The “ultras”—hardcore football fans—of Cairene club Al Ahly did indeed play a role in spearheading protests in Tahrir Square, both against former president Hosni Mubarak but also against current leader Mohamed Morsi. The “Çarşı” fan group of Beşiktaş JK, a football club from Istanbul, have also been supporting protesters in Istanbul’s Taksim Square in their opposition to Prime Minister Recep Tayyıp Erdoğan. And that is, precisely, where similarities between the “Arab Spring” and the so-called “Turkish Spring” end, apart from the banal fact that both Turkey and Egypt are Muslim countries.
While getting my MA I wrote about the relationship between politics and soccer in Turkey. In my thesis I showed how closely related football and politics have been in Turkey. I also showed how the fortunes of football clubs in Central Anatolia—a stronghold of support for the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP)—rose during the rule of the AKP, at the expense of clubs located in the Western parts of the country, home to provinces that mainly supported the Ataturkist Republican Peoples Party (CHP). This was a sign of Turkey’s democratic deepening in that the hitherto marginalized Anatolian hinterland was being brought back into the mainstream, both politically through the AKP and culturally, by way of their team’s appearances in the top flight of Turkish soccer, the Turkish Super League.
And now we see the backlash. Football fans in Istanbul, and throughout Turkey, have come together to back protests against the government. Beşiktaş’s Çarşı, a formidable and vocal supporter’s group since their formation in 1982, have been at the barricades, a startling reminder to all of the role that football clubs—and their fan groups—can play in civil society. The fact that the Prime Minister’s Deputy Bülent Arınç claimed that the Çarşı Group was pulling out of the protests—a claim which Çarşı later refuted, saying that “since 1982 we have, and will continue to, support humanity against injustice and wrongdoing”—only serves to underline the uneasiness with which the government views Çarşı’s involvement.
The government’s wariness is well-founded. Çarşı, like so many other groups of football fans in Turkey, have faced tear gas and sound bombs from security forces week in and week out during tense confrontations in stadiums across Turkey for years. The stadium was used as a sort of pressure valve, to release societal pressures within the confines of the stadium, where punishment was swiftly and harshly meted out without it spilling into the streets. Just as the physical violence was confined to the stadiums, the political thoughts were too—just slogans scribbled on banners, hung onto the fences surrounding the pitch. For the most part, you could only see them if you were in the stadium, since police lowered them as soon as they came up.
But that isn’t the end of the story. Just as Turkish football fans have experience battling the heavy handed tactics of the police, the riot police are also well-trained and battle hardened. For years they have swung at fans with batons as blindly as they have launched tear gas at those gathered outside stadiums. On June 11th 2013 we saw the same tactics. But this wasn’t just Beşiktaş’s Inönü Stadium or the Fenerbahçe Şükrü Saraçoğlu Stadium. It was in modern Turkey’s heart, on Taksim square. The irony hasn’t been lost on Turkish football fans. In reference to the Gezi protests Fenerbahçe fans have said that they will be where the gas is, a reference to riots last May that resulted in fighting between fans and security forces, after Fenerbahçe lost the title to Galatasaray. Many said to me in personal conversation that there had been anti-Erdoğan sentiment then, a response by Fenerbahçe fans to the violent actions of the riot police.
So that is where Erdoğan’s democratic deepening has fallen short. He may have deepened his support in his own strongholds, but he seems to have forgotten the rest of the country en route to his vision of a democratic Turkey. And spreading democracy to some regions, at the expense of others, is not how a country will develop, regardless of the robust economic statistics that news anchors read out in praise of Turkish development.
In CNN coverage of June 11’s protests, one of the reporters kept noting the seemingly random blasts of tear gas that the police directed at protestors. He noted that it seemed as if they “had no plan”. Perhaps that is the problem—that they indeed have no plan; much of their training in crowd control has come at soccer matches, where they had a mandate to monopolize the use of force. They had been playing their part in a game, the game of putting the lid back on the societal pressure release that the stadium had been cultivated as for so long. But when the violence is used to suppress the voices of democracy is when a response is necessitated from the spectators of the game.
In a bid to break down what has been happening in Turkey over the last few weeks, a tenuous analogy to the Arab Spring has been tossed around. This is not the Arab Spring. This is not a Turkish Spring. This is the citizens of a democratic country demanding the democratic principles they have been promised, including a free press and an accountable police force amongst others. Merely bundling it together with protests in other Muslim countries is only sweeping it under the rug, making the protesters out to be something they are not—but what Prime Minister Erdoğan wants them to be: destructive hooligans that are both anti-democratic and anti-American. In short, Çapulcus—looters, vagabonds, and what Erdoğan himself branded them in the early days of the protests. Politics may well be a game, just as football is, but I urge those who follow the ongoing events in Turkey not to lose themselves in the game of labels.
A Çarşı Flag raised in Taksim’s Gezi Park