Festivals for Democracy: Youth Protesters in Cairo, Sao Paolo and Istanbul

Gregg.carlstrom/Flickr Gregg.carlstrom/Flickr

Young protesters in Turkey, Brazil and Egypt took to the streets this summer in the name of democracy and social justice. Reporter Sadie Rittman spoke with these youths about their perspectives and experiences in what turned out to be much more than summer festivals.

SADIE RITTMAN: This summer, between my freshman and sophomore year of college, I attended music festivals and county fairs in New York. I might describe the experience like this…

KARIM SHERIF: Everyone was happy.

PATRICIA SECHER: It was great. You know, it was positive. Everybody was, you know, together for the same cause. really positive. Everyone was just there for the same cause.

CAN SOKULLU: You can see every kind of people… You can see religious people, gay people, anyone.

RITTMAN: But those people you just heard weren’t fellow New Yorkers, and though their reflections seemed to describe a kind of festival-like atmosphere, they certainly weren’t celebrating music or deep fried Oreos. That was Karim Sherif, Patricia Secher and Can Sokullu, from Cairo, Sao Paulo and Istanbul respectively, and they spent their summers protesting for what they saw as the democratic falterings in their country. The feelings of togetherness, beauty and hope that they got from their – shall we say, ‘festivals’ – came at much higher stakes than mine.

SOKULLU: Its quite like a festival, seriously. You can see every kind of people, just chatting, helping each other. And then the police attack at night, because at night its hard to I guess catch things on camera so police prefer attacking at nightfall.

SECHER: There was a woman journalist that was hit in the eye and there were tons of pictures of her you know with a big eye and bleeding and purple and everything

SOKULLU: The joyous place suddenly becomes a hell

RITTMAN: The protests that these young people became occupied with were sparked for different reasons, and yet Particia, Can and Karim seem to share a common democratic spirit.

To explain the protests that began in Turkey on May 27th, Nedim Sener, a Turkish journalist who came to speak in New York, referred to Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan as an ‘authoritarian father’. He tries to control what the Turks read, how many children they have, and even what they eat, but Sener says that ‘some kids don’t like the spinach every night, and so they are protesting’.

The protests all started when this ‘wayward father’ sought to take away Istanbul’s Gezi Park, located in Taksim square, which 24 year old Can saw as an important symbol.

SOKULLU: The reason why I was there is that Taksim is like the symbol for the secular people in Turkey, and their aim was destroying that symbol.

It seems that Erdogan did react to the peaceful sit-in in the park like an authoritarian father would, when his police force was sent to try to teach his kids a disturbing lesson.

SOKULLU: The real reason was protecting trees at first, until the police officers really attacked those people. We suffered a lot from the gas bombs, seriously. The thing that everyone should protest police force, that’s the primary thing for me. People are generally protesting against the government itself.

RITTMAN: Being hit with gas bombs pushed Can and other protesting youths to become more politically aware, making them realize first hand that perhaps Erdogan’s democratic integrity is severely flawed.

SOKULLU: He says that how can I be a dictator, I came here with votes, when actually there are people being arrested, everyday. He wants more freedom for himself.

RITTMAN: Brazil’s mass protests, beginning on June 6th, were also sparked over a small-scale issue, an increase in bus fares. However, Nineteen year old law student from Sao Paolo, Patricia Secher, spoke to me about how the protests quickly broadened in scope to address larger social issues.

SECHER: In the beginning it was all just because of the public transportation price. But then people started talking about its not only about that but also because of education, and healtrh, and everything else we need to work out in our country because we have a pretty bad situation.

RITTMAN: Meanwhile, 22 year old engineering student Karim Sherif of Cairo describes Egypt’s mass protests from June 26th to July 3rd as a continuation of the country’s Arab Spring protests from January of 2011.

SHERIF: Everybody really wanted change. Nobody wanted this tyrant ruler again.

RITTMAN: Though protests in 2011 saw Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak ousted and Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood party democratically elected, Karim and other protesting Egyptians didn’t think that Morsi was adequately fulfilling the democracy that they’d strived for

SHERIF: They want to tailor democracy in their own way

RITTMAN: Protesters succeeded in seeing Morsi removed from power, but unrest and controversies continued, especially around the question of whether it was really the people or a military coup that deposed Morsi.

SHERIF: I have friends, members in the Muslim brothers, ant I totally respect their point of view. At some point, at the point where they say it was a military coup – its not.

RITTMAN: Conversly, In Brazil, Patricia complains that the protests ended a little too abruptly, when bus fares were negotiated back down but the country’s larger social questions were just forgotten.

SECHER: Brazilian people have short term memory, because it feels like everyone forgot what happened

RITTMAN: In Turkey, the story is quite different. Whereas in Brazil the media was able to document and thus put a stop to police violence,

Reporters Without Borders refers to Turkey as ‘the world’s largest prison for journalists’. The New York Times reports that since May 72 journalists have been fired for covering protests. This means that the free press isn’t really there to protect its citizens, and Can says that without a free press to record their trials, protesters like him have been scared off the streets and onto twitter.”

SOKULLU: I wasn’t a twitter user until the protests began, now I am following lots of people. For instance, I am following every reporter who have been fired. I see warnings from twitter that there are police bus coming, you should get away from there, I’m getting warnings like that from twitter. Its really crucial.

RITTMAN: But even twitter isn’t safe from repression. Can says Turkish twitter users click ‘mark as spam’ to silence political opponents and can’t even hide behind to speak freely.

SOKULLU: Twitter in Turkey is like a war zone. They have actually assembled a police team for that, just for checking twitter, yeah. Its been in the paper, they don’t deny it. assembled a police team for twitter… its been in the paper, they don’t deny it. Ah, I don’t know whether I should laugh or cry.

RITTMAN: And so, as I headed back to school in September, though Can reports less and less protesting, his passions are still strong as he continues to send me updates over facebook chat. Nearby in Cairo, Karim sees an interim government that continues to promise the heightened level of democracy that he desires, yet he still remains distressed as headlines continue emerge such as ‘Egypt interim president defends military coup’ from Al Jazeera. All the way in Brazil, Patricia continues her studies feeling her city eerily return to normalcy with bus prices stagnant at 3 reales. In each case, the inner desire of these youths’ to strive towards democracy and social justice in their countries have not been quenched.

For War News Radio, I’m Sadie Rittman.

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