What began as a small environmental demonstration over the destruction of one of Istanbul’s last public parks has effectively evolved into nationwide unrest. Thousands of citizens have taken to Turkey’s streets to protest against Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Kojo talks with experts about the different factors driving youth protests in Turkey.


  • Bulent Aliriza Senior Associate and Director, Turkey Project, Center for Strategic and International Studies
  • Zeynep Tufekci Fellow, Princeton Center for Information Technology Policy; assistant professor, department of sociology and School of Information, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.


  • 13:06:41

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. It began as a small demonstration to keep government bulldozers from one of the last public parks in Istanbul, but growing beneath the surface was frustration with an increasingly authoritative leader. So when Turkish police pulled out teargas and batons against park protestors, the demonstrations didn't stop. They exploded.

  • 13:07:19

    MR. KOJO NNAMDINow thousands have taken to the streets of Istanbul and Turkey's capital Ankara. And so far violent clashes with police have killed at least four and injured thousands. To the casual observer, the protests and police crackdowns can be puzzling. Turkey has been a kind of poster child for democracy in that part of the world.

  • 13:07:40

    MR. KOJO NNAMDISo here to explain what exactly is driving today's protests, joining us in studio is Bulent Aliriza. He is director of the Turkey Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Bulent, good to see you again. Thank you for joining us.

  • 13:07:57

    MR. BULENT ALIRIZAGood to see you too.

  • 13:07:58

    NNAMDIAlso joining us by phone from Istanbul is Zeynep Tufekci. Zeynep is a fellow at the Princeton Center for Information Technology. She's also a professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Zeynep Tufekci, thank you for joining us.

  • 13:08:16

    MS. ZEYNEP TUFEKCIThank you for inviting me.

  • 13:08:17

    NNAMDIYou too can join this conversation by calling 800-433-8850. What is your interpretation of the protests shaking Turkey, 800-433-8850? Or you can send email to kojo@wamu.org. You can send us a Tweet at kojoshow. Bulent, just about two weeks ago, environmental activists moved into Taksim Square in the heart of Istanbul. They were protesting the government's decision to redevelop the space. How did that protest evolve into what we're seeing today where tens of thousands of Turkish people are taking part in street demonstrations around the country?

  • 13:08:57

    ALIRIZAWell, actually they were sitting in -- they were having a sit-in at the park when suddenly very early in the morning, I think on Friday the 31st, the police move in, tore up their tents where they were sleeping, set fire to them and then started chasing them out of the park. They resisted. A classic case of police overreaction. A lot more people then began to congregate in the park. There was a confrontation throughout the next day.

  • 13:09:29

    ALIRIZAEventually the police were pulled out apparently at the instigation of the president of the Republic. Abdullah Gul was on a foreign trip and came back and called for restraint. Since then we've had a situation in which the demonstrators who've grown in number have been in control, not only of the park but also of adjacent Taksim Square which...

  • 13:09:52

    NNAMDIWhat was the specific objection to what was going to be developed at Taksim Square?

  • 13:09:56

    ALIRIZAWell, the park was going to be leveled and there was going to be reconstruction on it. According to different reports there was going to be a shopping center. There was going to be the reconstruction of a former military barracks. And it was all part of a project that the prime minister Tayyip Erdogan had personally pushed through, which is to restructure or reconstruct the whole center of town. And it's very much part of the growing organization of Istanbul, which the environmentalists have been resisting.

  • 13:10:28

    ALIRIZABut obviously as we can see from the fact that the demonstrators have grown in number in the square and in the park as well as demonstrating elsewhere and have raised their demands to a general dissatisfaction with the prime minister, of which the prime minister misjudged the situation.

  • 13:10:46

    NNAMDIAnd the prime minister -- the objections to the prime minister have to do with the perception that he's becoming increasingly authoritarian. But one of Prime Ministers Erdogan's advisors recently asked how a government can be authoritarian when it has almost 50 percent of the vote. And I'll ask you the same question.

  • 13:11:03

    ALIRIZAWell, he did receive almost 50 percent of the vote in the last parliamentary elections in 2011. And that was his third successive election victory. But the danger is that governments can become complacent, if they win elections, to the point that they become majoritarian authoritarian, as people have suggested that their own government has become.

  • 13:11:26

    ALIRIZAAnd the best criticism of the Erdogan government has actually come from the president, previously a member of the ruling party who's been president since 2007, who said, just winning elections is not sufficient. You have to take into account the views of those who did not vote for you during the period between elections. But the prime minister himself keeps on saying, I have the votes. I won the elections so basically I can do what I want.

  • 13:11:50

    NNAMDIZeynep, you are there in Taksim Square. Can you describe how the situation feels there from your perspective?

  • 13:11:56

    TUFEKCISure. Right now, as he said, the square and the park is in control only of the protestors. There is no police. The police have been pulled out. It's a festival. It's a fun environment. There's a lot of people in tents. People are waiting. People are, you know, having just music and hanging out. As a friend of mine put it, it's the happy Smurf Village waiting for Gargamel to come back. It's a tense wait at times because there are rumors of when and if the police will come back to clear the park because the prime minister has been quite adamant that they are going to go ahead and uproot these, you know, trees and change the park as they had planned.

  • 13:12:42

    NNAMDISo you are saying that it is inevitable that at some point the police will come to clear...

  • 13:12:47

    TUFEKCIWell, the prime minister so far as not given any sign that he will back down on the original plans to build either the barracks or the -- the shopping mall, they said they want to but there're still plans to redevelop that area and change that park. I did -- I spent the last few days interviewing people as part of my field research here. And I have heard a lot of stories about police repression definitely, as you said, that people were upset about that. People are upset about the park.

  • 13:13:18

    TUFEKCIBut also there is an enormous amount of anger at the media censorship. And, you know, that's sort of the part of the story as to how a government that can grow authoritarian. When the protests were taking place at the height of the clashes, when CNN International was showing the clashes live, CNN Turkey was showing a documentary about penguins. The level of censorship, the self censorship both and also it's partly from intimidation of journalists is much worse than I had thought before I had come here.

  • 13:13:49

    TUFEKCII knew there were a lot of problems. I'd been talking to journalists who are telling me directly that the stories they file do not get aired. I am hearing that at the height of these, you know, huge clashes in the middle of Turkey's biggest city and Turkey's biggest square, there are reports that, you know, the televisions would refuse to go live. There are reports I hear again from journalists from filing op-ed pieces and column pieces are scheduled and being pulled to rewrite them because they are too critical.

  • 13:14:22

    TUFEKCIAnd I have been asking person after person, how do you hear about these? How do you hear the news? How do you talk about this? And the answer is, Twitter, Twitter, Twitter, Facebook, Twitter, Twitter, Facebook, social media. And I say, do you ever hear anything on television? I constantly hear that the media situation's so bad that they just don't -- the stuff doesn't get aired. So that's a big part of -- I think the frustrations I hear is the -- what they perceive as increasing authoritarianism, legislating lifestyle issues.

  • 13:14:51

    TUFEKCIJust kind of approach that, you know, I have the majority in parliament, therefore I can do whatever I want. And it should be noted they want 50 percent of the vote almost but they have almost two-thirds the parliament because the Turkish electro system allows for that kind of lopsided parliamentary victory. So the votes were high. Of course it is a successful government in that way but the parliament, they have...

  • 13:15:13


  • 13:15:13

    TUFEKCIAnd then there's the media censorship and there's police repression. Those are three...

  • 13:15:17

    NNAMDI...well, I'd like to get to both of those issues, media and the political situation. but to remind our listeners that we're talking about the protests in Turkey. And the voice you've been listening to is that of Zeynep Tufekci. She is a fellow at the Princeton Center for Information Technology Policy. She's also a professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina. She joins us by phone from Istanbul. Joining us in studio is Bulent Aliriza. He is director of the Turkey Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

  • 13:15:46

    NNAMDIBulent, following up on what Zeynep was just talking about with media, the Turkish state actually has a pretty strong reputation for suppressing speech. It has more journalists in jail than any other country in the world. Do Turkish voters see free speech as important to their democracy? Why is it allowed to continue?

  • 13:16:04

    ALIRIZAWell, you know, the -- ten years ago when this party won the first of its victors, it was complaining about the behavior of the previous governments, About the authoritarian tendencies that previous governments had fallen victim to. Ten years on, three elections behind us, we see similar behavior by the current government. The prime minister is remarkably -- or incredibly thin skinned. When it comes to criticism, he does not tolerate any criticism whatsoever. And that includes in particular the media.

  • 13:16:40

    ALIRIZASo he has put pressure on the media to tow the party line. And we have a situation in which the government is basically listening to what he's saying, or an echo of what he's saying from a very compliant press. Now somebody described the situation that we had in Turkey just last week as one which is similar to a demonstration taking place in Central Park and NBC next door not being able to cover it. And that's what happened to the mainstream media.

  • 13:17:08

    ALIRIZAThe prime minister has condemned Twitter as the greatest curse of our generation just a few days ago. And as Zeynep said from the square, that's the way in which the young people are communicating with each other. Very similar to the way in which the demonstrators in Tahrir Square communicated with each other. The government, I think, has misread the situation. It's looking for foreign conspiracies, interest groups which are manipulating gullible youth.

  • 13:17:39

    ALIRIZABut I think it's a combination of -- it's an accumulation of the frustration on the part of the young people. And mainly young people who have congregated in the square are reacting against the authoritarian tendencies of the government that is beginning to interfere in their own private lives.

  • 13:17:57

    NNAMDIZeynep, while Turkey is often considered a Western nation, everyone wants to compare this Turkish unrest to the Arab Spring that reshaped the Arab world two years ago. We just heard Bulent talk about Tahrir Square. Do you think these protests -- how do these protests compare, in your view, to what happened in Tahrir Square.

  • 13:18:12

    TUFEKCIWell, obviously there are significant differences in this situation. I also did research in Tahrir Square. I was there. And the country, before the fall of Mubarak, was very much united in wanting him out. And so there was -- in a sense there was a sense of a united front.

  • 13:18:33

    TUFEKCIIn Turkey right now, the country is polarized. So it's not like there's, you know, one authoritarian government with no support. And it's important to understand that, that the -- you know, I don't know what the percent would be right now, but the government has substantive indeed support among many sectors of society. And it's a more polarized situation.

  • 13:18:58

    TUFEKCIThe protests also have an occupy-like feel like Occupy Wall Street. There's an enormous amount of -- and there was in Tahrir too -- there's an enormous amount of creativity, amount of, you know, sort of jokes and cartoons. And these things I have seen, it's just this internet culture, this mean culture has just exploded. And people are making fun of everything and having a great time. So that is similar to that.

  • 13:19:22

    TUFEKCIBut at its heart it's Turkey. You know, the government may be growing authoritarian but it's not a, you know, aging autocracy like we had in Egypt.

  • 13:19:33

    NNAMDINevertheless, you mentioned earlier the government's virtual control of parliament. And Prime Minister Erdogan's party has worked hard to keep opposition parties from having a say in the government. To what extent, Zeynep, do the opposition parties represent the young people protesting in Turkey streets?

  • 13:19:50

    TUFEKCINot at all. Not at all. In fact, the opposition parties in this side do not blame the government for this. The opposition parties have shown themselves to be fairly incompetent in organizing effective demonstrations. In fact, when the government blamed the main opposition party, the CHB for organizing the protests, a lot of people I asked about that were joking. They said the CHB couldn't organize so that's part of the problem. So they were -- they thought it just -- you know, it was a ridiculous idea.

  • 13:20:20

    TUFEKCISo not only is the government acting in an authoritarian way not listening, the people don't feel like there's any political party that represents them effectively. And further, in Turkey there's a 10 percent electoral bar. So if you get less than 10 percent votes you get no deputies, which dissuades a new party from starting. So if you get 9 percent of the vote that's like getting 0 percent of the vote.

  • 13:20:45

    TUFEKCISo it's become a bit of a deadlock that favors the incumbent party because the opposition is not effective. The media seems pretty severely controlled. The people feel quite frustrated. At least a good segment of society feels quite frustrated with what's going on and they haven't really found any either, you know, political space to express this or a means to get out. And that's exactly why the police burning down some tents and tear gassing a few hundred people, which is what the original protests were is a few hundred people trying to protect some trees, has ignited.

  • 13:21:26

    TUFEKCII mean, people care about the trees. I've been talking at the park. You know, everybody does care and they want the space. But it's also this attempt to draw a line in the sand and saying, stop, stop being so unilateral. Stop just sort of not listening to us. And stop changing the city so that there's no civic space left. You know, everything is a shopping mall or a private space or, you know, new condos, this enormous amount of renewal, some of which is popular.

  • 13:21:53

    TUFEKCII mean, I don't want to give the impression that everything the city --the government has done in the city is not popular, but I think they have lost their touch. And they have stopped listening to how loud the opposition got. And that's what exploded (unintelligible) .

  • 13:22:07

    NNAMDIAllow me to go to the telephone. Here is Sohig (sp?) in Washington. Sohig, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:22:14

    SOHIGHi, Kojo. Thank you for taking my call. I just wanted to express the fact that the Turkish government since it's Ottoman time has been repressing minorities. In 1915, they committed genocide against Armenians and Greeks. They've been repressing Kurdish rights forever. And now it's interesting that finally they're turning on their own people. Like it's nothing new for the minorities of the -- for the people who have been minorities in Turkey for centuries, this is nothing new. It's not surprising at all.

  • 13:22:47

    SOHIGBut now it's interesting to the world -- the world gets to see just really the Turkish government's authoritarian tactics. Now they're actually doing it against their own people.

  • 13:22:59

    TUFEKCIMay I say something right to that? (unintelligible) ...

  • 13:23:00

    NNAMDIYes, go ahead, Zeynep, because you don't have much time left, I know.

  • 13:23:03

    TUFEKCIThree separate young people, you know, in their early 20s maybe, you know, tell me that they have been wondering, after they went through this, that one of them said, next time something happens in the Diyarbakir, which is the largest Kurdish city, she said, I am going to go find someone on Twitter on the Diyarbakir. I am never going to believe television again.

  • 13:23:28

    TUFEKCIThere -- and I heard this from multiple young people. This is a very interesting feeling in the country, now that this has happened in the middle of the biggest city to what is mostly a middle class protest, you know, to be honest. Because it's more of a lifestyle than authoritarian protest. There's this growing sense of questioning the other parts of the country where people have been learning things mainly through mass media.

  • 13:23:59

    TUFEKCIAnd I was quite surprised to hear an independent youngster saying, you know, wait a minute. So it's been an interesting uniting moment in the sense that there's this feeling maybe we should look back and rethink what we know, what we've been told. It'll be interesting to watch how that plays out because a lot of people now in Istanbul have kids who are at the park. And they're turning on televisions and seeing penguin documentaries when their kids are calling them and saying we're being tear gassed.

  • 13:24:29

    TUFEKCISo that's sort of the firsthand experience in pretty massive censorship. It'll be interesting to see how that translates into the rest of the political space.

  • 13:24:41

    NNAMDISohig, thank you very much for your call. Zeynep Tufekci is a fellow at the Princeton Center for Information Technology. She's also a professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. She joined us by phone from Istanbul. Zeynep, thank you so much for joining us. We're going to take a short break.

  • 13:24:57

    TUFEKCIThank you.

  • 13:24:58

    NNAMDIWhen we come back we'll continue this conversation on protests in turkey with Bulent Aliriza. You can still join the conversation by calling 800-433-8850. What is your interpretation of the protests shaking Turkey? Can mass demonstrations like today's protests in Turkey bring about meaningful reform in your mind, 800-433-8850? I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 13:27:09

    NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation on the protests in Turkey, a conversation you're invited to join by calling 800-433-8850. What is your interpretation of the protests shaking Turkey? Do you think that mass demonstrations such as those taking place in Turkey, or for that matter the occupy movement in the U.S. bring about meaningful reform, 800-433-8850? Or you can send email to kojo@wamu.org. Joining me in studio is Bulent Aliriza, director of the Turkey Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

  • 13:27:40

    NNAMDIBulent, last week Turkey's foreign minister told U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry that the U.S. media have been covering protests in Turkey as thought the country is a second class democracy. What did you take that to mean and how do you think these protests have complicated the traditional U.S. stint that Turkey is a true democracy?

  • 13:28:01

    ALIRIZAWell, the Turkish foreign minister was not only complaining about the American media. He was also reacting to statements from Vice-President Biden, Secretary Kerry and spokesmen at both the White House and the State Department. Now this is a major embarrassment for the U.S. and we are entering a difficult period in U.S. Turkish relations.

  • 13:28:22

    ALIRIZAOn May 16, the president hosted Prime Minister Erdogan at the White House. He had one meeting with him in the morning. He had a joint press conference on the White House lawn and then he had a private dinner with him that night. And Vice-President Biden and Secretary Kerry hosted Prime Minister Erdogan and his delegation at the State Department. And were very full of praise for him and his government.

  • 13:28:48

    ALIRIZAThe Obama Administration, ever since Obama visited Turkey in April of 2009, has been thinking over what it calls a model (unintelligible) between Turkey and the United States whereby the Turkish model -- the Turkish example are an inspiration would, you know, resonate throughout the Middle East. And throughout 2011 when there was the upheaval in Tunisia and then in Egypt, the president certainly looked to the Turkish prime minister for -- to show leadership.

  • 13:29:18

    ALIRIZANow, we have a situation in which the Turkish people or a strong and sizable segment thereof is reacting against the Turkish prime minister. And it's now very difficult for the United States to talk about a Turkish model. And it also has to strike a balance between the strategic needs for a partnership with Turkey and its desire to remain faithful to its own principles.

  • 13:29:43

    NNAMDIOn to the telephones again. Here is Seth in Washington, D.C. Seth, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:29:49

    SETHHi, Kojo. How you doing?

  • 13:29:50

    NNAMDII'm doing well.

  • 13:29:51

    SETHKojo, it's -- I have two comments. The first one is about the response of the prime minister to the protests. The irony in his response is that it's very, very and eerily similar to what -- to the Egyptian, as the Tunisian and also the Syrian presidents responses to the protests when they started. Basically did not really give them their full weight.

  • 13:30:16

    SETHAnd the second, I believe you had asked a question as to where do you think theses protests will lead to. I don't pretend to know what they could ultimately lead to, but I think the danger would be it would have the same effect or the same results as what happened here in the U.S. with the protests -- or Occupy Wall Street. It starts strong and then, without leadership and without clear vision as to what they want, they will end up being, you know, the whole protest will fizzle out and nothing will come out of it.

  • 13:30:54

    NNAMDIWhat do you say to that, Bulent?

  • 13:30:55

    ALIRIZAWell, starting with the second part of the question, I don't think so. I think the fact that it's spread to a number of other cities in effect in one form or another to the majority of Turkish provinces, has shown that this is a movement with durability. Now frankly, the prime minister has two choices and only two choices. He can either send in the police force, something that he refrained from doing at the beginning to clear out the square and the park with force with all the implications and the strong likelihood that there may well be additional fatalities. Or he can back off from the project that he's still insisting on.

  • 13:31:38

    ALIRIZAAnd if he choose the first part, combined with the polarization that Zeynep talked about, Turkey's in for a great deal of trouble. Now, the first elections are not due -- the municipal elections are not due until next spring. So, you know, we've got the best part of a year before the people get a chance to speak. In the meanwhile, with channels of communication or the normal political process having been stifled, the people are resorting to street demonstrations.

  • 13:32:12

    ALIRIZAAnd that, I think, is where the analogy -- going to the first part of the question from Seth -- with Egypt, Tunisia and even Syria has been brought up by the opponents of the prime minister. Because, you know, he counseled every one of those leaders to -- he -- the voice of the people who are demonstrating, even if they are a minority. And yet here he is failing to listen to them and basically saying, you know, you -- I will bring my own supporters into the streets. And I will get my own way whatever the cost.

  • 13:32:49

    ALIRIZAAnd frankly, that's not the way that the political processes are to work and that's not the way that the United States would want an ally to behave.

  • 13:32:56

    NNAMDISeth, thank you for your call. Turkey's democracy has roots in a secular state, yet Prime Minister Erdogan's government has recently pushed for rules that ring of conservatism, such as a recent law restricting alcohol use. How is Turkey's history as a secular state playing a role in these protests?

  • 13:33:13

    ALIRIZAWell, the government is a party -- the justice and development party -- AKPT is the Turkish acronym -- has its roots in the Islamist movement in Turkey. And they've chafed at the restrictions imposed by the secular system which has been in operation ever since Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the Turkish state in 1923, decreed that it be a secular state.

  • 13:33:42

    ALIRIZANonetheless, when it came into power in the elections in November of 2002, the prime minister and his colleagues went out of their way to say that they would work within the secular system. Now, there's a great deal of resentment on the part of many in Turkey, including those who are demonstrating in the streets, that even though the government is committed to functioning within the secular system, that its recent actions, the restrictions on the sale of alcohol, the insistence on, you know, appropriate behavior by the youth of Turkey who the prime minister said he would want to become more and more devout, are basically undermining the secular state to the point that Turkey might become an Islamist state in everything but name.

  • 13:34:34

    ALIRIZANow all the prime minister has to do is to actually reassure those people by, for example, rescinding the alcohol ban and listening to them in order to actually get rid of those fears. But...

  • 13:34:50

    NNAMDIThat does not seem to be his current disposition however.

  • 13:34:53

    ALIRIZAWell, his character is not, as you said, disposed to backtracking. He's very much convinced in his own mind that he knows best, not just on this issue but frankly on every issue that comes up in Turkey. And that is precisely why the people are in the streets demonstrating against this highhanded, I-know-best kind of attitude. And one would hope that there are people within his party who would counsel restraint on him and maybe get him to change some of his ways. But I'm not too optimistic.

  • 13:35:28

    NNAMDIWell, one indication of his disposition, if you will, might be that in spite of the fact that these protests have lasted nearly two weeks, Prime Minister Erdogan said yesterday that he is losing patience. Where do you think this conflict is ultimately headed?

  • 13:35:43

    ALIRIZAWell, the worst case scenario is that tomorrow morning very early he pushes his police force -- and by the way, he calls them his police force, his ministers, which is I think interesting to note -- into the square to clear out the demonstrators. Turkey's image, which has already taken a hit, is going to take even more of a hit. And I would hope that he would not do it. But somehow somebody or some force needs to take -- come up with a formula for a compromise, a sort of win-win. But I just don't see it on the horizon. And the prime minister's statements yesterday are pretty ominous.

  • 13:36:25

    NNAMDIAnd finally, speaking of what's on the horizon, we know how the U.S. wanted Turkey to go and its relationship with Turkey to go. But in general, liberal thinkers in the Arab world have propped up Turkey as a model example of an Islamist government with a secular state. Do these protests indicate that that might be changing sometime soon?

  • 13:36:44

    ALIRIZAIndeed. In fact, if you look at the comments of many of the liberal thinkers that you refer to in the Arab world, they're very uncomfortable with the idea of Turkey being a model for them. Now, if Turkey's a model for anybody in the Arab world, it is a model for the Islamists led by Mohamed Morsi in Egypt and Islamists led by Rashid Ghannushi in Tunisia who have looked to Turkey where a party with (unintelligible) in political Islam has taken power and basically got the west to accept it as such.

  • 13:37:18

    ALIRIZAIf the Turkish model or example or inspiration is not working, frankly everybody will need to go back to their drawing boards in Washington, as well as in Cairo, Tunis and of course in Ankara itself.

  • 13:37:31

    NNAMDIBulent Aliriza is director of the Turkey Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Bulent, good to see you. Thank you for coming in.

  • 13:37:38

    ALIRIZAThank you.

  • 13:37:39

    NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break. When we come back, we'll be talking with the Washington Post reporter who's been investigating the most recently disclosed programs of the National Security Agency. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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