HB & NM: While in Istanbul the urban roots of the Gezi Park uprisings were more highlighted, those of the Arab uprisings are less evident–even though in Egypt, for instance, the housing crisis and the impossibility of young adults to secure housing to start families have been rampant problems. How would you characterize the difference in locating the urban crisis in these two uprisings?
Well, I am not an expert on Istanbul or on Cairo, so I have to say it is very embarrassing being the world’s expert on things I know nothing about. Having said that, I was in Istanbul just before the uprising and, of course, I knew enough about Istanbul to see that it was undergoing an astonishing process of urban redevelopment. There were construction cranes everywhere! The Turkish economy is the second-fastest growing economy in the world, and construction and urbanization, of course, play a part in how it grows. But, this is a bubble and, in the course of a bubble, people get displaced. I became very unpopular because I went on the radio there, and told them it reminded me of Madrid in 2005 before the crash. There were a lot of struggles against displacement going on in Istanbul. I was very fortunate to have some colleagues there who took me to various parts of the city, showing me where the gentrification and the evictions were happening.
It seemed to me that, in this situation, the urban-social movements were clearly distressed. There was a lot of agitation against these mega-projects, which the government had designed for the city. When they announced the plans for the square, I was not surprised at all that there was some sort of reaction to it. But, as far as I could tell, the reaction did not possess the same kind of center as in Egypt and in North Africa generally. In North Africa, the background to many of the struggles had been recurring food riots that have taken place over the last fifteen to twenty years. The high cost of food has been a serious question, but the populations also see massive increases in inequality emerging around them; there is clearly a great deal of corruption.
My first thought when the Arab uprisings occurred in Cairo was how similar it was to Paris during the French Revolution of 1848. Paris 1848 and Cairo now have interesting parallels. In Paris in 1848, the people decided to get rid of the king, Louis Philippe. They got rid of the king, but that was the easy part. These were called the February Days of the 1848. The equivalent would the 25 January (2011) uprisings in Egypt, which ended with the overthrow of Mubarak. In Paris, a few months later, during the June Days of 1848, facing workers’ rebellion, order was restored by a military apparatus, and the rebellion was crushed. In the Parisian case, this knowledge of how to handle people was brought back to France from Algeria, which was a French colony. The military apparatus treated the people on the boulevards as colonial subjects and shot them down. That was the end of that uprising. What happened after 30 June 2013, on 3 July in Egypt, bore an uncanny resemblance to the June Days, with repression imposed by the military. In Cairo, however, it was not a socialist revolution; it was more of a bourgeois republican revolution with the aim of getting rid of corruption and inequality, trying to create a more democratic society. I am not sure how useful the parallel is, how far I could push it.
There was also a clear alliance of forces, which emerged in Cairo, and this might have some parallels with Istanbul. Workers’ movements turned out in Cairo–they had also been agitating for some time. So, there was a workers’ movement which joined in, there was the obvious discontented youth movement, and there was the city population who was discontented with inequality, high food prices, and corruption. But, the alliance in Cairo was quite disparate, and I think the same thing applied to Istanbul. For instance, in Istanbul, soccer fans of the working class club [Beşiktaş] joined in. They were chanting sexist slogans, which the feminists objected to. They told them they should change their slogans, and they actually did. So, in both cases, there was a disparate alliance with the focus of discontent on a regime that operates in a very autocratic way, and will not stand for any kind of consultation. I would not say that either of these were socialist revolutions. They are urban uprisings around discontent.
Within Istanbul–and this is a classic case where the parallel with Paris is significant–the Turkish central government does not like Istanbul. Istanbul is the center of opposition, as are the other major urban centers. So, while the government itself is not really anti-urban because they favor this sort of urban developmentalism, they are certainly not in favor of the populations who predominate in those areas.