Hugh Pope on the "Istanbul Gas Festival"

Last time I was in Istanbul, a year or two ago, I had a chance to have a lovely fish dinner at Hugh Pope's — he writes about Turkey for the International Crisis Group — at his Istiklal Cadesi apartment. It's a great location to monitor the ongoing protests against Erdogan, and Hugh has a long post up on his blog detailing the events on the day. Here's his take:

So what’s new in all this? Social media, for a start. Many of my Turkish friends are glued to their Facebook accounts, sharing pictures of the worst police outrages – a remarkable one shows a policeman dousing a protestor with a device like an insect spray gun, as the protestor holds up a sign saying “Chemical Tayyip” [Erdogan] — and spoof posters like an ad for the “Istanbul Gas Festival”, “We can’t keep calm, we’re Turkish” and so on. The spontaneous look of the small groups of protestors coalescing and dispersing in the street outside is quite unlike the usual formal protests organized by unions and political parties, and lacks the angry, violent edge to the pop-up parades by radical left-wing groups. Mostly young and middle class, they include people in shirts for all Istanbul’s big rival football clubs, young women in headscarves, groups of white-coated medical volunteers, and a young man with a big bag of lemons, selling them to the crowd as an tear gas antidote.

On the other hand, Turkey had the same banging of pots and pans in anti-government neighbourhoods in the 1990s, which was widespread on the Asian side of Istanbul last night; and in my district of Beyoglu, every year or two a big issue brings angry demonstrators and policemen with gas weaponry that is used to clear people away. While the government is clearly rattled this time round, after four days, perhaps the only obvious long-term political consequence I can predict so far is that all this will be remembered when Prime Minister Erdogan launches his expected quest for the presidency in an election next year.

There is a little over-enthusiasm in some circles about the scope of these anti-Erdogan protests. Erdogan is no Mubarak or Ben Ali, he was legitimately elected after all and can credibly claim to have effectively tackled Turkey's economic problems and countered Turkey's once coup-happy generals. But it's not all rosy, apart from his political longevity, there is a relatively poor human rights record (especially on the media and the Kurdish question), an economic growth story that is not without its cronyism, rising cost of living and economic inequality, and a cult of personality that is foundering on (among other things) a foreign policy humbled by the Syria question. The parallels to draw are not with the Arab uprisings, and not quite with recent European unrest such as Greece. This appears to be a very Turkish wave of discontent, perhaps the bursting of the much-inflated Erdogan bubble that thrived pretty much unchallenged for the last decade.

Hugh concludes with some commentary on the scandalous media handling (by state TV but also elsewhere):

There’s a lot of talk among my Turkish friends of the Gezi Park demonstrations being a “turning point”, and today it feels that way, with growing numbers of demonstrators in the streets, many cities in Turkey protesting in sympathy, and the unscripted nature of proceedings. Normal patterns have been drastically changed in recent days, not just in  traffic but also in many peoples’ lives. Phone calls with friends in the center are often about “my street is all mixed up now, can’t talk for long”. If anyone gets killed, rather than 100 or so already injured, that will sharply escalate the situation. Here’s hoping the government manages to handle the next 24 hours more sensitively than the last. A good first move would be to get some traction by letting state television give a full version of events – currently, people are consuming a diet of wild rumors and partial views on social media, which can only add to the current escalation.

But do read it all.