By James M. Dorsey
If there is one lesson Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan should have drawn from the popular revolts that toppled four Arab leaders and sparked civil war in Syria in the last two years, it is that police brutality strengthens protesters’ resolve and particularly that of militant, street battle-hardened football fans.
As police on Friday unleashed tear gas and water cannons on demonstrators opposed to the planned destruction of a historic park on Istanbul’s Taksim Square, thousands of fans from rival clubs, united for the first time in decades, arrived to protect the protesters and raise morale.
In a replay of events on Cairo’s Tahrir Square that toppled Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, thousands of fans took up positions, erected barricades, counterattacked the police and threw teargas canisters straight back into the ranks of law enforcement.
“It was a critical moment. Supporters of all the big teams united for the first time against police violence. They were more experienced than the protesters, they fight them regularly. Their entry raised the protesters’ morale and they played a leading role,” Bagis Erten, a sports reporter for Eurosport Turkey and NTVSpor said.
To be sure, Turkey is not Egypt, Taksim is not Tahrir, at least not yet, and Mr Erdogan’s Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) is not the Muslim Brotherhood. Turkey unlike Egypt has long been a pluralistic society, albeit with warts, and had a tradition of protest. Whether Taksim turns into Tahrir is as much dependent on the protesters’ ability to persevere and on whether Mr Erdogan maintains his defiant stance or listens to criticism that is widespread rather than continuing to bank on the fact that he retains a massive base of popular support among conservative segments of Turkish society.
What started out as an effort to save trees has mushroomed into the most serious challenge to Mr Erdogan’s decade in government that initially was marked by serious democratic reform, significant economic growth and Turkey’s emergence as a regional powerhouse. Mr Erdogan is Turkey’s first prime minister in decades to have swept three elections with enough votes to form a one-party government.
Yet Turkey outranks countries like China, Iran and Eritrea in the number of journalists it has incarcerated. And while the gap between secular and conservative segments of society initially narrowed under his rule, Mr Erdogan’s more recent hubris and haughtiness coupled with Islamist-tinted measures has renewed secular suspicion of his true intentions.
Secularist suspicion is also what prompted militant, mostly secular Turkish football fans used to fighting each other, to unite much like they did in Cairo. Tension was already mounting between the police and the fans before their entry into Taksim Square. Police last month attacked Carsi, the militant Besiktas JK club’s support group and the most politicised of the supporters, as they marched after a final league match to celebrate the end of the season.
“What happened on Taksim is incredible. Two weeks ago we were discussing how divided we were. We felt the culture of football was deteriorating. Occupation Gezi Park [the Taksim Square park] has changed that,” a Turkish militant said.
On Taksim Square, the fans, taunting the police, chanted in unison:
“You can use your teargas bombs,
Have courage if you are a real man,
Take off your helmet and drop your batons,
Then we’ll see who the real man is.”
James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute of Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Football blog.