5. Do not build hydroelectric power plants, do not build the third bridge, and do not build the Istanbul Canal.

Now the tone starts to change and this no longer looks like an environmental protest or a protest concerning democracy. This set of demands looks like an entirely different agenda, much to Turkey's detriment. If a government is not going to build power plants, canals, bridges, airports, or roads, why do we have a government to start with? Let’s examine why we need these and who doesn’t want Turkey to have these.

The 3rd airport: Because of its geopolitical position, Turkey is a natural hub between the East and the West. There are two airports in Istanbul, and Ataturk airport alone holds 82, 000 passengers every day. Turkish Airlines is the second in the list of most preferred airlines in the world and is only a hair away from being the first. While the AK Party is willing to reinforce Turkey as a transfer hub, a third airport in the city will close that gap and meet the demands while bringing more transfer passengers to the airline companies. Our protestors claim a lot of trees will be sacrificed in the meantime but according to the officials, the airport will be built on a site which used to be a charcoal mine and it’s time for people to chill out about whether the Turkish people have a right to replant trees here or there for the sake of airports, schools, and roads.

Do the posh protestors we see on the streets of Istanbul plan all this and create a riot just to topple the government? Of course not.

Ceylan Ozbudak

The Istanbul Canal: The transportation of Black Sea oil is one of the most important energy and security challenges of Turkey and Erdoğan is surely willing to reinforce Turkey’s role as energy hub. Turkey has two relatively small domestic crude oil pipelines, Ceyhan-Kırıkkale and Batman-Dörtyol, which pump 135 kb/d and 86.4 kb/d. Turkey’s two major international pipelines, Kirkuk-Ceyhan and Baku-Tblisi-Ceyhan, pumped 0.47 mb/d from Iraq and 1.2 mb/d from the Caucasus in 2009, respectively. Yet both of these international pipelines pale in comparison to the 2004-2008 average of 2.6-2.8 mb of oil transported through the crowded Bosphorus EACH DAY. Canal İstanbul could alleviate the pressure and reduce delays for ships, sometimes by up to three weeks. Even if the capacity of the Samsun-Ceyhan line were increased to1.5 mb/d, there would still be over one million barrels of oil going through the Bosphorus, so clearly no one pipeline is the answer. Of course the canal would affect the energy policies of other actors in the region. Having an alternative, nationally controlled sea route would increase Turkey's regional leverage, both politically and economicly. The project drew an immediate negative response from Russia. Moscow fears the canal would have an undermining effect on its current pipeline projects. But is money the only matter of concern in the Putin land? Unfortunately not. According to 1936 Montreux Convention, regulation of the straits (the Bosphorus and the Dardanelles) was left to Turkey with some restrictions. This convention mainly regulates the transit of naval ships and according to the agreement, non-Black Sea state warships in the Straits must be under 15,000 tons. No more than nine non-Black Sea state warships, with a total aggregate tonnage of no more than 30,000 tons, may pass at any one time, and they are permitted to stay in the Black Sea for no longer than twenty-one days. Or, in a language we will all understand, these terms make it difficult for any modern aircraft carrier groups to transit through the straits and maintain a presence in the Black Sea. So through this new canal, Turkey will be able to invite aircraft carrier groups to the Black sea without any international control.

The 3rd Bridge: The opposition to the bridge started with the name of the bridge: “Yavuz Sultan Selim” or “Sultan Selim the Grim”, with protesters claiming he oppressed the Alawite community during his reign. These claims may be true. But if we are going to get into the detailed analysis of every person we named a monument after, we will be left with few buildings at all.

The government gave signals about being open to name the bridge after someone else if this is going to ease the tensions. But the opposition grew stronger saying this will destroy the North part of the city, where the main natural resources are located. This is partly true. When you enlarge a city, you have to expect inhabiting some natural ground, which we all enjoy. If you are creating industry for 100 thousand people, you have to expect 1 million people inhabiting natural grounds and you have to plan the transportation, roads, and the reach of social services required. So building a bridge in Istanbul, where East meets West, is not just building a bridge. It’s nearly the same as building a new city. This is a decision we can make by a referendum easily and not by rioting on the streets and vandalizing public property. But while making our decision about a third bridge, we also have to keep in mind that building a third bridge means easier and faster transfer of industrial material, which will boost the expanding Turkish economy on the European side of Istanbul.

So it all boils down to this one question: Do the posh protestors we see on the streets of Istanbul plan all this and create a riot just to topple the government? Of course not. A very big majority of those people you saw on the streets were only young university students and football fans who sincerely wanted more freedom. But their protests were hijacked by some other groups and factions. They are being played and they are being dragged into a loop hole which can lead to the destruction of this energetic youth, who watched Arab spring riots and European protests on their TV and wanted to taste what anarchy feels like. Because the last protest on this scale happened in the 1970s. Because they don’t know this country went through 4 coups in 50 years. Because they don’t know those who have good intentions and have been pushing democracy to the limits just to make a point have been the ones who were tried and hanged in those coups while the real provocateurs always stayed behind and survived the stage. In the 1980 coup, 650,000 people were detained, 230,000 were tried, 14,000 were stripped of citizenship, and 108 prisoners were condemned to capital punishment. Hundreds of thousands of people were tortured and thousands are still missing, 1,683,000 people were blacklisted. These young people don’t know that only in the last coup, 800 laws were passed to form a militarily disciplined society. They were also chanting “freedom”, something they never got in an unstable environment. They have been blunt instruments for overthrowing a regime, the machinery to implement the public will, but very limited as a tool of deliberation concerning questions of where to allocate tax income and public resources.

The question is not whether we keep the trees, or whether Erdogan is or is not too authoritarian. The question is: How does a mature civilization make political choices in the ordinary course of affairs?

Ceylan Ozbudak is a Turkish political analyst, television presenter, and executive director of Building Bridges, an Istanbul-based NGO. She can be followed on Twitter via @ceylanozbudak

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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