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07ISTANBUL358 2007-04-30 13:33:00 UNCLASSIFIED Consulate Istanbul
Cable title:  

HUNDREDS OF THOUSANDS IN ISTANBUL MARCH FOR

Tags:   PGOV TU 
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1. Summary: An unprecedented crowd of around 1 million
rallied in Istanbul on April 29 in support of Turkey's
secular democracy. The previously planned rally followed a
strong statement by the Turkish military on April 27, warning
of threats to the secular republic (refs B, C). Within the
diverse group, many participants protested Foreign Minister
Abdullah Gul's presidential candidacy, believing a president
with Gul's Islam-oriented pedigree would pose a threat to the
fundamentals of Ataturk's republic. Almost as vocal were
those objecting to military interference in the political
process to combat the Islamist "threat". Many called for the
government's resignation. Speakers emphasized that
secularism was fundamental to democracy, warned that military
intervention was not the answer and called for opposition
parties to unite. The protest was peaceful, and there were
no incidents. End summary.



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No Sharia, No Coup-d'Etat


--------------------------





2. Consulate General staff observed the rally -- billed as a
protest against the ruling Justice and Development Party's
(AKP) candidate for the presidential election, FM Abdullah
Gul -- in Istanbul's Caglayan Square on April 29. The
demonstration was organized by a number of NGO's led by the
Ataturk Thought Association as well as some political
parties, NGO's, unions and chambers. The rally gained a
sense of urgency and political relevance from the dispute
between the AKP-led government and the military that came to
a head earlier in the weekend (ref B). Estimates vary from
700,000 to 3 million but the crowd clearly exceeded the
estimated 300,000 who gathered in Ankara on April 14 in a
similar rally (ref A). Professor Turkan Saylan from the
organization committee said attendance was much higher than
expected. Actual numbers are likely to be closer to the
municipality's estimate of 1.5 million. No matter the number
this is indisputably one of the largest gatherings of its
kind in Turkey's history.



3. Speeches emphasized secularism's central role in Turkey's
democratic system, but many also stressed the danger of
military influence in the political process. Saylan, who is
also chairwoman of the Association of Support for
Contemporary Life, said in her speech that secularism was a
fundamental and inseparable component of democracy. "But we
also know that military interventions are not a solution,"
she added. Deputy President of the Ataturk Thought
Association Nur Serter meanwhile, called for the opposition
to unite against the AKP. The most common slogans echoed
those of the earlier Ankara rally: "Turkey is secular and
will remain secular," "the road to Cankaya is closed to
sharia," and "government resign." There were no flags or
signs of any organization or political parties, only a sea of
Turkish flags. In some banners, the Foreign Minister's name
was spelled "A.B.D.ullah." (Note: "ABD" is the Turkish
acronym for USA and "AB" is the acronym for the EU. End
note.) Other chants included, "Turkey is split, the imam is
delighted," "Speaker of Parliament, enemy of Ataturk," and
"history's work is Ataturk's army."



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Women in the Forefront


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4. The bulk of the protesters were members of Turkey's urban
middle class -- almost half of them women -- who are
traditionally not very politically active. Four speeches
were made at the protest, and three of the speakers were
female. A woman in her fifties told us that she was
attending a protest for the first time in her life. "If we
do not have secularism, we do not have anything," another
said. They were shouting slogans asking for the government's
resignation, but they also agreed that the winner of an early
election would almost certainly be AKP again. Very few
headscarfs were in evidence in the crowd, but a small group
of elderly ladies wearing traditional headcoverings

ISTANBUL 00000358 002.2 OF 002


passionately chanted pro-secular slogans to the obvious
delight of the more typically Western garbed women around
them.



5. Comment: The unprecedented turn-out indicates that the
perceived "danger" of a Gul presidency has alarmed even
people who have been politically inactive all of their lives.
The massive crowd gathered to protest the erosion of Turkey's
secular identity while at the same time recognizing that a
traditional military coup would have a devastating effect,
setting back many of Turkey's hard-won reforms. The Istanbul
and Ankara rallies also served as calls to the opposition to
unite against the AKP, something they have not succeeded in
doing to date. In the midst of the tense presidential
election struggle, the protesters' message of support for
Turkey's secular democratic process came through loud and
clear. End comment.
JONES