Videos were published last week of a group of shop owners threatening protesters with metal poles in Istanbul’s Kadıköy district. The shop owners were trying to hit young demonstrators who had already been attacked by the police. The demonstration was to commemorate the victims of an ISIS suicide bombing in the Suruç district of the southeastern province of Urfa on July 20, 2015, in which 33 young activists were killed. The videos from Kadıköy proved, on one hand, the usual example of the solidarity between the state and shopkeepers that we have become accustomed to. On the other hand, there were also signs of how this ideological outfit is trying to be fit into society. This ideological suit is being sewn with symbols that have been stolen from history, that have been taken to the podium in the Hagia Sophia as a “carnival with sword.” A “restoration” is taking place in the mechanics of the traditional government and shopkeeper relations. With the effect of the economic crisis, a “change in ownership” and resharing of commercial income is being carried out. 

After the attack in Kadıköy, some shopkeepers, small business owners, and real estate agents in Kadıköy spoke with Mehmet Elma from the Yeni Yaşam Daily, a right-wing opposition paper, and said that the police had told owners of some venues “to not allow anything from leftists, or anyone who looks suspicious or like a terrorist.” What is more striking are these words: “You must have heard of Mis Street in Beyoğlu. There are no shopkeepers left there now. In Taksim now, only those small business owners who were loyal to the country and the nation have survived. It took five years for us to cleanse Taksim. We will clean this place (Kadıköy) as well.”    

In other words, a patient and planned process is being carried out. 

The kebab shop owner Sabri Çelebi was filmed while attacking demonstrators with a machete in Taksim during the 2013 Gezi Park protests. He became the basis of the legitimization of violence by the government as a prototype of the “shopkeeper defending his livelihood.” Afterwards, anti-Gezi shopkeeper demonstrations were organized. These were done with the help of police pressure on those shopkeepers in Beyoğlu who looked “eccentric” and the mobilization of nationalist components. What happened to Sabri, with the machete?

He ran away to Morocco the day a lawsuit was opened against him. He was caught when he returned home. He was immediately released. Starting from 2017, we have seen this “machete man” several times, first in a threat to a Libyan businessperson in an armed clash in Talimhane near Taksim, during which he was shot in the leg, and in another armed attack in Şişli. We have heard he was wanted for forming a gang and that he was a partner of a nightclub in Ortaköy. We also learned he was a popular figure in the entertainment world, attracting attention due to his luxurious way of life. He was last seen with pop singer Ebru Polat while vacationing in Dubai.

It is no coincidence that the life path of Sabri with the machete runs parallel with political bullying, the amount of which has been continuously increasing after the Gezi Park incidents.  

As a matter of fact, on November 26, 2014, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan spoke at the 4th Council of Tradesmen and Artisans in Ankara, saying, “In our civilization, in our national and civil spirit, tradesmen and artisans are soldiers when needed. They are ‘alperenler’” — a historic name given to Turkish-Muslim knights — “they are martyrs, veterans and heroes defending their homeland when needed. They are the police who maintain order when needed; they are the judges who deliver justice when needed. Also, when needed, they are compassionate brothers. You cannot sell a taxi driver short; he is the administrator of the neighborhood, the respected older brother, the watchman of the area. You cannot sell short a grocer, butcher, greengrocer or tailor; they are almost the spirit of the neighborhood. They are the moral compasses of our street and our neighborhood.”

This was the role the government attributed to this segment in charge of the “wheel adjustment” to the “car” of the lower levels of the society. However, this was not only a mission based on history and rhetoric. It proceeded simultaneously with ideological fortification and spatial and economic transformation.

The first center of the rising gentrification wave of the 1990s was Beyoğlu. In those years, when economic growth was accelerating, “elite migration” with a high capacity for consumption occurred in places where profits were boosted through restoration.  

This commercial and cultural activity also created a business class in which the new and the traditional were intertwined. Despite the tension in Tophane between the art galleries and local people who drank on the streets, despite the government being bothered by the entertainment mentality of the region, despite excessive entertainment taxes and interventions by the city police force, there was no dramatic stoppage in the process. Through the Tarlabaşı project in 2007, the government was able to provide spaces in central locations to their own elite who had by then reached a certain amount of wealth accumulation. Together with the Gezi Park transformation project, the government opted for appropriate venue transformations according to ideological and political needs, such as Narmanlı Han, the demolishment of the Atatürk Cultural Center, and the building of a Taksim mosque. Of course, we need to add the HaliçPort and GalataPort projects conducted by pro-government construction and tourism companies to this list too.

After the Gezi Park incidents, the government actually noticed another thing: that they needed to do a “shopkeeper restoration” in parallel with their spatial transformation that was suitable with the mission Erdoğan expressed in 2014.

This was the “cleansing movement” mentioned to the tradespeople and venue owners in Kadıköy. Through pressures, fines, taxes, and rent increases, and forced relocations made with the excuse of urban transformation, an “entertainment venue migration” occurred from Taksim to Beşiktaş and Kadıköy. Those that could not migrate were closed. We are not counting the bookstores and galleries. Nargile cafes, Turkish delight shops in Taksim Square, and strange tea houses on many streets are the Beyoğlu silhouette that have emerged in the last five or six years. We should add to the list the change of owners of venues that serve alcoholic drinks, as well as the gang showdowns during the pandemic where Kalashnikovs were used. Taksim was open to surprises once, despite all its tensions and clashes; differences were able to persevere. Now, it is a place without surprises where the “active forces” of the shopkeepers dominate and where watchmen and police corner a Kurdish vendor at night and easily beat him up. A major part of the commercial income of the region is of course flowing to the shopkeepers, artisans and small business owners that are aligned with the same ideological line.

Now, a similar “restoration” for Kadıköy has been expressed openly. Kadıköy’s “eccentric” business owners are feeling the crisis after the pandemic as well as this pressure. The transformation in Kadıköy will probably not be easy, as it is the place where magazines, books and mass organizations are located as well as entertainment venues. It is a huge arena of protests and ideas. However, the “transformers” are certainly acting with plan and ambition. The Gar Shopping Center to be built at the Söğütlüçeşme Train Station is one of the signal flares of this chain reaction. We should add to the list the “restoration” of the shopkeepers in Bomonti where the old Bomonti beer factory will be handed over to the Directorate of Religious Affairs.

Thus, there is a need for a segment that will wear the outfit shown at the podium in Hagia Sophia in neighborhoods and certain areas. The soul and the spirit that has been infused into the government has to have reciprocity in the streets. The sword at the Hagia Sophia mosque opening will turn into a stick if needed. The sects have certain limits, after all. They will not be adequate in carrying this capacity. We will see whether or not the tradesperson, the shopkeeper, artisan and small business owner will be consolidated behind the “active forces.” This group has been made to survive through bank loans during the pandemic. Transformation may make them the new owners of property in central locations and let them benefit from the resharing of commercial income. As columnist Kemal Can frequently mentions, the government is not compiling votes, it is only compiling power. With the police, watchmen, and venue transformation, the wish and haste of the government in that direction is obvious.