Turkey is Divided as Government Blames Protests on ‘International Conspiracy’

Thousands rallied over the weekend to cheer on Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who accused the international media of lies. Ceren Kenar on the culture wars gripping her country right now.

For the past 20 days, Turkey has been paralyzed by simmering dissent following outrage over the brutal eviction of a peaceful sit-in at Istanbul’s Gezi Park. The protests were sparked May 31 and spread to various cities around Turkey. Amid escalating tension and growing opposition, the Turkish government was forced to give up its dismissive attitude toward the protesters, and a negotiation process began between representatives of the Gezi Park protesters and government officials. The government stepped back from its initial plan to build a shopping mall in the park and proposed a referendum on the issue. Assuming that a deal with the protesters was reached, the government asked the representatives of the protesters to evacuate the park. The protesters, who were divided over the decision of whether to stay, first announced that they would leave, but later issued another statement declaring they would “stay in the park and continue the resistance.”

The response by the government was harsh: an unexpected operation was conducted in Gezi Park on Saturday evening in which riot police stormed it and cleared it of protesters. Security forces used tear gas and water cannons, and the park was evacuated. Frustrated by this operation, protesters poured into the central districts of Istanbul, and even upscale neighborhoods became centers of clashes between protesters and police.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan staged a rally for supporters of his AK Party on Sunday, and Istanbul was effectively divided into two Turkeys. Participating in the rally were hundreds of thousands of AK Party supporters who were largely transported to the venue via city buses for free. Billboards throughout the city invited people to join the rally with the call, "Let’s spoil the big game. Let’s write history!” This ostentatious show of might was not only an attempt to bolster confidence in domestic politics, but also a display of popularity to international observers. Addressing the national and international media, Erdogan started his speech by saying, “Taksim is not Turkey.”

“Clearly, this is a high point in the Turkish culture wars,” says Dogan Gurpinar, an assistant professor in humanities at Istanbul Technical University.

Meanwhile, the protesters were calling for more anti-government demonstrations in Taksim with the slogan "One million people to Taksim." The police cut off the entrance to Taksim Square, fired water cannons and tear gas to scatter protesters trying to enter, and carried out mass detentions. On June 15, Turkey’s European Union minister, Egemen Bagis, stated that “everyone who enters Istanbul’s Taksim Square will be considered a member or a supporter of a terrorist organization.” According to Amnesty International, the police have so far refused to acknowledge that they have people in custody. While the actual number is not known, it is estimated more than 100 people have been detained so far.

The supporters of the AK Party and the protesters agree on one thing: the ongoing protests in Istanbul are not solely about Gezi Park or urban planning anymore. While some protesters call for Erdogan’s resignation and view him as an autocrat, supporters of the prime minister are convinced that the government is facing an international conspiracy.

The official view of the Turkish government regarding the ongoing protests is based on a distinction between the “genuine protesters with environmentalist concerns” and the “terrorist groups that are backed by international groups.” The government blames an international conspiracy—though the details regarding the supporters of this conspiracy remain vague—and its domestic collaborators for engaging in an effort to overthrow the government.

Erdogan reiterated this perspective during his speech, bashing the main opposition party for inciting strife and the international media for disseminating false information about Turkey. “If the international media want a picture of Turkey, the picture is here ... CNN, Reuters, BBC, hide this picture, too, and go on with your lies. Turkey is not a country that international media can play games on," Erdogan told to the crowd.

“Please, my people, do not be trapped in this plot. Don’t be part of this game,” he added.

AK Party supporters were also frustrated by the media coverage of the protests. Sumeyye, a young woman who attended the rally, claims that the international media’s coverage of the protests is “clear proof” of an international conspiracy. “We don't think the international media is well-intentioned. If they were sincere, they would have reported on how deeply we love Erdogan.”

“Turkish history is marked with coups that were organized with the support of international actors,” says Cenk, an AK Party supporter who attended the rally. “Now the current government is faced with another undemocratic and illegitimate attempt against the will of nation. If you want to overthrow the government, use the ballot box, not streets.”

With his defiant rallies, Erdogan is believed to be launching the campaign for the upcoming local elections, which are expected to be held in March. Observers agree that he managed to consolidate his own constituency by deepening the polarization between his supporters and opponents. Asli Aydintasbas, a columnist with the Turkish daily Milliyet, suggested that Erdogan's rhetoric in the rally was an attempt to invoke the painful memory of persecution among his supporters, stemming from the period of military interference in Turkish politics. “He played into the fears of his supporters, through his explicit references to the previous coups and intimidation faced by the pious people in Turkey,” Aydintasbas says. “However, there is a contradiction here. It is not possible to see him as an underdog anymore, since he is in full control of the state apparatus.”