When the protest in Gezi Parki first started, many Turks and commentators thought it would soon go away. After all, it was organized by a couple of treehuggers, who refused to let some trees be demolished in order for a new mosque and mall to be built. It is difficult to take something like that all too seriously.
However, after only a day or two, the protests suddenly exploded. Tens of thousands of Istanbullians joined, protests were organized in as many as 79 other cities, and entire families took to the streets.
The reason “the resistance” suddenly became so popular was Prime Minister Erdogan’s and the police’s reaction to the protesters. Instead of trying argue with them and perhaps reaching a compromise, they were brutally attacked by the police and insulted by Erdogan, who called them “terrorists” and “looters.” Secularists and other opponents of the prime minister saw what happened and decided to step in. “Enough already,” they said, “it’s time to take action against this man who wants to Islamize the country and who refuses to accept any limits on his power.”
Next Erdogan set his own personal army – the police – loose on all his critics. The results are shocking: at least four people have been killed and as many as 5,000 have been wounded. Additionally, many others have been detained and interrogated – even people who didn’t participate in the protests themselves, but who simply reported about them on Twitter.
Only a few years ago, this scenario would have been considered impossible. Now, however, it sadly is Turkey’s new reality.
How is that possible?
In the years leading up to the protests, the AK Parti has increased the size of the country’s police forces significantly since 2003. Not suprisingly, many new officers are AKP-supporters. Those who didn’t already support the Islamists have been dragged into their camp by receiving significant pay raises and by receiving more powers and responsibilities than they could have dreamed of when the country was still ruled by its old secular elite. At the same time, the army has been systematically overlooked (with soldiers now being seriously underpaid) and its power dismantled.
The result is that the police now know that they are in charge and have no one to fear … except the man to whom they own their money and influence: the prime minister. When he gives them an order, therefore, they will obey. Yes, even if that means that they have to use their weapons against their own countrymen, who are simply excercising their right to the freedom of speech.
In exchange for their unquestioned support, Erdogan has embarked on a grand publicity tour in which he tries to improve not only his own, but also the police’s image. This weekend he said for instance that the police have “succesfully passed the test of democracy” because of the way they handled the protests.
Read that sentence again and then watch the video below of a dozen police officers in Antalya giving “democratic treatment” to three protesters hiding in a parking garage:
Last weekend, police again had a go at protesters in Taksim (Istanbul), who wanted to commemmorate those who had died earlier this month. The protest was livestreamed on several websites, among which RussiaToday.com (an addmittely pro-Putin channel, but one has to make due with whatever one has). For hours and hours the protesters behaved perfectly. They were clearly there for a peaceful gathering. Even when they were surrounded by the police, they remained calm, singing some songs together.
Once darkness set in, however, the police attacked. First they used water cannons to blow everyone out of the way, journalists included:
Later they reverted to using teargas again; everything in an attempt to squash the protests and to convince the protesters to go home and stay there.
In a free and democratic society, police exist in order to protect citizens from those who mean them harm. In today’s Turkey, however, the Islamist AK Parti has purposefully reshaped the police in order to protect the state from its people.
The consequences of this change can be very dire indeed. Unless the protesters succeed in wrestling some of their freedoms back from their government, it will enable Erdogan to behave even more authoritarian and to push more Islamization down his people’s throats – with a little help from his personal army.
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