From Saving a Park to 5,000,000 Workers on Strike: Background to the events in Turkey

June 6, 2013 at 12:43 am (Uncategorized) (, , )

Report on the events in Turkey

Today, 5th June 2013, there is a ‘general strike’ in Turkey. It is expected that about half a million workers will take part in the strike, which has been organized by five of the ‘left’ unions, KESK (public sector) DİSK (private sector), EĞTİM-SEN (educatıon), TTMOB (chamber of engıneers), and TOB (chamber of doctors). Since last Friday there have been hundreds of demonstrations in 67 of Turkey’s 81 provinces, millions in the streets, at least two people killed, and thousands arrested.

How did this situation emerge in a less than a week? How did a small demonstration against development in a park in İstanbul become a blaze that has burnt across the whole country, and brought in such a huge amount of people. To understand it is necessary to look at some of the background detail.

Of course, it is not the building of one supermarket that has inflamed the whole country. The events in Gezi Park have acted more like a spark to an already existing tinderbox. There are five main causes behind the current conflagration.

• Police Brutality: Probably the most immediate cause was the brutality used by the police in evicting the anti-development protestors in Taksim. The Turkish police have a long history of brutally attacking demonstrators, and of launching into incredibly violent attacks even on tiny peaceful demonstrations. Over the last few years, this seems to have become even worse with gas and water cannon now being the preferred method of dealing with situations as different as huge Mayday marches, unruly football fans, and small environmentalist protests. It is the reaction to this sort of violence that seems to be the thing that ignited the situation.

• Taksim: Taksim square itself has a special place in the history of the working class and the left in Turkey. It is the centre of İstanbul, the traditional location for Mayday marches, and it was here in 1977 that 42 people were shot dead, and 220 injured on Mayday. In recent years, with one notable exception marches have been banned from The square, and there have been large scale street battles as people attempted to reach it. Taksim has its place at the heart of the Turkish left, and perhaps even worse than the building of a supermarket there is the governments intention to construct a mosque.

• Creeping Islamicisation: The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) is the direct descendent of the Welfare Party (RP), which was forced out of office in 1997, in what is known in Turkey as a post modern coup. The following year, the party was banned for violating the constitutional principles of secularism. It has been in power, increasing its majority in each election since 2002, and in the 2011 elections, it scored an overwhelming 49.8% of the vote. Over this period, it has slowly whittled away at the secular system. The most well know example has been headscarves in universities, but recent examples including restrictions on the advertising of alcohol, and its sale in shops, lowering the age of admittance to religious schools, and announcements on the Ankara metro warning couples about kissing in public. There is widespread feeling across the country that the government wants to turn Turkey into another Iran. Another thing that has deeply upset members of Turkey’s largest religious minority, the Alevis is the name that has been chosen by the state for the new Bosphorus bridge. The name of the new bridge, which is so controversial that even the company building the bridge has been reluctant to use it calling it merely ‘the third bridge’ is to be the Sultan Selim bridge. Sultan Selim, known as ‘Selim the Grim’ in English, was responsible for widespread massacres against Alevis and other Shia Muslims. It is almost the equivalent of naming a bridge in Iraqi Kurdistan the Saddam Hussein Memorial Bridge.

•Regional Policy: Probably the two most important facets of Turkish policy have been the peace deal with the PKK, and the support for the Syrian rebels. Of course secularists are unhappy with the governments support for an Islamicist opposition against a secular state, and stray missile, bombs, and masses of refuges have brought this home. The government’s peace deal with the Kurdish nationalists has also brought disquiet to Turkish nationalists of both the left and the right wing varieties. The Turkish Communist Party’s Central Committee statement of June 4th makes it clear that the Turkish national flag is ‘in the hands of the people’, that the Kurdish nationalists shouldn’t make a deal with the AKP, and that they should become a part of a ‘united, patriotic, and enlightened people’s labour movement’ presumably waving this blood soaked flag as they do.

• Workers’ Struggles: the last few years have been relatively peaceful since the large movement centred around the TEKEL struggle in winter/spring 2010. However, recently there has been a marked increase in militancy, which has seen important strikes in the textile sector and south coast ports. Turkish Airlines have been on strike for two weeks, and even before these events exploded, KESK’s 240,000 members were due to strike today anyway. In addition to this the 110,000 strong metal workers union is due to hold a strike towards the end of the month.

When all of these things are wrapped together in Tayip’s autocratic abrasive style of semi-imperial rule, it is not a surprise that things erupted as they did.

From Gezi Park to General Strike

After the initial attack by the police in Gezi Park demonstrations spread quickly across the country. In the beginning spontaneously with people just coming out into the streets. Newspapers and TV channels close to the government played down or even barely reported on the issue, but word spread quickly through Twitter and the Internet, prompting Prime Minister Tayip Erdoğan to call social media ‘the worst menace to the country’. Twenty four people have since been arrested for the ‘crime of posting on Twitter.

The main opposition party the Kemalist Republican People’s Party (CHP) organized a large demonstration to march to Taksim, and other protestors, not put off by the closure of the metro, marched across the Bosphorus bridge in their thousands to join the protests. On the morning of June 1st Tayip was declaring that the police were in Taksim to stay, but by 15.45 of the same day they started to withdraw from the square leaving the protestors in control. In other cities the protests turned increasingly violent with police in Ankara dropping tear gas from helicopters, and killing at least one protestor when trying to move demonstrators from the central square.

Other major cities across the country have also seen massive demonstrations with at least one more fatality, in Antakya. In Tunceli there is also a rumor that a protestor has been shot dead. In Izmir the AKP offices were set on fire, and the entire country from major cities, not only in the centre but also in the suburbs, to smaller towns.

The protests seem to be a cross-class movement bringing in all of those who feel anger against the regime. All sorts of political groups are represented there from the far left to the far right. In Taksim square banners with pictures of imprisoned Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) leader, Abdullah Öcelan have been unfurled as well as people waving Turkish flags, and even making the Grey Wolf (Turkish ultra-nationalists ) salute.

What of the Working Class?

Of course a mass movement such as this one can’t move forward without the power of the working class. Calls for a general strike for Monday started to circulate on Twitter and Facebook on Sunday night though there never seemed much of a chance that they would be taken up although some universities in Ankara and Istanbul did start a strike on Monday along with some hospitals in Ankara who declared they would only deal with emergencies and demonstrators.

The ‘left’ unions met on Monday to decide upon there response. KESK changed its already organized one day strike to a two day strike on Tuesday and Wednesday, and DİSK, EĞTİM-SEN, TTMOB, and TOB agreed yo join them on Wednesday with large scale demonstrations being organized in the three biggest cities, İstanbul, Ankara, and İzmir. Although these organization between them claim easily over one million members it seems reasonable to expect around half a million people to be actually on strike today. An opposition group within the main TÜRK-İŞ union confederation has also issued a statement calling on their members to support the struggle by a long list of methods, the last of which is actually striking.

In the protests around the TEKEL dispute three years ago, it seemed that the movement lost its momentum after the general strike. Workers struggled for months occupying the centre of Ankara, and organizing countless demonstrations, to force their union to call a general strike. When it finally happened, it seemed like nobody had any plans to take the movement forward. With today’s general strike as with that one the real question is what happens tomorrow.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013


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Riots in Egypt

January 1, 2013 at 5:43 pm (Uncategorized) (, )

Just published on the Internationalist Perspective blog

The end of 2012 saw Tahrir Square to be, as it was a year ago, a theater of violent popular confrontations. Is it “back to square one”?

The “Arab Spring” that began in late 2011 constituted real movements of revolt against the existing governments, responding to the economic hardships of the working classes, living conditions in general, and the oppression of authoritarian regimes. These movements brought together in a heteroclite mix sections of the “middle” classes and parts of the proletarian class. The claims put forward by the movement reflected the inter-class character of these assemblages and ranged from a radical challenge to demands for democratic reforms. Of course, the ruling class, to block the deeper questioning of the roots of economic, social and political dysfunction preferred to give as sacrificial lambs to the protesters, the “corrupt leaders” and to propose the organization of “democratic” elections….

We know the results: in many countries, parties with religious affiliations have emerged as “less corrupt” factions of the ruling class, probably less subservient to the dominant economic powers – former European colonialists and the United States – or simply representing “alternative” policies. These are the reasons that should be taken into account so as to understand the breakthrough of these Islamist fractions.

As IP has already emphasized in its press, Islamist parties were far from winning unanimous support! On the other hand, actions continued within the proletarian class: strikes, sabotage, demonstrations…. For the proletariat of the North African countries, the electoral process was not a response to the conditions of exploitation and social misery; the coming to power of pro-Islamist factions, even less so!

It is in this context that we must situate the strikes and protests which continue in Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Egypt, and in the latter country, the violent clashes in recent weeks. The ruling class presented the elections as a solution called for by popular acclaim; “democracy” had led to the current policy choices, in short, everything seemed to happen for the best in a world order restored to calm and order.

The recent riots in Egypt have shown, on the one hand, the weakness of the electoral base of the “Muslim Brotherhood”, on the other hand, a process of disillusionment for those who expected better days from those elections; and finally, further dissatisfaction for those who were never satisfied with this charade of democracy. Today, it appears that from the military power to the power of religion, the population has gone from the yoke of the plague to that of cholera, i.e. that the solution to the economic crisis, to the degradation of living conditions, to the coercive pressures to keep the lid on the social cauldron, has not been found in the replacement of one faction of the ruling class by another.

The current period is one of confrontation, and raises this question: Is the future in reforms or a profound change that can only emerge as a questioning of the very foundations of this global capitalist society? This crucial question has been the one that has traversed all the movements of the years 2011-2012: from the “Arab Spring” to the movements of the “indignados” or “occupy”. Experiences around the electoral process, reformist proposals of all kinds, and the disillusionment that has now occurred are so many ways to put that question on the front burner.

We should not see the riots in Egypt as a peculiar phenomenon, as a result of the blunders of Mohamed Morsi. We must put them in the continuity of questioning that is inter-woven throughout the world, linking the “Arab Spring”, the “outraged” in Europe, the American  “occupy” movement, Canadian students, Indian and Chinese workers …

A perspective for a new society can only emerge from these experiences of questioning and repeated disappointments. In this, we can only emphasize the positive side of the recent riots in Egypt: they reflect the movement of disillusionment and, hopefully, will open the resumption of questioning about “what is to be done.” Another positive element is the global circulation of experience. We have seen how the “Arab Spring,” “outraged,” “occupy” … had spread like wildfire to communicate the heat of protest from country to country. It is clear that the current Egyptian experience will leave traces in countries facing similar disillusionment after the electoral process.

The logic of the capitalist mode of production is being attacked everywhere: on the political front, as we have mentioned, on the economic front as the crisis shows that major structural flaws grip the system and demonstrates day after day the basic impasse in which it is mired. These elements fuel each other and heighten the questioning we see today. All of them feed the movements discussed in this article as well as the proletarian strikes and actions that continue around the world. The progressive unification of these challenges, of these experiences, of that questioning, is what fuels the process of the development of the political consciousness of the proletariat. Because, in the end, it is the proletariat, by its special position in the functioning of  the capitalist mode of production, both essential to this functioning but intrinsically antagonistic to it, that contains the ability to block the continuity of production and therefore the maintenance of the present economic, political and social, system.



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