Sunday, July 28, 2013

How Turkey misread the Egyptian Political Map

Following the recent Egyptian army’s military coup that ousted its democratically elected president, Mohammed Morsi, the Turkish government immediately announced its disappointment, and unsuccessfully campaigned internationally to have it reversed. Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, stated that “No matter where they are ... coups are bad.... Coups are clearly enemies of democracy,” and went on to describe the negative effects coups had had on Turkish history. Reiterating his thoughts, his Foreign Minister, Ahmet Davutolgu, called on the military to integrate Morsi back into politics, and claimed that the military coup was a counter revolution masterminded by “internal and external actors who wanted the continuation of the [Hosni Mubarak] era paradigms.” He also compared the military coup in Egypt with those in Turkey’s past.

There is no doubt that with Turkey’s past history with military coups, and the Turkish government’s strengthening of the state’s institution to prevent further ones, many in Turkey affiliated with the government saw their state as a model for the Egyptian case; further, following Morsi’s winning of the presidency, Erdogan took Morsi under his wing, acting somewhat of a mentor, guiding him on how a Muslim conservative government could defy an anti-democratic secular elite. In fact, Morsi was even showcased at last year’s AK party convention, where he was awarded up to two billion dollars in loans and support from Turkey, which significantly poised the Middle East with a new reality: no longer would countries in the region have to look to the US or Russia for support, or to the Arab Oil states, now Turkey was in the game.

Throughout all of this however, the Turkish government, and many of the Turkish sympathizers of President Morsi, have missed one important point: Egypt is not Turkey. Historically, the two countries could not be farther apart from one another. While many in Turkey are quick to point out the shared past of Turkey and Egypt under the Ottoman Empire, few scrutinize this claim; yes, for Turks longing for a glorious past, the Ottoman years in Egypt seems quite vivid; yet, they miss the fact that since the early 19th century the Ottomans never had any direct rule over the country that eventually fell to British occupation in 1882. While the Albanian Ottoman officer, Mehmet Ali, and his descendants who turned into Egypt’s royal family and were eventually overthrown by the Young Officers in 1952, did speak Turkish, Egypt’s political map developed independently of the Ottoman Empire. In fact, much of what can be envisioned as the “Turkish” past, has just as much to do with Egypt’s Mamluk past than its Ottoman one.    

While Erdogan has worked to compare the fate of Mohammed Morsi, to those who suffered coups at the hands of the Turkish military, the comparison stops there. Any scholar of Egypt can attest to the fact that unlike Turkish history, Egyptian history is rich with popular uprisings and challenges to the state: from the Urabi revolt, to the Dinshaway Incidents, the 1919 revolution ignited by the Wafd incidents, the Egyptian revolution lead by the Free Officers Movement (leading to the renowned rule of Gamal Abdul Nassar), to the 1977 bread riots, Egyptians have a long history of hitting the streets to challenge Ottoman, British colonial, and Egyptian led governments. It is in this context that which the January 25 uprising, and the more recent June 30 one, which led to a military coup, need to be placed.

In other words, there is little comparison to the Turkish case, where the military-secular elite took the reins of the government, aiming to keep the state within their parameters of Kemalist ideology, which has developed for almost a century; while parallel to this the AK party emerged in 2002 as the result of a growing civil demand to once and for all remove the military completely from the public sphere. Not to mention the fact that Erdogan himself, by serving as the mayor of Istanbul, was a well-known politician who had built up credibility over years of public service, and importantly integrated elements of Kemalism in his own party’s platform and worldview. In other words, comparing the rise of the AK party to that of Morsi’s FJP party (affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood) is also quite far-fetched since it carries few similarities.         

In short, Turkish policy makers that treated Morsi and the recent coup, as if this was parallel to the Turkish case, have completely misread the Egyptian political map. I think few would argue with Erdogan’s claim that military coups are enemies of democracy, including many Egyptians in Tahrir Square who called for Morsi’s resignation; however, by discrediting the millions of Egyptians who took to the streets as not having legitimate claims and accusing them of not abiding by the rules of democracy, only blurs the reality that what occurred in Egypt had also a great deal to do with Morsi’s poor leadership and the fears of a large part of the Egyptian people who believed Morsi was set on implementing an authoritarian state similar to the one they had rejected two years ago. In other words, what we recently witnessed in Egypt was a continuation of the revolution that started two years ago; unfortunately, Morsi underestimated the army, and in place of working for a compromise, he opted for all-or-nothing, a price that Egypt is paying for today, with the military working under a similar approach violently cracking down on the Morsi camp.

Certainly, as violence continues to grow in Egypt, with Morsi’s return further away than ever, Turkey will need to stand two-steps back and reassess its relationship with Egypt; however, regardless of which group emerges from the current power struggle, it seems that Egyptians are more skeptical than ever concerning Turkey’s future role. Perhaps, this is the reason for the recent change: after the Turkish government vowed not to recognize Adly Mansour’s presidency, last Wednesday, Turkish President Abdullah Gul sent Mansour a message conveying good tidings on Egypt’s national day. This seems to be the first sign that Turkey is looking for away to safely climb down from the tree in an attempt to cut its losses. 

This approach is especially important as Egypt's witnesses its second massacre of Morsi supporters. If Turkey really wants to secure stability in Egypt then it will have to remove its status as an advocate of Morsi, and start to work under realpolitik, or even "damage control," to take every possible step that will contribute to a peaceful solution and place Egypt back on a democratic path; since as we have seen the continued stalemate (deterioration of the situation) is only to the detriment of the Egyptian people, not to mention Turkey's credibility in the region at large.  


Friday, July 19, 2013

Update from Istanbul: Has teargas become a Saturday Night Ritual in Taksim?

Protesters, tourists, old people, families, run from water cannon
Since the expulsion of the Gezi Park protesters from the park on June 15 and the following day, the only protests in Istanbul that have been met with a strong police reaction have been confined to Taksim Square, Istiklal pedestrian avenue, and the side streets of Beyoglu and Cihangir, no longer extending to Besiktas, Harbiye, and other surrounding neighborhoods.  

water cannon sprays protesters on Istiklal causing all to run
In fact, during the last three weeks, it seems that it has become a Saturday night ritual for police to clash with protesters; with teargas being shot off, water cannons sprayed, and police chasing protesters into the side streets, where they sometimes also run into unknown assailants beating them with batons in civilian clothes. This of course happens in the midst of tourists running for cover, curious onlookers, and families with children working to keep a safe distance.  

During a 8-day span between two Saturday nights, July 6-13, I made my way down to Taksim to observe some of the protests (some turning into clashes); while other times during the week, I observed the chaos while eating dinner at a friend’s house on a street near Istiklal (literally with teargas seeping in through the windows), or having dinner at a restaurant with friends from abroad (with sounds of the teargas being shot off in the background). 

While some in government tried to paint Gezi Protesters as
disrespectful of religion, they hold Iftar
Here are some short observations and thoughts concerning what I have witnessed:

1. If the police just let the protesters march without interference evenings would end peacefully. Twice now I have witnessed demonstrations (one almost 3 weeks back) where police did not interfere and protesters dispersed within less than an hour. However, this was not the case on July 6, 8, and 13, when protesters clashed with police both on Istiklal, Cihangir (at least on July 8), and in the side streets of Beyoglu.  

2. As in the past, it seems then that Taksim is continuing to play its role as a game of honor on behalf of the Turkish authorities. For example, when protesters held a massive rally in Kadikoy, along with concerts and speeches, the approximate hundred thousand plus people dispersed with no problems with no police intervention whatsoever. The government’s obsession with not allowing any protests to take place in Taksim is costing the Turkish economy a great deal, while tearing parts of Turkey’s social components at the seams. Police intervention in the heart of the entertainment hurts tourism, and to claim that protests detour tourism cannot be supported; in fact, from my impression most tourists do not mind the protests and actually find them interesting.    

  3. While many shop owners have blamed protesters for their serious loss in business, they might look at the two above points.  In fact, protests often bring business to local restaurant and store owners, such as Istanbul’s LGBT Pride, which on June 30 attracted almost 50,000 protesters to Beyoglu. This massive march was left unhindered by police and ended peacefully despite its pro-Gezi chants. In this case, it was an all win situation. The police's non-intervention could be interpreted as a show of soberness and even strength, the protesters got their message out, and local businesses profited nicely! 

4. It is also important to point out that there are many shop owners who are on the protesters side, after also becoming victims of the mass urban renewal projects undertaken by Beyoglu Municipality and new orders limiting outdoor seating (see my previous blog from 2011: the Day the Bars died: Bring Beyoglu back to the people). Unfortunately, it seems that shop owners who speak out against the government are also worried about the negative impact this could have on their business due to “paybacks” by the government. This week, when one owner spoke out in favor of protesters, Tarkan Konar, his cafe bar, Muaf, was closed for 3 days under an order issued by the local municipality (AK Party) for previous code violations.

5. Returning to the topic of tourists; among many of the people victimized by the teargas are tourists. Numerous times I have guided tourists caught in the middle to safe zones including families with children. On July 6, I met two Egyptian tourists, a mother and her young adult daughter. Both had received a heavy dose of teargas; the daughter was in full panic mode. They were crying since they were not able to make it to meet the husband/father and the younger daughter/sister who had been waiting for them at a spot that turned into a battle zone. I helped them find their way, crossing two police lines, with police treating us with respect, letting us pass unhindered. This is just one example of many I have encountered. I should point out that I still encourage tourists to come to Istanbul, but warn them that if they are on Istiklal and hear commotion due to rising tensions (slogans shouted, whistling, heavy police presence) to go the other way.

6. On July 6, while most of the press focused on the acts of a man pulling out a machete threatening protesters while kicking an innocent woman in the back, I witnessed people who had been beaten black and blue by civilians donning batons; just last week came the news that one student who lived in Eskisehir, Ali Ismail Korkmaz, died of his wounds due to being beaten in the head, after days in a coma. Despite arrests, no one has been charged in his killing. Whether the people beating the protesters are shop owners, pro-government factions, or undercover police, the truth be told that it is dangerous development and one that needs to be investigated.    

7. During this period I observed that it seems due to the lower number of protesters there is closer proximity between the police and protesters leading to a more violent outcome, and more arrests. On July 8, on my way home around 1130 PM I crossed Istikal and watched a police shoot off a canister that appeared to be directed at a bystander’s head who was curiously watching the events unfold; luckily he ducked and the canister crashed into the window cracking it. Turkish police have been documented by Human Rights Watch (and the European Court of Human Rights) as wrongfully firing teargas canisters; in place of shooting them at an angle in the air, or directing the teargas directly at ground, that turns them into a weapon that can inflict death and serious injuries. As a result, scores of people have been hit in the head, suffered breakage of facial bones, lost eyes, and serious hemorrhaging, leaving people in comas and paralyzed, without even addressing other parts of the body injured. In fact, you can read about one of the first victims, Lobna Allami, a Turkish Palestinian, who was hit in the head during the first day of protests on May 31, and remains paralyzed among other serious conditions she is facing.  


8. During the same evening of July 8, I also was able to observe from a window on a main side road not only protesters but also police. For the first time since Gezi started I got the chance to see what appeared to be new recruits patrolling the streets. As it is, many of the police seem be in their early twenties, and these officers could have come in place of older recruits that were long overdue for a break; recent reports have been coming in on how the long hours days without sleep has taken a toll on them. In one case, I witnessed a young police officer who had been hit badly by teargas since his gas mask was put on improperly, with his friends comforting him. Perhaps one attribute that made me think they were young recruits, in addition to the one getting gassed, was the fact that they were marching like soldiers down the side streets, chanting slogans (usually common among military forces and not police) such as “vatan sana canim feda” (I'll die for my country), as if they needed some encouragement. Whatever the case, chanting such slogans only causes a dangerous polarization and sense of alienation towards the other (on both sides).
marching through side streets July 8
  9. Lastly, on the protesters side, it is clear they have entered a new phase. From the masses at Gezi park, numerous forums have been setting up, while other groups protest independently (like we saw with the journalists). I have also met a group of professionals who meet weekly brainstorming how to move to a political action stage. There are great examples of learning about the other, and building on the extreme diversity of the different groups. This was demonstrated greatly by the massive Iftar breakfast dinner, where protesters opened a massive dinner for those fasting during the day along Istiklal, enjoying their evening in the shadow of riot police. While some are skeptical about a major political movement emerging from the Gezi protests, it is clear that the protesters have kept their demands alive through creativity and setting the agenda of when and where they will protest. Further, it seems that until now, they have set the agenda, a fact that should send a strong signal to the government to adopt new policies.  

A lone man walks up Istiklal checking phone teargas
in background. After police enter Nevizade; July 8, 1130 PM  

So the question remains: Will the government turn clashes on Istiklal into a ritual? Will it adopt a strategy to bringing the tensions to an end? Well, I think for now the answer is no. Firstly, the fact that arresting of protesters is still continuing, while others are being detained seems to signal the government is opting to continue its zero-tolerance to any forms of anti-government dissent. Nevertheless, I think it is clear that the government seems to have mismanaged the Gezi Protests from A-to-Z, giving protesters more reason to continue to their struggle. This is truly unfortunate for a government that on one hand is taking courageous steps to make peace with its Kurdish population, and that during the last decade has moved the country forward on so many levels.  

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

The Twitterization of the Gezi Park protests

Here is an excerpt of my latest in Today's Zaman (4 July 2013)

During the first night of conflict, numerous forms of false information were spread over Twitter waves; however, it is necessary to clarify that there is a difference between misinformation and unknowingly spreading false information. I myself unintentionally tweeted (or retweeted) information I had thought was true, such as the story of the death of a girl named Aylin, who was supposedly crushed under an armored vehicle and whose death was even confirmed by an opposition deputy on Halk television (a station different from its mainstream counterparts that hit the streets to cover the events from the start).

Even if I stated that the case of Aylin had been “reported,” such tweets carry weight, and concerning this tweet and others, I reiterated that Twitter can only work properly together with a free, vibrant and transparent media. While the Turkish main media ignored the events, people on the ground had a duty to report, and likewise to announce immediately when making mistakes. Also, there was the need for everyone to work their utmost at filtering exaggerated reports, or misinformation, such as the claim that massacres were taking place; say what you want, but excessive police force is a far cry from being a massacre. In any case, it seems evident that once the Turkish media stepped up its efforts to cover the events, tweets became all the more reliable.

To continue reading, here is the link