The Hopes That Blaze In Istanbul

To any student of social history the sight of an urban middle class using its fingers to dig up cobblestones, form a human chain and pile them 3ft (1m) high to make a barricade screams the words "Paris Commune".

That is what I saw in the streets around Besiktas stadium last night and the comparisons are ominous.

This was the third big night of fighting in Istanbul.

The protesters methodically erected barricades to seal off Taksim Square, which is on a hill. By now some of these barricades are six or seven feet high and movable only by bulldozer.

In the park, earlier, there were three or four meetings going on, with the left-wing nationalist Youth Union of Turkey the biggest, and a more impromptu samba-band thing for the more anti-globalist protesters.

It was good-natured, and the two main social types were educated young women, dressed I would say 90% in Western style, and young men with football scarves and shirts.

They made a massive thing out of the fact that they were standing shoulder to shoulder, on a big plinth, the rival teams of Istanbul who hate each other's guts.

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There is a pent-up anger – and when I point to the impressive growth, and fiscal solvency of Turkey, they point to the fact they can't afford a flat, and that 'the money ends up in the pockets of those in power'"

Then, around 21:00 (18:00 GMT), the crowd streamed down the hill towards Besiktas and the clash with the police started. I was close to this, and have to say it was standard if very heavy riot policing: baton rounds, CS cartridges in abundance, and finally water cannon.

Only about 10% of the people are fighting, and this is in fact testimony to the social depth of the movement.

There were a large majority of people you would expect to find on an engineering course at college, or sitting over a laptop in Starbucks, the young, global, secular urban middle class.

Most of them had not come to fight, but fighting is what they have been drawn into. The men and women in masks are doctors, teachers, students, as well as the typical urban poor youth ducking and diving, who remain a minority.

Around 02:00 I went out again. By now the barricade right outside my hotel was under attack – though the protesters beat the police back this time.

People started to tell their stories.

The main meme – as with the flags – is "we are sons of Ataturk". That is, we are a secular republic and we are worried about the autocratic use of power by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, combined with a creeping Islamisation.

"We don't want to become Iran," one man said.

Protesters dug up cobblestones and piled them high to create barricades

The secondary meme tends to contradict this.

"We're all here," one masked woman told me. "Communists, anarchists, democrats. It's not an Ataturkist movement."

Reactions to my reports on Twitter tend to echo this division too.

So what has caused it? Everybody is clear that the park – intended to be bulldozed to make a shopping mall shaped like an Ottoman Empire military barracks – is not the issue.

"The issue is freedom," one woman told me.

I have been to the Taksim emergency hospital tonight. I met a volunteer doctor who ended up a patient after being shot at close range with a CS gas canister. Another man came out covered with lacerations and bruising.

The patients alleged deliberate police brutality, the connivance between police and what sounds like an unofficial militia from the ruling Justice and Development (AK) party, police using knives at close quarters to stab people in the legs, and the persistent use of orange smoke canisters that cause severe distress.

I did not see any attacks of this nature, but there were enough claims for the allegations to be taken seriously and investigated.

When I have expressed surprise at the way this escalated into an all-or-nothing confrontation, the rioters too say they are surprised. There is a pent-up anger – and when I point to the impressive growth, and fiscal solvency of Turkey, they point to the fact they cannot afford a flat, and that "the money ends up in the pockets of those in power".

By pulling back from Taksim, for the past 48 hours now, the Turkish police have lessened the tension inside it.

'It's a revolution'

Walking around at 04:00, among little groups squatting around fires and others huddled under blankets in doorways or on the grass of the park, there is again the echo of that event in Paris. Then, too, the state pulled out, leaving the urban middle class and workforce of Paris to run the city for 100 days. But it ended in tragedy and bloodshed.

One woman working as a medical volunteer pulled me aside just now.

"I'm telling everybody to stop fighting," she said. "This can't end with massive bloodshed."

There is a sense among some of the protesters that the scale of injury, the out-of-control nature of the policing at times, and their isolation from the rest of Turkey (Turkish TV is not exactly covering the events in great detail), means they have to back down.

Others though are clear.

"It's a revolution," says a man in a mask, face lit by the flames of a burning car. And some people are clearly high on it.

I have covered Syntagma, the Occupy protests and reported fromTahrir Square. This is different to all of them.

First, it is massive. The sheer numbers dwarf any single episode of civil unrest in Greece.

Second, the breadth of social support – within the urban enclave of Istanbul – is bigger than Greece and closer to Egypt.

"Everyone is here – except the AK party," insists one young woman.

People nod. In Greece, the urban middle class was split. Here the secular middle class are out in force, united across political divisions, to say nothing of football hatreds.

All eyes on the workers

Is this the Turkish Tahrir? Not unless the workers join in. Turkey has a large labour movement, and a big urban poor working population, and Monday is a work day, so we will see. It is certainly already something more than the Turkish version of Occupy.

Could it spill over into the wider Middle East conflict? Most definitely. Because Mr Erdogan has been the lynchpin of Western power in dealing with Syria.

Some read his willingness to ditch his liberal supporters and push for the low-level Islamisation of society (alcohol bans, anti-abortion policy etc) as part of a wider willingness to carve out a role independent of the US in the region.

The opposition know they are weak, they have no leadership and do not want one, and the official strategy is about the park and police brutality, whereas the hopes that blaze behind the eyes of people in masks are about getting rid of Mr Erdogan and making Turkey a secular democracy.

All I know, stumbling through the detritus of a week of urban conflict just now, is that there is a weird lull, a whole city district without police for two days, a quiet order. But it is not clear how long it is going to last.

The Paris Commune of 1871 was long studied by revolutionaries as a test case in how not to act. It was isolated from the rest of France, which voted conservative, it did not know what it wanted, it revelled in its apparent freedom and then was crushed.

As I read tonight the US state department urging "restraint" on Tayyip Erdogan, it is possible that the parallel has occurred to someone there as well. 

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