A taste of Tahrir at Taksim

Sungur Savran is editor of the newspaper Isci Mucadelesi (Workers' Struggle) in Turkey. His report captures the sprit of revolt sweeping through Istanbul and other cities in Turkey against the government and its neoliberal "development" schemes--and connects the street protests to three important labor struggles that are already underway or will be shortly--a two-week old strike at Turkish Airlines, a possible metalworkers strike and a June 5 public-sector strike. This article appeared on June 1 at the Bullet website.

Recep Tayyip ErdoğanRecep Tayyip Erdoğan

ISTANBUL HAS become a battlefield covered by tear gas. The police, no doubt at the behest of the Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) government, have been attacking protesters in the center of the city, near Taksim Square, for five consecutive days.

This would have been no news at all: Turkish police are famous for their brutality in dealing with demonstrations unwelcome to the government. Only a month ago, on May Day, they dispersed a gathering of thousands of workers and unionists using vast amounts of tear gas. So nothing new on the police front. This time is different for another reason.

The difference lies in the determination and audacity of the protesters. The first four days saw a growing number of people, reaching many thousands on the night of May 30 (the fourth day of action), set up a camp on the so-called Promenade near Taksim Square. Every night, in the small hours of the morning, the police attacked the campers and dismantled their tents, burning them on the third and fourth nights.

The protesters are trying to protect life--the life of very precious trees in the heart of a city with extremely limited green spaces. The Metropolitan Municipality of Istanbul, under AKP rule, has been busy preparing the ground to build a shopping mall (in the guise of a historic building) in the place where the Promenade now stands.

The sheer brutality of the police--and some plainclothes thugs claiming to be municipal police (it is they who burned down the tents)--provoked the people of Istanbul to come to the aid of the attacked protesters. Istiklal--a major artery that runs from Taksim several kilometers south as a pedestrian zone that serves as the heart of culture, politics, entertainment and lately tourism--was soon packed full of people from one end to the other. Taksim Square itself was controlled by the police. Istiklal resounded to chants against the government, some even rashly predicting the government's imminent fall.

There have been demands for some time that the foreign minister, responsible for the criminal policy of the government in Syria, and the interior minister, whom we call the "Chemical Muammer" as a reference to "Chemical Ali" of the Saddam administration, be removed from office. The removal of the latter already seems to be a possibility, and there have also been unconfirmed rumors that the chief of police for Istanbul has been dismissed. Even if this were true, which is too optimistic, this isn't where the housecleaning should stop!

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THE WORKING class, the left and the youth of Turkey are coming out of a period of deep political passivity. Aside from the incessant struggle waged by the Kurdish people, Turkey has been a desert in terms of mass struggles for the past 15 years at least, interrupted only briefly by the struggle of the Tekel workers who went on strike in the winter of 2009-2010 after their firm, which produces tobacco and liquor, was privatized in 2008. Unfortunately, their strike was sold out by the union bureaucracy.

It would be rash to say that the movement has already gone beyond a point of no return. But the spirit is definitely one of regained self-confidence on the part of the masses. The crucial question is how the organized working class will respond. There have been several important industrial actions lately. These may very well radicalize the attitude of some sections of the working class, including the workers of Turkish Airlines. They have been on strike for two weeks, albeit with limited participation.

Their central demand is the reinstatement of 305 workers who were fired a year ago for participating in a wildcat strike to protest the partial prohibition of strikes in civil aviation, which for the last half century had been an established right. The prohibition of strikes has indeed been rescinded, but the laid-off workers have yet to be reinstated.

But there is another strike waiting in the wings, one with potentially devastating consequences for the government. This is the metal workers' strike, which has been announced (a legal requirement) but not yet begun. If all the workers involved go on strike (for legal reasons this has to be some time in the month of June), more than 100,000 workers will walk off the job in a sector that has become the main export engine of the country's manufacturing industry in recent years.

Although there are many complicated factors to be taken into account when assessing this potential strike--not least the plainly reactionary political posture of the ruling bureaucracy in the major union in the industry--the outcome could be profound considering the explosive situation now unfolding around the country.

History seems to be aiding the popular masses of Turkey. The Federation of Public Employees' Unions (KESK), one of the more militant unions in the labor movement, had already declared a sector-wide strike for June 5. This needs to be transformed into a general strike and adopted by the whole union movement, and it should put forward political demands in addition to giving voicing to the many grievances of workers in different sectors and industries.

The arrogance and repression of the government has awakened a people's revolt; if an insurgent working-class movement is added to the mix, the potential for all manner of revolutionary change could open up in Turkey.

It's impossible to overstate what a tremendous impact a revolutionary transformation of Turkey would have on the rest of the Middle East and North Africa. Under Erdogan, Turkey has become a decisive actor in the region--a "model ally" of the U.S., a role model for the fledgling Muslim governments of Egypt and Tunisia, a leading fighter in the Sunni front established by the Saudi and Qatar kingdoms as a potentially disastrous sectarian conflict between the Sunni and Shia takes shape in the region, and a growing economic and military power with a hegemonic project.

The transformation of this reactionary actor--and its possible replacement by a progressive force at the head of this NATO member country--would have immense repercussions throughout the region. Solidarity with the mass movement of Turkey contributes to the progressive and revolutionary agenda in the whole Middle East.

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I HAVE just left another central square of Istanbul, itself not far from Taksim. The place is packed with people, and thousands, even tens of thousands, of cars are still inching their way toward this gathering point. There would have been nothing extraordinary about this--were it not almost three o'clock in the morning. Ankara, the capital city, was out protesting today as well. Izmir, the third biggest city on the Agean sea, is still alive, with street fighting going on.

"Tayyip Erdogan, through his arrogance, has at last united Turk and Kurd, Sunni and Alevi, and secular forces!" wrote one blogger "Well, this is what we have been saying all along. This was what happened when the Tekel workers entered their two and a half month fight. This is what is now happening on a much more gigantic scale."

This is not yet Tahrir. But demonstrations on the two continents of Istanbul--Asia and Europe--at three in the morning are decidedly unusual and give one a taste of Tahrir. This is not yet a revolution, but it is not only tear gas that hangs in the air of Istanbul. It is also the scent of revolutionary aspirations.

First published at the Bullet.