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MAO ZEDONG’S famous dictum: “A single spark can start a prairie fire” has been used to describe various junctures in history.
The great man himself was addressing the issue of pessimism in the ranks of the Communist Party but was also pointing to the future and the basic question of how to assess a revolutionary situation.
Bogazici University philosophy student Besime Cetin believes that the current wave of protests could be one of the defining moments in Turkey.
“It has awakened something that has penetrated the darkness of Turkey’s soul,” she tells me.
“All of a sudden conservative notions of sexuality are being challenged along with the nationalism that unites Islamists and Kemalists [followers of the country’s founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk].
“All of these things are being broken down and opening a bridge to the new Turkey. We don’t know yet if we can cross it, but we are taking the first steps.”
The “single spark” in this instance is the appointment of the pro-Erdogan rector Mehli Bulu to the prestigious Istanbul university on January 2 this year.
Bulu, a businessman and former candidate for the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), is the first to be appointed by the university outside of the academic community since the 1980 coup.
Protests triggered by the imposition have continued for the past month, and have been met with a violent response from the state.
Initially some 24 students were detained in pre-emptive dawn raids on their dormitory accommodation, with doors smashed down in a show of force intended as a warning to deter others from joining the protests.
“It was a clear message to the rest of us. An attempt to intimidate us, but we refuse to bow. We will not look down,” second-year engineering student Sedat Yilmaz told me.
This has become the slogan of the movement, with students subverting the the words of police officers who told them to look down at the floor during a protest last week.
More than 500 have been detained in the last week alone, with Erdogan lashing out in typical bombastic style, branding the students “terrorists” and accusing them of taking instructions from “those in the mountains,” a reference to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).
Erdogan has stubbornly refused to yield and inflamed tensions further by appointing some 11 rectors to universities across the country, including Batman province in Turkey’s largely Kurdish south-east.
Students have been tear-gassed, shot at with rubber bullets, had snipers trained on them and been sexually assaulted and forced to strip while in custody.
They have not been deterred, however, and in fact the protests have grown with large demonstrations in towns and cities across the country. The movement is proving a real problem for a government weakened by a political and economic crisis.
In Britain the National Union of Students has expressed its solidarity with those resisting in Turkey while domiciled Kurdish and Turkish groups, led by the Gik-Der community organisation, have formed the London Bogazici Solidarity campaign.
“The support we feel from the international community gives us strength. We know that we are not alone. And we raise our heads for all resisters and all those that are struggling too. Together we are a powerful force,” Yilmaz said.
“This could be a defining moment for the future of Turkey. Maybe we can beat fascism and end dictatorship. It could be the beginning of the end for Erdogan.
“Erdogan is out of step with society,” he continued, “He is pandering to conservative elements by making homophobic remarks and attacking lesbians and gay people. But the young people in Turkey on the whole aren’t of that mindset.”
Homosexuality is legal in Turkey, but the LGBT community face oppression and violence which is openly promoted by the state.
Twitter blocked a tweet last week from reactionary Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu in which he referred to “LGBT deviants” after the rainbow flag was raised during the protests.
“It’s because they are all repressed homosexuals,” Betul Yalcinoglu tells me, only half-joking.
“Turkey is an incredibly patriarchal society which can’t decide who it hates the most, women, gays or Kurds. If you are all three then you’re screwed.”
It would be easy to dismiss the protests as the grumblings of middle-class, privileged students. While Bogazici is a public university providing a free education with no tuition fees, the requirement to speak English and pass stringent examinations makes it out of reach for most ordinary people.
But that is to ignore the dynamics of the protest and the broad support it has triggered across the country, with protests in defence of LGBT rights and freedom of expression leading to something of an awakening.
Students are drawing comparisons with the oppression against the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) calling Bulu “the trustee rector,” a reference to the government appointees taking over from the party’s elected officials in largely Kurdish municipalities.
Coupled with a resurgent left as revolutionary organisations come together under the United Fighting Forces (BGM), uniting leftists, Kurds and students, Erdogan is right to be fearful of the resistance to his 18-year rule.
The upsurge in activity has revitalised the movement at a time when Turkey faces a deep political and economic crisis.
Fears of a new Gezi, as expressed both by Erdogan and the left, may be overstating things, but it is bubbling away below the surface, something Erdogan is aware of.
“I wasn’t old enough for Gezi,” Cetin says, “But I remember it was an important moment and one that gave energy to the whole of the opposition in Turkey. Trade unions joined environmental campaigners, the LGBT community and others. It was like a rainbow of hope.”
I spoke to another student last week, Deniz, who described the Bogazici University protests as “a battle for the future of Turkey” and it is easy to see why.
It appears at times like a clash between a backward-looking authoritarian regime and those who see a more inclusive, secular future.
At the time of the 2013 protests there was no real organised opposition. It was at times seen as both a strength and a weakness.
The Kemalist Republican Peoples’ Party (CHP) seemed unable to relate to the movement in any meaningful way, hampered by a political past it is unable to shake off.
The myriad of smaller left organisations and communist parties of course supported the protests, but in reality had little impact and were unable to provide a united leadership.
The HDP didn’t exist. In many ways it can be seen as a child of Gezi, uniting disparate forces for the first time in a major advance for the left and the Kurdish movement.
It has held together remarkably since its inception in the face of major oppression — some 20,000 of its members and activists have been detained since 2016 according to the party, with10,000 of them jailed including 200 elected officials and seven MPs.
More than 50 of the 65 municipalities won by the party in the 2019 local elections have been taken over by the Turkish state, a move that Erdogan warned he was going to make before a single ballot was cast.
While the HDP brought together trade unions, environmentalists, women’s organisations and some parts of the communist left it brought the Kurdish question into the Turkish parliament for the first time in its history, a major achievement for the fledgling party.
It faces fresh threats with the neofascist Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) braying for the HDP to be shut down. Erdogan’s junior partners may get their wish sooner than they hope with talks under way about the possibility of a new constitution designed specifically to take out the parliament’s fourth-largest party.
The attempts at what has been described by the party as “a political genocide” point to a weak and frightened Erdogan. But they are not new. The attacks on the HDP stretch back for decades, and are an extension of the previous closures of parties including HADEP, DTP and HEP.
But its existence and a united resistance are the key difference between now and 2013 and is what makes the establishment of a new coalition of revolutionary organisations and Kurdish groups last week an important development.
The formation of the BMG, which has united groups including ESP, Partizan, the Revolutionary Party and the Democratic Regions Party (DBP) — the sister party of the HDP that stands in local elections — has been hailed as a major step forward in uniting socialists, Kurds and students in common struggle.
It brings the most advanced layers in Turkey together in a coalition it says is “coming to destroy your terrorist gang,” referring to Erdogan’s government and the fight against fascism.
Predictably it has received a less than enthusiastic response from the Turkish authorities. Some 65 people were arrested at the BMG launch, including ESP co-chair Sahin Tumuklu, Partizan-affiliated Ozgur Gelecek newspaper reporter Taylan Oztas, Revolutionary Party President Elif Torun and HDP Istanbul co-chair Elif Bulut.
ESP co-chair Ozlem Gumustas told me the new formation was targeted because the government wanted to break the organised forces of the resistance — a unity that is essential in relation to the Bogazici resistance.
“Systematic state attacks on our party, the ESP, and the revolutionary anti-fascist forces, have only one meaning — to break our ability to unite the working class and the oppressed and turn the struggle for a safe, humane life, freedom, work and employment into a revolutionary solution,” she said.
ESP is an important component of the HDP — some say the revolutionary and ideological backbone of the party. It was co-founded in 2010 by Figen Yuksekdag, who went on to become the HDP’s co-chair before stepping down after being jailed in 2016 on trumped-up terrorism charges.
Despite remaining behind bars, Yuksekdag sees the Bogazici resistance as critical, sending a message of solidarity to the students just last week. She said it was the “right time to organise in solidarity and strengthen the will to win … No power can stand against an idea and movement whose time has come.”
The Bogazici protests reflect deeper cracks in Turkish society, which saw resistance on the streets to rising femcide and government plans to withdraw from the Istanbul Convention — a Council of Europe treaty which on paper obliges signatories to tackle gender-based crime, provide protection and services for women and ensure that perpetrators are prosecuted.
Job losses and deepening poverty, exacerbated by the coronavirus, have been met with strike action and protests as workers start to turn against the government.
The warning signs were clear in the 2019 Istanbul mayoral election, with Erdogan humiliated as his handpicked candidate, former prime minister Binali Yildirim, was trounced, losing by more than 200,000 votes to construction boss Ekrem Imammoglu.
Erdogan’s party lost support in his traditional Sunni and conservative strongholds as he lost control of the country’s, and his party’s, financial powerhouse.
Gumustas said: “The AKP-MHP fascist bloc is aware that the political tension accumulated by the working people in the maelstrom of unemployment, poverty and precariousness is brewing a revolt that can turn into a rupture from the regime at any moment.”
She said that under this pressure the government becomes more aggressive, with escalated oppression, arrests and “disappearances” — a reference to ESP activist Gokhan Gunes, who was abducted from an Istanbul street in broad daylight earlier this month and subjected to a five-day torture ordeal during which time he was threatened with rape and electrocuted by a gang who referred to themselves as “the invisibles.”
This is designed to crush the organised resistance, she says. But despite the widespread oppression, including arrests, police terror and the jailing of members of the only opposition party in the Turkish parliament, it has failed.
“On the contrary, now everywhere protests are growing. The biggest crisis of the regime is the inability to suppress the resistance,” she said.
“The Bogazci resistance has turned into a revolt of the whole of society against the ruling AKP-MHP fascist bloc. The workers, the toilers and the oppressed who have taken to the streets in solidarity with the students highlight the need for a workers’ solution.
“The Erdogan dictatorship is not solid or secure,” she says. “For this reason, the trustee at Bogazici University is caught in the nightmare of a new Gezi uprising…”
Yalcinoglu agrees. She says the potential is there for the protests to bring down the government.
“Bogazici could be the final nail in Erdogan’s political coffin. We dream about a new society where we can all live in peace and where Turkish, Kurdish, Syrian, Armenian, Alevi, Circassian people live together and Muslims, Jews, Alevis, Christians and atheists live free from fear.
“Where gay people, lesbians and others can live openly and we can break the grip of fascist dictatorship. This is our Turkey, this is our future and we will fight until we win it.”
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