Turkey's Cyber Protesters
It was a breezy spring afternoon in Istanbul as one of the city’s bright red trams rolled down an uncharacteristically quiet Istiklal Avenue. “Everyone usually comes here,” my guide Çigdem Girgiç says, as one of the few activists, a young woman, thrusts political pamphlets into our hands. “If butchers in Bursa [Turkey’s fourth largest city] want to protest the price of meat, they come here too.”
But that day, March 29, was the day before vital local elections. Police were everywhere, brandishing submachine guns, and the anti-government protesters had stayed away. Arrestees wouldn’t be allowed to vote. Aside from a few hardy souls belting out slogans on loud hailers, Istanbul’s opposition supporters had stayed indoors.
It didn’t work. March 30 was a dark day for opponents of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish prime minister. His Justice and Development Party (AKP) thundered to victory, taking home 45 percent of votes in what was billed as the biggest test of their authority since coming to power in 2003.
And, despite several allegations of corruption, the latest elections have emboldened the power of a leader who openly admits that he wants to rule Turkey until 2023. The margin of victory reflects the fact that the majority of Turks still feel AKP is helping their country grow. Swathes of high-end building projects around Turkey stand as testament to this — not least a Dhs9.2 billion bridge that will connect Istanbul’s European and Asian sides by 2015. “They may steal but they also get things done,” is an oft-quoted opinion in the country.
A buoyed Erdogan took to a stage in the capital, Ankara, in front of thousands of supporters after his victory. Seizing the chance to rubber-stamp his premiership, he said of opponents: “We are going into their dens… They are going to pay the price.” Those dissenters are widely thought to be followers of Fethullah Gülen, a self-exiled Sunni philosopher who, despite living in Pennsylvania, USA, runs a huge network of schools, charities and media outlets in Turkey.
The Gülenists have been accused of leaking tapes last month, which exposed a cabinet plot to attack Syria. Also released was an audio recording, in which Erdogan instructed his son Bilal to dispose of huge sums of cash ahead of a corruption trial. Erdogan, who has not refuted the leaks’ authenticity, ordered that first Twitter, then YouTube, be shut down in Turkey. “This thing called social media is currently the worse menace to society,” he said. This week, the country’s constitutional court reversed the ban.
But it had already served its purpose.
While Erdogan’s fist has become increasingly ferrous, his tongue has sharpened for those he feels are trying to derail his rule. On hearing the news that Berkin Elvan, a 15-year-old boy who fell into a coma after being struck by a tear-gas canister while on his way to buy bread, had died, Erdogan called the boy a “terrorist.”
After world leaders condemned the AKP’s Twitter ban, Erdogan scoffed: “The international community can say this, say that. I don’t care at all. Everyone will see how powerful the Republic of Turkey is.” According to a report by Pew, a pollster, Turkey is the second most nationalist country on Earth (India is first).
Erdogan’s web blockade looks, on the face of it, to have succeeded. Opposition parties are disparate and disarrayed and the AKP’s grip on office remains as tight as ever. Erdogan himself, though, has seen a blue-collar, bulldog image yaw into something far more sinister among Turkey’s increasingly young, urban electorate. And by taking on the web, Erdogan has made himself a new set of enemies: hackers.
RedHack, a Marxist-Leninist group associated with the global network Anonymous, wouldn’t meet me in Istanbul. They don’t give face-to-face interviews with anyone, in fact, preferring to speak via VPN chat rooms where no-one is snooping. It’s during one of these conversations that an activist compares Erdogan to Hitler: “When he said he will prove the strength of the Turkish government, Erdogan is on the way from the leader of an autocratic regime to a dictator.”
RedHack was instrumental in unearthing the truth behind last year’s bomb attacks, in the southern city of Reyhanli. The government first blamed Syria, but documents were leaked proving that Ankara knew of the attack, and that it was in fact carried out by Islamist insurgents linked to al-Qaeda. “A war was prevented by hackers,” says another editor, who spread the message via social media.
Turkey is one of the most active countries on Twitter, with 12 million users from a population of 81m. This is characteristic of a country in which half the people are aged under 28, and where Erdogan has forced young people to get increasingly tech-savvy. “So many people are knowledgeable in Turkey. Everyone knows what a VPN is, what Tor (an anonymity network) is,” says Burak Arikan, an artist who maps social indicators like dispossession and education. “China has a similar issue because of its media.” Turks tweeted almost as much after the ban as before, using SMS to post messages.
RedHack likens its struggle to that of left-wing protesters in the past. And one activist tells me that, despite many successes, he expects his own work to end in violence. “Look at what happened to the socialists and communists in the past,” he said. “They disappeared, got killed and were tortured in terrible ways. That’s what will happen [to us].”
For now, the fight continues. Though as shoppers and tourists strode across the concrete expanse of Taksim Square, you’d never know it. RedHack’s cause often spills out onto the streets. But, by and large, it is one that remains confined to Istanbul’s shadows. As the sun sets, Çigdem Girgiç voices her approval. “In times when even love can be virtual, let the protests go cyber too… I, though, will be on the streets.”
For some citizens at least, there are tough times ahead in Turkey.
- Turkish riot police stand guard outside the Supreme Electoral Council (YSK) in Ankara during a protest held by supporters of the Republican People’s Party (CHP) on April 1, 2014. Turkish police on April 1 deployed water cannon against protesters who alleged vote-rigging in weekend local polls in which the Islamic-rooted party of Premier Recep Tayyip Erdogan claimed sweeping victories. About 2,000 supporters of the main secular opposition party had massed outside the elections authority in the capital Ankara, chanting “Thief Tayyip!” and “Ankara, don’t sleep. Stand up for your vote!”