In the shadow of the yellow vests of France: Erdoğan settles accounts with the Gezi Park protesters

Hay Eytan Cohen Yanarocak examines the discourse on Turkish social media concerning the recent arrest of Turkish academics who had participated in the 2013 Gezi Park protests, and the parallels that some users drew between that demonstration and the massive Yellow Vest protests in France.

תמונתו של ארדואן עם ג'ורג' סורוס משנת 2003, מתוך טוויטר
Photo of Erdoğan with Soros in 2003, from Twitter.

During December 2018, the main issue that occupied many users of Turkish social media was the arrest of the Turkish academics who had taken part in the 2013 Gezi Park protest.  Unsurprisingly, the timing of the arrests coincided with the huge “yellow vest” protests in France, and some Turkish users drew parallels between the two events. As with many other issues, users of Turkish social media were divided into two camps: those who support the Turkish government’s view of the events in Gezi Park ‎and consider it an attempt to topple then-prime minister and current president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and citizens who support the opposition and consider the protest in Gezi Park to have been a legitimate demonstration.

Similar to the demonstrations in France, large numbers of protesters were arrested during the Gezi Park demonstrations. However, the whole picture was changed with the wave of arrests that began in 2017 with the arrest of Osman Kavala, who serves on the advisory board of the George Soros Open Society Foundation.[1] After the arrest of Kavala, it began to be evident that President Erdoğan had decided not to sit idly by, but rather to take action against the Gezi Park protest organizers. To that end, all of Turkey was again surprised on November 9 by the arrest of the thirteen academics who took part in the Gezi Park events. When eight of them were released a week later, the subject became one of the hottest topics of discussion on Turkish social media, at a time coinciding with the launch of the “Yellow Vest” protests in France.[2]

Many supporters of the Gezi Park protest sympathize with the Yellow Vests, and began to tweet in Turkish using the hashtag “Sarı Yelekliler” (“yellow vests” in Turkish), to express their support for the struggle against the French government.[3] Naturally, users began to compare and contrast the Gezi Park protest and the French protest movement. However, it is evident that the Yellow Vest protests did not succeed in causing the Turks to take to the streets. In order to understand this, it is important to note the significant difference between the two protests. In France, the masses – mainly identified with the economic periphery – are protesting the cost of living. In the Gezi Park ‎protests, the Istanbul bourgeoisie and many leftists demonstrated to voice their opposition to the increasing concentration of government authority in Turkey. It is also important to note that the results of the 2017 referendum in favor of expanding Erdoğan’s authority, and those of the 2018 parliamentary and presidential elections all reflected an overwhelming victory for Erdoğan. This fact seems to have stifled users’ hopes of changing Turkish politics, and may have prevented them from taking to the streets at this time.

The opposition was not the only group speaking out; Erdoğan’s supporters also expressed their opinions on the recent arrests and the Yellow Vest protests. Not surprisingly, they adopted the position of the Turkish government, and labeled Osman Kavala and the academics “collaborators with George Soros.” Soros, they claimed, has tried to overthrow many governments around the world. In this context, Erdoğan’s supporters pointed to Georgia, Serbia, Ukraine, and the Arab countries who experienced “colorful revolutions.”[4] Unsurprisingly, the criticism of Soros came after President Erdoğan’s dramatic statement, that the “man behind Osman Kavala is the Hungarian Jew George Soros. “[5]

The issue gained even more momentum when the Turkish police issued an arrest warrant for actor Memet Ali Alabora, who lives in England because of his activity as a leader of the Gezi Park ‎protest.[6] In addition to Alabora, journalist Can Dündar, who lives in Germany, has been charged with treason for disclosing classified information from the Turkish intelligence Agency.[7] Moreover, the Turkish police claim that Alabora and Dündar acted in accordance with the instructions of Kavala and Soros, and tried to topple the government.[8]

Users of Turkish social media did not remain indifferent when Erdoğan’s opponents began circulating a tweet of an Armenian member of parliament from the Kurdish Party, Garo Paylan, in which he captioned a 2003 picture of Erdoğan meeting Soros with the perhaps provocative question: “It wasn’t a crime then, why is it today?”[9]

Erdoğan’s online supporters tried to justify the arrest warrants by pointing out the arrests of demonstrators carried out by the French police. These users also ridiculed the situation in France and began to tweet about the incidents in Paris and Brussels, using the hashtag “We are worried.”[10] In addition, users who sympathize with President Erdoğan’s government suggested that Gezi Park activists join the protests in France by using the hashtag #ÇapulcularFransaya [“agitators to France”][11] and noted, “Traitors wear yellow but our color is known (red, as the flag of Turkey).”[12]

President Erdoğan also chose to augment the public discourse with his personal mockery of events in France. “You remember that during the Gezi Park events they sprayed a slogan on the wall: ‘The oppression began with the conquest of Constantinople in 1453.’ I am very worried, if they write in France that the oppression began with the French Revolution in 1789.[13] “In addition, Erdoğan tried to deter potential Yellow Vest protesters in Turkey by saying that they should think twice before going out into the streets because “Turkey is neither Paris nor the Netherlands” and if they dare to take to the streets, the Turkish people will also go out to the streets, and confront them as they did on the eve of the failed coup attempt of July 15, 2016.[14] As expected, these statements by Erdoğan dominated social media and his remarks about the French Revolution became a hit. Many users issued warnings to anyone inspired by the Yellow Vests to take to the streets.[15]

In conclusion, the public discourse on Turkish social networks surrounding the recent wave of arrests, the arrest warrants, the Yellow Vest protests in France, and their influence on Turkey, show that Erdoğan’s supporters control the online discourse. In light of warnings by Erdoğan and users who support his rule, it seems that the Turkish users identified with the opposition have been deterred and are afraid to actively protest as they did in 2013. Alongside the public discourse, the Ankara government appears to be using social media in its efforts to prevent the French protests from spreading to Turkey. Their public and online discourse indicates that the Turkish government and its supporters have a surplus of self-confidence. Despite this, social media channels in Turkey continue to function as the only spaces within the Turkish public sphere that allow open dialogue, expressions of opposition to Erdoğan administration, and the presentation of a variety of opinions.

[1] "Osman Kavala tutuklandı", Hürriyet, 11 November 2018.  Last accessed 16 December 2018.

[2] "Anadolu Kültür operasyonu: Prof. Dr. Turgut Tarhanlı ve Prof. Betül Tanbay dahil 8 kişi serbest bırakıldı", BBC Türkçe, 17 November 2018.  Last accessed 16 December 2018.

[3]@hersey_fl,, 3 December 2018. Last accessed 16 December 2018.

[4]@sebelibelkis,, 19 April  2017. Last accessed 16 December 2018.

[5] Cumhurbaşkanı Erdoğan: “Kavala’nın arkasında Macar Yahudi’si Soros var”, Şalom, 21 November 2018. Last accessed 16 December 2018.

[6] Memet Ali Alabora'ya tutuklama kararı, CNN Türk, 11 December 2018.  Last accessed 16 December 2018.

[7] "Turkey issues arrest warrant for Can Dündar as Gezi protests investigation expands", Ahval News, 5 December 2018.  Last accessed 16 December 2018.

[8] "Son dakika... Can Dündar hakkında yakalama kararı", Hürriyet, 5 December 2018.  Last accessed 16 December 2018.

[9] @GaroPaylan,, 21 November 2018.  Last accessed 16 December 2018.

[10] #Endişeliyiz

[11] #ÇapulcularFransaya

[12]@yusufkorkmaz58,, 11 December 2018. Last accessed 16 December 2018.

[13] "Erdoğan: Umarım Paris'te 'Zulüm 1789'da başladı' yazıları görmeyiz", Milliyet, 8 December 2018. Last accessed 16 December 2018.

[14] "Erdoğan'dan 'Sarı Yelekliler' eleştirisi: Avrupa demokrasi dersinden sınıfta kaldı", BBC Türkçe, 8 December 2018. Last accessed 16 December 2018.

[15] "Son dakika: Cumhurbaşkanı Erdoğan'dan 'sokağa davet' tepkisi", Habertürk, 16 December 2018.  Last accessed 16 December 2018.

[16]  @flymet,, 21 December 21, 2018.  Last accessed 16 December 2018.