This publication is from Carnegie’s Civic Research Network.

With Turkey’s civil society under assault, solidarity is urgently needed between new and traditional civic actors. An increasingly important question in Turkey is how new civic activists and more established civil society organizations can work together to leverage their respective strengths. Although each group operates in different ways and at different levels, their paths cross more often than not and they have shown a capacity to sustain long-term cooperation in pursuit of similar causes. Cooperation may not always result in the desired outcomes, but it is a promising trend within Turkish civil society. Using lessons learned from recent experiences, this cooperation can be further developed to have an even greater impact locally and nationally.

The Old and the New

Because new civic activism in Turkey is still evolving, it is difficult to define the phenomenon. But many new civic activists share common characteristics.1 Most are young, and although acutely aware of Turkey’s political and social problems, they feel disconnected from the formal system. Many are able to engage on multiple issues at the same time for they tend to focus on specific, local problems rather than big ideals. This does not mean they are indifferent to macro issues but rather that they address them through a narrower prism. In some cases, their protests can spread far beyond the local environment.

Özge Zihnioğlu
Özge Zihnioğlu is an assistant professor in the Department of International Relations at Istanbul Kültür University in Turkey.

The most striking difference between new civic activists and traditional civic actors is how they are organized. New civic activists prefer to work in loose networks with flexible structures. This is partly because they regard the hierarchical and bureaucratic structures of traditional organizations as millstones and administratively burdensome. They also see a more loose structure as a practical way, especially for rights-based groups, to circumvent the government’s attempts to control their activities. To facilitate communication and organization, new activists use social media widely, which helps maintain momentum in increasingly challenging circumstances.

Some believe that the flexibility of new actors does not easily mesh with the approach of traditional actors. However, their distinct approaches do not necessarily represent contradictory objectives. Public attention to certain issues may begin with the spontaneous eruption of mass protests; but these protests may also grow out of other types of civil society campaigning, such as petitioning, online mobilization, meetings, and the initiation of judicial processes by civil society organizations. Furthermore, the protests often organically become part of a long-term joint effort of both new and traditional civic activist groups. Sustained cooperation with traditional actors has in fact occurred in recent years, evidenced by several major cases of new civic activism.

Civic Cooperation in Practice

One example is the civic response to the destruction of an olive grove in Yırca village in the western Turkish province of Manisa. After a rapid expropriation decision in 2014 to build a new power plant, new civic activists were quick to join the villagers in their campaign against the destruction and the government decision. As a result, the Council of State suspended the project, but it was too late, and approximately 6,000 olive trees were chopped down overnight. However, the protests continued, and several established civil society organizations cooperated by offering to follow up with legal action. Soon after the destruction, two professional associations (the Chamber of Chemical Engineers and Chamber of Environmental Engineers), along with environmental civic platforms, filed an annulment action against the government decision. Their efforts were successful, and the power plant was not built.

The anti-mining activities close to Turkey’s province of Artvin represent another good example of complementary civic activism. In the 1990s, planning began for the destruction of a forest in Cerattepe to open a mine. The first reactions from civil society organizations against the project emerged in the early 2000s; however, it was only after an assessment by the Ministry of Energy and Natural Resources in 2012 that Cerattepe began attracting substantial attention from activists and various civil society organizations. An initial legal struggle by Green Artvin Association resulted in a stay of execution and then an annulment decision in 2014. However, the mining contractor secured another positive assessment with minor changes and began preparing for exploration and extraction. This triggered protests between June 2015 and February 2016 in Cerattepe as well as in neighboring provinces and other major cities. On the one hand, thousands of activists joined local people in their protests. On the other hand, civil society organizations sought to contribute to pressure on the government by filing another annulment action against the new assessment. These efforts achieved a temporary victory; after meeting with local representatives and civil society organizations, then prime minister Ahmet Davutoğlu announced the suspension of all mining activities in Cerattepe until the lawsuit is concluded.

A final example is the joint efforts of new and traditional civic actors to block demolishment of the historic Emek theater in Istanbul and the building of a shopping and entertainment complex. When a 2006 decision by the Council of Ministers came down in support of the project, the Union of Chambers of Turkish Engineers and Architects initiated legal action. Its request in 2009 for a stay of execution was approved in 2010 but then reversed in 2011 against the advice of the experts appointed by the court. The union’s subsequent legal challenge led to the stay of execution decision being reaffirmed in late 2014; however, it did not come in time. Having received the construction permit from the municipality in 2013 and having demolished the theater soon thereafter, the company went ahead and completed the shopping complex in late 2016. Despite not achieving the desired outcome, civic actors brought significant attention to the issue. Numerous mass protests occurred from 2009 to 2014, and during this time, professional organizations and associations of the cinema industry were also active. But equally prominent were platforms, initiatives, and networks of new activists that at times brought thousands of protesters on site. These protesters included not only groups organized around the Emek theater issue but also others who sought to harness the protests for broader agendas.

These three examples not only show how the efforts of new and traditional civic actors can complement one another but also how a local issue can generate civic action at a higher level. While the new and traditional civic actors in all three cases were partly driven by specific, local concerns, they increased attention to the broader effects on governance and sought to challenge a wider set of political and economic interests. Ultimately, the Emek theatre protests became a symbol for reacting against the unchecked urban development. The Cerattepe and Yırca protests challenged the lawmakers that put economic interests ahead of environmental concerns and people’s livelihoods. And in all three cases, activists protested against the projects being forced on residents without any public debate.

Why Cooperation Matters

The new and traditional civic actors in the above examples worked to address the same problem in different ways. Their varied approaches mainly stem from distinctive strengths and weaknesses based on their diverging structures and organizational patterns.

In focusing on local issues, new civic activists can often spot an emerging problem quicker and more easily. And because they are less encumbered by bureaucracy, they can also react more quickly. Further, they are better equipped to reach out to local people and learn about their concerns. The issues new civic activists are interested in either directly affect them or the people they know. Their proximity to local people brings more legitimacy to their activities. Acting together with the locals, they can also link their problems with broader governance issues, which resonates with a wide circle of citizens. This can then bring attention to a bigger public to the cause in question. Activists’ effective use of social media is instrumental in sharing information about the problem and their ongoing activities with a larger audience. The resulting public attention and participation in protests raises media outlets’ interest in the issue.

In sum, new civic activists can make a problem more visible in the near term. Therefore, involvement of new civic activists has the potential to quickly advance an initial local reaction against a particular problem. This, in turn, helps both new and traditional actors to put more pressure on the relevant authorities.

However, new civic activism has limitations. New activists usually lack the expertise to consolidate an initial reaction and turn it into a sustained, institutional challenge to a certain decision. This is particularly true for issues requiring technical assessments, such as environmental and urban development plans. This is not to suggest that new civic activists are not well-read on a given issue. But environmental impact assessments, city plans, and the like require professional knowledge, expertise, and even data that may not readily be available to activists.

Many protests by new civic activists are based on controversial legal decisions. Similar to the aforementioned examples, in various instances, activists may have to go to court to tackle such cases. This requires committed lawyers with legal experience in the area. Judicial processes can easily extend a legal struggle for years. Even with committed lawyers, it is unlikely that new civic activists can follow such judicial processes given their fluid and ad hoc structure.  

The same problem applies to policy change that goes beyond the immediate local campaign. New civic activists may focus on a specific, local issue but also have political claims that seek wider changes in the policy environment. In such cases, new civic activists are often criticized for not going beyond grievance-based politics and failing to put forward specific policy suggestions related to their wider political claims. How this new activism can connect to governance and policymaking is a difficult circle to square. Certainly, one-off protests against a policy are rarely enough to influence lawmakers to instigate far-reaching change. This outcome requires persistence and constant lobbying. Due to their loose structure, new civic activists are usually unable to sustain their strategies over a long duration, even when a policy change is the intended goal.

This is where traditional civic actors have the means to complement the shortcomings of new civic activists and serve as their conduit for effecting change both locally and beyond. Traditional actors have the capacity to fill the knowledge and expertise gap. This is true for well-established professional organizations like a chamber of engineers and for local civil society organizations that have long been active in the area or on the issue. Equally important, their stable structure and presence allows them to sustain campaign strategies and follow the judicial process to the end. Lastly, most traditional civic actors have experience in working with public institutions.

While all this suggests a division of labor between the two groups, this does not mean that they are totally disconnected from one another or that they each adhere to one operational logic. Leading members of each group are usually well-known activists in their field. They often know each other and are well informed about their respective activities. In some cases, a prominent activist may be a part of both a new and traditional civic group. These activists function as a natural bridge between the two groups. Regardless of whether they coordinate their work formally or in an ad hoc fashion, the personal intermeshing intensifies over time.

Opportunity for Reinforcement

Civic cooperation in Turkey is a promising trend because it has the potential to reinforce the effects of different actors’ work in a country where sustained, long-term efforts have been rare. Given their respective strengths, new civic activists and traditional civic actors have the opportunity to work together in a mutually beneficial fashion. New civic activists’ proximity to local communities and their flexible structures allow for a quick reaction and bring greater visibility and legitimacy to an issue. Traditional civic actors’ established institutional structure helps to sustain the cause for an extended period, follow the judicial process through, and act as a conduit for broader changes in governance.

This trend has important policy implications for activists themselves and for international organizations that support civil society. In recent years, much focus has been on new civic activism as an alternative to traditional activism—and on the apparent friction between the two. There is growing evidence to suggest, however, that much could be gained from policies focused on encouraging and facilitating cooperation between them.

From donors’ perspective, creating opportunities for further cooperation requires, first and foremost, a definition of civil society inclusive of new civic activists. Most donors currently use a definition that does not include informal groups, but changing it may be a long process. In the meantime, donors can provide funds to traditional actors for holding regular dialogue with new activists, during which they can discover each other’s potential.

The Carnegie Endowment’s Democracy and Rule of Law Program thanks the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, the Ford Foundation, and the UK Department for International Development for research support that makes possible the work of the Civic Activism Network.

Özge Zihnioğlu is an assistant professor in the Department of International Relations at Istanbul Kültür University in Turkey. She is a member of Carnegie’s Civic Research Network.


1 For more detailed discussion on new civic activism in Turkey, see Özge Zihnioğlu, “Turkey: The Struggles of a New Civil Society,” in Global Civic Activism in Flux, edited by Richard Youngs (Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2017),