The failed coup d’etat of July 15 shook Turkish society to its core. Meanwhile, Turkish Cyprus has been in the throes of its own existential crisis. On Wednesday, over a thousand protesters took to the streets of Nicosia to march against what they argue constitutes increasing state control over the future social and cultural lives of Turkish Cypriot youth.
The military coup may have been averted by unprecedented civil resistance, but its repercussions: the purging of academics, the centralized state control and rising authoritarianism, had long since begun to seep into the lives of Turkish citizens. Not only in Turkey however, but also across the Mediterranean, in Northern Cyprus.
On June 18, 2014, the Turkish state and the de-facto Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) signed an international deal regarding the opening of an “Overseas Coordination Office” by the Turkish Ministry of Youth and Sports in the TRNC. This office would go on to enforce, organize and manage all sports and youth events, projects and programs.
The deal ostensibly reflects the extension of benign support from the Turkish “motherland” to help enhance sports and education programs in the TRNC. However, the Turkish Cypriot youth does not appear to agree. In fact, they are widely and vocally declaring “we reject!”, seemingly due to belief that deal shrouds a hidden Islamic agenda, and due to broader debates over sovereignty and Turkey’s position as a guarantor state.
The deal and its implications
The deal, signed in the summer of 2014 between the Turkish Republic Ministry of Youth and Sports and the TRNC Prime Ministry-affiliated Department of Youth and Sports, has many open ended clauses. With a yearly budget of 13 million Turkish Lira, the deal denoted that the Orwellian-sounding ‘Overseas Coordination Office’ was to manage all projects and programs related to sports, such as the renovation of sporting facilities, organization of sports camps, as well as the management and allocation of student housing facilities throughout the TRNC.
Specifically, the deal refers to an internal protocol signed on February 25, 2015, between the Turkish Ministry of Youth and Sports and the Turkish Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet). And herein lies the crux of the problem according to the Reddediyoruz Platform, the youth movement stimulated by this controversial deal.
The protocol of the deal ascribes various responsibilities and services to both state bodies, and attributes all sports, youth activities and institutions (such as sports facilities and camps, student dormitories, etc.) as directly related to young people’s moral and spiritual development.
Any religious event or activity, such as “Holy Birth Week” or Qur’an recitation courses, will be in coordination with sports-related events and activities. “The times of sports education will be coordinated with the daily prayer (namaz) times, there will be specific courses that teach how to perform the namaz or Qur’an reading,” Zeki Çeler, a spokesperson from the youth movement fighting this deal, explained.
“It is basically for the youth to adopt certain moral and religious norms and values and this is done through direct collaboration between the Ministry and the local religious representatives (müftülük). The idea is to spread religion into sports, youth centers and programs.”
Many Reddediyoruz activists stress that the Turkish Cypriot youth is not religious and the deal opposes their socio-cultural composition. They also claim that it is against their constitution. “Our constitution says that the preservation, education and advancement of the youth and sports must be in line with the preservation of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s ideals and reforms,” remarks Çeler, pointing out how such a deal goes against said values. Furthermore, the deal states that the projects to be chosen and implemented will be made solely by the Turkish Ministry of Youth and Sports and the Directorate of Religious Affairs.
The Platform “We reject” (Reddediyoruz, in Turkish) held their first protest on June 8 of this year: biking together through the streets of Nicosia demanding the public and TRNC government reject the deal and call for their rights to self-governance, sovereignty, and simply the reclamation of “willpower”.
Under pressure from this growing protest movement, TRNC President Mustafa Akıncı requested that the Coordination Office deal be sent for evaluation at the Constitutional Court. On August 5, the Court decided that this international deal was unfit for implementation as it is unconstitutional and must be void. A victorious moment for the Reddediyoruz Platform, and indeed, social movements more generally.
Signed two years ago, the deal was heavily criticized by the Reddediyoruz platform as a sanction that fails to recognize the TRNC’s sovereignty and the socio-cultural structure of the Turkish Cypriot community. Zeki Çeler, a Member of Parliament from the Communal Democracy Party (TDP) spoke to Independent Turkey about how such a deal threatens to eradicate the freewill of the Turkish Cypriot community.
Çeler criticized the lack of consultation with either the TRNC government or local researchers and community needs. “The deal has clauses that give diplomatic rights, privileges to the assigned officials. It completely transfers the fate of young people to the hands of this office”, he added.
The question of sovereignty
The question of sovereignty is a deeply rooted one for Turkish Cypriots. An enduring hot topic of conversation between friends in the bustling coffee shops of Nicosia, heard in homes across the region, and in the thronging street protests now sweeping the country.
The Reddediyoruz Platform took to the streets in mid-June, when the deal was to be voted on in parliament. The wave of protests grew rapidly and lasted for several days. Emerging as the unofficial spokesperson of the Platform, Zeki Çeler – on the day of the hearing – gave a monumental 8-hour speech to represent the diverse voices protesting outside of the parliament.
“It was an act that we came up with, together as the Reddediyoruz Platform. I simply occupied the stage for 8 hours as an act of protest,” Çeler explained, adding that his speech was nothing compared to the presence of the people outside. “The people have seen that both inside and outside there is a massive resistance. We really have seized that spirit of togetherness.”
The Reddediyoruz Platform consists of more than 70 organizations from political parties, civil society organisations, cultural institutes and workers’ unions. “From radical left to radical right, the spectrum is so wide,” Çeler said.
According to Çeler, the Platform’s success rests in their singular belief in their cause: The total rejection of the Coordination Office. The Reddediyoruz Platform, while originally ignored by many media outlets, has raised a significant amount of attention over time. “The energy we have induced created an expectation from the public.”
The people rejected the deal so emphatically that many have begun to associate the resistance as a more general rejection of Turkish involvement in the TRNC’s domestic affairs. In fact, Turkish Cypriot politics heavily center around the question of Turkey remaining on the island as a guarantor state or not.
Factions emerge from this debate, with many accused of being traitors (vatan haini); pro-Hellene (Rumcu) if you criticize Turkish aid; pro-Turkey, or pro-partition (KKTC’ci) if you embrace Turkish military presence. But Çeler remains firm on such stances: “We are not against Turkey, we are against the deal itself. If this deal did not transfer all of the management to the Coordination Office, if the TRNC government had a say in what it would entail, we would not oppose it… If the EU or the Greek Cypriots proposed a similar deal as this one, we would still reject it.”
On August 3, Turkish Cypriots took to streets once again. Participation was high, the atmosphere optimistic, with protesters ready to firmly reject the deal. The rally was described as a moment of pride for Turkish Cypriots. One Turkish Cypriot columnist wrote, “They did not cover their faces with flags, they marched without hiding.” Indeed, no Turkish, TRNC flag or political banner was in sight.
However, it seems that not all the protesters are in agreement with what Reddediyoruz has turned into: “a populist movement in the end” some have claimed after the rally. Also, despite Zeki Çeler’s hardened view that the success of the Platform is due to its single-issue resistance against the deal and nothing else, divergences have quickly emerged even amongst the Platform’s supporters.
Münevver Özakalın, a YKP-fem (New Cyprus Party affiliated feminist organization) activist, expressed her discomfort with this particular self-imposed limitation: “There is a reality of dominance and oppression of Turkey here, you cannot deny that. And it is just absurd; are we supposed to reject the office itself but not the body that imposes this?”
There are other activists who came to similar conclusions. They argue that the struggle for existence should not be white-washed, represented within “mild and safe” expressions which fail to confront Turkish control over the TRNC’s domestic affairs.
Following the Court’s decision, the Reddediyoruz Platform won what they set out to achieve: President Akıncı is due to send the deal back to Parliament along with the Court verdict and they seem bound to reject the deal. But more than the success story of this one deal, the Platform has become a symbol of the “struggle for existence”.
The numerous platforms, civil society organizations and resistance movements of the TRNC came together, temporarily (or perhaps enduringly) putting aside their ideological differences. The multitude of the Turkish Cypriot community seems determined that they have found a remedy for the political misfortunes in their country, and given the unity and success of this social movement, perhaps they have.
*Special thanks to Zeki Çeler and Münevver Özakalın for interviews.