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What's left of the Gezi movement?

Cagri Özdemir
May 31, 2017

What began as a peaceful environmentalist sit-in turned into the largest anti-government movement in Turkey. On the fourth anniversary of the protests, DW spoke with people on different sides of a contentious issue.

Türkei Taksim Platz Gezi Park Demonstranten Camp
Peaceful protests in Istanbul at the end of May 2013 Image: Getty Images

In the early morning of May 28, 2013, a group of activists gathered for a sit-in protest at Gezi Park in central Istanbul. The green space, a rarity in the city, is located right next to Istanbul's famous Taksim Square. The protesters were angry at government plans to cut down trees to create space for a new shopping mall. The activists erected tents and launched their own version of the Occupy movement - reminiscent of the global anti-Wall-Street-protests. 

A raid by the riot police attracted heavy media attention. The police set the tents on fire, triggering Turkey's largest anti-government demonstrations. More than 8,000 people were injured and 11 killed

Contrary to expectations, the protest movement never turned into a political movement. 

What was it about? 

For many, Gezi has become a symbol of resistance - a milestone for both the political opposition and the current government in Turkey.

Gursel Tekin from the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) told DW that Gezi was an "example of claiming rights; an act to reclaim the city, the nature and the environment." 

"The protests were about the educated urban middle class youth's desire to be left alone," said Soli Özel. The Turkish professor of political science is one of the authors of the book "The Making of a Protest Movement in Turkey #occupygezi." At the same time, the initial spark and the police crackdown eventually mobilized different groups in Turkey. "I think the social conservatism that was beginning to be felt more starkly and the discourse of power triggered the reaction," Özel added. 

Taksim Platz Gezi Park Istanbul Türkei Räumung
Riot police firing water cannons on Gezi Park protesters (June 15, 2013) Image: Reuters

Markar Esayan from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) told DW that the Gezi crisis was different "from the way it was reflected in public opinion." He claimed that the municipality did not intend to destroy the park, it was only "moving" trees from one place to another.

From his perspective, what had really happened in those days was revealed after the failed coup in July 2016: "It turned out that police officers who were part of the FETÖ used excessive force and set the tents on fire in order to provoke a riot," Esayan told DW, referring to the movement of the US-based Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen. The Turkish government blames him for having orchestrated the failed coup attempt in the summer of 2016. 

Gezi's impact on contemporary politics 

Observers believe that the Gezi protests had drastic consequences on Turkish politics and society. "The most visible outcome was the reiteration of the state's prerogative to use force," Özel said. In the aftermath of Gezi, it has become virtually impossible to hold street protests against the government, and almost all the attempts were crushed.  

The situation has worsened after the state of emergency was declared following the failed coup attempt. Turkish authorities arrested 40,000 people and sacked or suspended more than 100,000 - from members of the security forces to teachers - over alleged links with "terrorist groups." 

Özel thinks the government wanted to vilify the victims: "The impact (of Gezi) is that nobody will take the same risk again until the momentum is irresistible, because the violence did its job and scared people off." 

AKP lawmaker Esayan said that most of the protesters were uneasy about the direction of the movement, and then decided to go home. "If Gezi had not been abused, it could have become an environmental movement. But once it turned into a movement to topple the government, it only amplified the existing prejudices and hindered the normalization period," Esayan said. 

What became of the 'Gezi spirit'? 

The government and the opposition have defined and analyzed the protests in a very different manner. According to Özel, there is a "cultural divide between the original Gezi participants and the bulk of society." Although there was "an energy" that kept the Gezi spirit alive, unless that "cultural divide is bridged, the Gezi spirit will be a strong force, but not a consequential one."

Esayan from the AKP believes that there is nothing meaningful left from the Gezi movement. "It was not an organic movement, it was rather the old system's supporters' attempt to flood the streets with urban seculars," he said, adding that, in his view, it was also supported from abroad. 

However, Tekin from the Republican People's Party (CHP) sees a connection between the Gezi spirit and recent events in Turkey: "Despite the pressure from the state and the government, despite the restrictions, around 60 percent of our citizens endorsed democracy and voted no (in the referendum on constitutional changes to expand the president's prerogatives)," Tekin said, also referring to irregularities and alleged fraud. "This means one thing: The Gezi spirit is still alive and will remain to be so."