The Confederation Cup Was Awesome But Everything Else Is Depressing, and similar news

I was going to post something yesterday, but instead I got pissed in my kitchen and watched the Confederations Cup semifinal between Italy and Spain. While anti-government protests continued to rage outside the stadium, some of the best players in the world played some of the hardest football of their lives in the muggy Brazillian weather.

The result, a win on penalties to Spain, followed 120 minutes of unbelievable play between an underdog Italian side that looked ready to win after the first half and the defending champions who endured their way to a final match against their hosts.

Half a world away, in Egypt, football fans are more likely to be organizing with their Ultras than following the Cup as they approach June 30, the day chosen by opposition groups for a mass march against the regime of President Mohammed Morsi.

In Syria and neighbouring Lebanon, clashes continue to escalate as sectarian tensions, heightened by the increased pressure on rebels from Shia Hezbollah and Alawite Assad, threaten the delicate balance of Lebanese society.

And meanwhile, here in Turkey, the conservative government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan continues to make frightening noises at Kurds and opposition forces even as Gezi Park, the heart of ongoing anti-government protests, prepares to reopen to the public.

Here’s the news:

Turkey

First the good news.

Police will end a nearly two week-long occupation of Gezi Park “in the next few days” and reopen Istanbul’s green heart to the public, according to controversial Governor Huseyin Avni Mutlu.

It’s still unclear whether construction will go ahead in the park. The court order suspending construction remains in place as organizers for Taksim Platform, the appointed voice of the opposition, appeals to have the Gezi Park Master Plan annulled.

The plan, controversial from the onset, included the construction of an Ottoman-style historical barracks and museum/shopping centre in Gezi Park. A refusal to consult with the local population, which Taksim Platform will argue was against municipal guidelines, is what sparked the protests.

Even if the annulment appeal fails, Erdogan has said he will put the matter to a referendum, though protesters are skeptical of his intentions.

The police are also making some conciliatory motions, with the Interior Ministry releasing a new series of guidelines that require police to attempt to detain protesters using water cannons and armoured cars before they use tear gas. It’s a start.

Now the bad.

In the case of Ethem Sarisuluk, a protester who was killed by a police officer at the beginning of the Gezi Park protests, it looks ever more like the officer in question, Ahmet S., will escape conviction.

The court has already released him pending trial on the grounds of self-defense, and pro-government media outlets are erroneously trying to paint Sarisuluk as a terrorist to justify his death. Witnesses to the incident have been arrested and detained, ostensibly in preparation for a trial, though to my knowledge the trial is not set to start for some time.

Disturbing reports of police violence continue to emerge, including one man who was tortured on the street by two police officers while returning home from work. The two officers in question have been arrested and charged, but to date no police have been convicted.

Erdogan also seems to be setting the ground for a possible reopening of the conflict with the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK).

The PKK is a militant group that waged an insurgency against the Turkish Army in Kurdistan throughout the ’90s and 2000s. A settlement between the PKK, the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), and the AKP government resulted in a peace accord and a negotiated withdrawal to Iraq.

Erdogan argued recently that only a fraction — “10 to 15 percent” — of PKK militants have actually withdrawn, amid skirmishes in the east between remaining militants and the army.

It’s not yet clear if these incidents will affect the ceasefire, though Iraq is taking an increasingly hostile tone to the PKK and the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), which recently asserted its sovereignty in Iraq’s north by encouraging thousands of Iraqi Kurdish soldiers to desert and join local peshmerga forces.

If Iraq denies the Kurds a place to withdraw to, either Syria could see an increased concentration of Kurdish forces in the northern region or, more likely, the PKK will be encouraged to stay in Turkey. Unless they disarmed, this would endanger peace efforts for the east.

Egypt

Egypt continues its preparations for a possible second round of revolutions on June 30, when groups opposed to Morsi — including thousands of police, journalists, and even certain Islamist groups — plan to hold  mass march on the presidential palace.

Petitions circulated by the opposition demanding Morsi’s ouster have obtained over 13 million signatures, not coincidentally the number of votes that put Morsi into power.

Islamist groups that held rallies earlier this week in support of the president are now intending to form vigilante “defense” groups which will try to stop protesters from occupying government ministries or destroying offices of the Freedom and Justice Party or the Muslim Brotherhood.

Thousands have already been involved in clashes between supporters and opposition members across the country, and the revolution hasn’t even started yet.

The rhetoric of the opposition seems to suggest this is a full-on revolution in planning, and many of Egypt’s commentators are suggesting it is more than likely that violent clashes will occur.

The police and army have both washed their hands of Morsi’s regime, saying they will only defend vital state institutions. The Guardian cites an army source saying that if things go as far south as they did in 2011, when former President Hosni Mubarak was ousted, they will “regard the protests as a more legitimate representation of the people’s will than the elections that brought Morsi to office a year ago.”

It can’t be forgotten that in Egypt, the army is a political player much like the courts, the parliament, and the presidency, and some within its ranks are probably licking their lips at the opportunity to “facilitate a transition of power to a technocratic caretaker government.”

The Arabist, one of my favourite Egyptian commentators, has a good piece on how Morsi fucked up his first year in power so badly.

Politics are a delicate balancing act in Egypt, between salafists and seculars, Mubarak-era officials and post-revolutionaries, and a bloated bureaucracy and a public desiring accountability.

In this mix, Morsi has been anything but delicate, trying to place himself above legal criticism, fast tracking a constitution in spite of secular opposition, and routinely granting nepotistic appointments to his hardline Islamic supporters.

Egypt is also facing a severe economic and social crisis, with food and power shortages fomenting unrest. This is unlikely to be solved anytime soon, especially if another revolution reshuffles the bureaucracy.

Syria/Lebanon

Syria’s civil war is spilling over into Lebanon with alarming consequences and increasing intensity.

The Shia militia Hezbollah, which is known within Lebanon both for its control over large urban territory and its defense against Israel during the Israeli occupation of South Lebanon, has supported the government of Alawite (a sect of Shia Islam) Basar al-Assad to great effect.

Commentators generally credit the support of Shia Iran and Hezbollah (though also Russia) for the regime’s recent successes in the civil war, including an ongoing battle for rebel-held Aleppo that seems to be going in the government’s favour.

To Lebanon’s Sunni population, Assad and Hezbollah represent foreign “heathen” forces bent on establishing a Shia or, in this case, Alawite state, and ethnically cleansing Sunnis, and thus of course must be ethnically cleansed themselves (in the logic of the Middle East).

Robert F. Worth in the New York Times Magazine has an excellent longform piece telling the story of Assad’s supporters, who view the increasingly religious and sectarian tone of the opposition with fear.

It’s certainly visible in Lebanon that the opposition is becoming distinctively jihadi in character, and abandoning many of the principles of the original revolution.

In the Lebanese city of Sidon, supporters of Sheikh Ahmad Assir, a Salafi (Sunni) jihadi preacher, occupied large swaths of the town, resulting in 59 dead and over 200 injured. The army eventually cleared out his supporters, but the whereabouts of Assir are unknown.

Today, supporters took to the streets in Tripoli, though there was no violence. A roadside bomb also targeted an alleged Hezbollah convoy.

Meanwhile, in Damascus, four were killed in a suicide bombing at a Maronite Christan Church. Christians are pressed by both sides in the conflict, routinely accused of supporting the regime by rebels while subject to the same abuses by government troops and police.

In other news

McDonald’s is boycotting Israeli settlements in the West Bank in what may be the first moral decision ever made by that company.

And everyone’s favourite football nation Qatar has a new sheikh, which some people are saying will mean a more democratic government, probably because they’ve been reading too much al-Jazeera.

Never mind the fact that Qataris already live like pharaohs, on government stipends financed by the backbreaking labour of thousands of imported Bangladeshi quasi-slaves who are denied citizenship and rare trips to visit their families even after 20 years of residency — but like many emirates, democracy may be the last thing the United States (and the overly starry-eyed writer at the New York Times) would want in Qatar.

Like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the U.A.E., Qatar has a stark divide between a western-facing, modernizing royal family and a fundamentalist Salafi population.

The U.S. finances Arabian regimes via its continuing military presence and foreign investment and development, and the sheiks make themselves a little friendlier to the armies of expats they employ by easing up on religious policing, or building a new hotel (bar).

But this irks many of the natives, who routinely express their angst by financing jihadi groups linked to al-Qaeda, like those in Syria.

So maybe, for America, democracy’s not such a great call in Qatar.

More than anything, though, I’m curious what will happen to preparations for the 2024 World Cup, the insane pet project of the last sheikh, and the Qatari royal family’s steady accumulation of soft power, as in the international growth of al-Jazeera, the acquisition of PSG, and the sponsorship of FC Barcelona.

The EU’s Wrong on Everything, Justice Enjoys a Siesta, and more from Turkey

IMG_0683

I’ve been absent for a few days as my girlfriend prepares to return to Canada for the summer and one of my dogs slowly dies of kidney disease. Fortunately, there’s always lots of news to read, and in this instance too much for one post. So here’s the news roundup from Turkey in the past few days, with one for the rest of the Levant to follow.

The Protests

The past few nights have seen renewed energy behind continuing Taksim protests, though they remain for the most part prohibitively suppressed by the continuing police presence in the heart of the city.

Tuesday night, thousands of protesters reoccupied Taksim Square in a brief and tightly controlled protest against the release of a police officer accused of killing a demonstrator at the beginning of the occupation of Gezi Park.

The officer, identified as Ahmet S., was released pending trial on the grounds that his actions resulting in the death of protester Ehmet Sarısülük could’ve fallen within the bounds of reasonable self-defense.

Having seen video of the moment Sarısülük was allegedly killed, it looks to me like “Constable S.” was beating the shit out of Sarısülük for whatever reason (and police here often don’t need one), found himself far away from his buddies and under concentrated attack from stone-throwers, panicked, and made a stupid decision to shoot an unarmed man in the face.

In these sorts of instances, and looking at a lengthy history of police abuses that left four other demonstrators dead in the past month alone, it is hard to sympathize with police, and even harder to excuse this ending without a single officer convicted, despite numerous human rights violations.

The protest saw incredibly tight police controls, including extensive checks and searches on all present members of the media, indicating that police and the regime have no intention of allowing momentum to build off of new protests.

Earlier this week, a commemorative march to Taksim for protesters killed by police resulted in clashes with police. Using water cannons, tear gas, and rubber bullets, police dispersed the large crowd leaving a minority of protesters throwing stones and bottles. Some great photos emerged as angry protesters, armed only with commemorative carnations, pushed back against riot police — flowers against firepower.

Another memorial gathering, this time for the 1993 massacre of Alevis in the Sivas Hotel, was also declared to be in solidarity with Taksim. Alevis, as a generally oppressed sect of Shia Islam, don’t like Erdogan, for his generally pro-Sunni, anti-Shia politics, as in his support for Sunni rebels over the Shia Iran-Hezbollah-Assad alliance in Syria. His choice of name for the controversial third bridge over the Bosphorus, which will be named for the Alevi-slaughtering Sultan Selim “the Grim”, also didn’t impress.

The Politics

The European Union has backed down on its earlier threat to suspend EU accession talks in light of abuses of power during the Gezi protests, now saying they will reopen negotiations in October.

Some EU members, particularly Sweden, argued that continuing talks would encourage the government to improve human rights and media freedoms. This seems pretty hopeful, given that EU members Greece, Hungary, and Italy are all experiencing a frightening slide towards fascism.

More importantly, Turkish EU Minister Egemen Bagis has already shown he is ready to draw a line in the sand over EU interference in domestic politics, denying the parliament’s legitimacy to criticize the government and taking a generally hard line with EU negotiators.

If this is the starting point for Erdogan’s government, I’m with MEP Andrew Duff, who said in an interview with Hurriyet, “I don’t think [Erdogan] really understands what the EU is. He sees it as a club that he would quite like to be a member off. But he does not understand it is in fact a system of government that is federal, pluralistic, secular, and far reaching.”

The Party

As is to be expected, Erdogan and his Freedom and Development (AK) party has continued attacking his opposition and increasing the state’s power to clamp down on criticism.

Monday night, Erdogan warned that the opposition is nuturing sectarian tensions while simultaneously defaming protesters for allegedly drinking and wearing shoes in a mosque, a crime abhorred by his conservative Islamic base and repeatedly denied by the imam of the mosque in question.

In a fiery speech yesterday, he has defended the actions of police as a “heroic saga”, including even the storming of the Divan Hotel, where a pregnant woman lost her baby in clashes and children and elderly were gassed as they fled from police violence.

He stood behind Ankara Mayor Melih Gökçek, who has received widespread mockery for accusing BBC reporter Selin Girit of being an English spy, saying the BBC is just another part of the “planned operations” to undermine the AKP and Turkey’s march towards progress.

I’ve only had the privilege of going to one of Erdogan’s speeches thus far, but surely even his supporters are getting tired of the international plot theories.

As always with Erdogan, it’s worth reading the full summary of his speech for the full effect.

The Plotters

They may be trying to undermine the AKP as part of an international conspiracy, but at least one social media company is willing to narc — and to no one’s surprise, it’s Facebook.

That’s not strictly fair, since Facebook categorically denied having responded “positively” to government requests for information (in the words of Binali Yıldırım, communications minister).

But following on revelations about their buddy-buddy relationship with the NSA’s invasive PRISM program, it hardly inspires faith in the company that holds all your best protest photos that they have allegedly “been working in coordination with the Turkish authorities for a long time.”

On the other side of things, I fell in love with Twitter a little more this week after hearing their categorical rejection of cooperation with Turkey to censor tweets.

Coming up…

Egypt looks due for another revolution, Lebanon looks due for another civil war, and Palestine and Syria look… well, like Palestine and Syria. Up tomorrow.

Taksim 2.0, Egypt plans a sequel, & Syria has a religious awakening

TURKEY

Taksim Square was looking properly familiar last night as clouds of tear gas once again engulfed protesters fleeing on neighbouring side streets and battalions of riot cops marched in line with water cannons, firing rubber bullets.

A demonstration yesterday involved the laying of carnations on the steps of Gezi Park in commemoration of the four protesters killed in clashes with police over the past few weeks. As the crowd swelled, a minority of young protesters, some just children, began hurling rocks and bottles at police and TOMA crowd control tanks, and police fired several cans of tear gas to disperse the crowd.

As per usual, the square emptied out pretty fast, and police then began a relentless hunt in side streets, spraying bystanders with water cannons and injuring several with rubber bullets.

These clashes follow several days of peaceful civil disobedience in the form of “standing man” protests, which have occupied Taksim Square. It’s still not clear whether Istanbul is due for another few weeks of civil unrest. Protesters in Taksim, with the exception of a small minority, by and large complied with police requests to clear the square, but were nonetheless subject to police repression on Istiklal Avenue and adjacent streets.

Protesters continue to be disappointed by the government response to instances of police brutality during the Gezi Park protests, which included gassing hospitals and hotels, arresting medical officials and members of the media, and injuring thousands with tear gas canisters and rubber bullets. Gezi Park remains closed to the public following a brutal police clearance on June 15.

The government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan continues to spat with the European Union, which seems increasingly unlikely to continue negotiations for membership. In particular, France, the Netherlands, and Germany, which has a large Turkish expat population, are critics of Erdogan’s uncompromising response to public criticism.

Sweden argues EU membership will prevent a greater slide towards authoritarianism within Erdogan’s government. The majority of protesters in Istanbul are of the more progressive, pro-European type that would benefit from membership, they say.

Erdogan has continued, in a series of speeches to his constituents, to blame the protests on foreign influences and an “interest rate lobby” (the meaning of which no one seems capable of deciphering) and has even argued that protests currently engulfing Brazil are related to the same international plot to undermine emerging economies.

His government is now investigating possible “foreign links” and has suggested the protests could be aimed at undermining a peace process with Kurdish militants in Turkey’s east initiated by his government. The peace process looks increasingly in danger of devolving into violence, with news emerging of clashes on Turkey’s eastern border.

For photos of yesterday’s clashes, see here.

EGYPT

Tensions in Egypt are undeniably on the rise as the opposition to the government of President Mohammed Morsi, now united under the “Tamarrod” or Rebel Movement, prepares for mass protests on June 30.

The Tamarrod Movement will submit a series of petitions of non-confidence in Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood-led government to the Supreme Constitutional Court (SCC) and march on government ministries and the office of the presidency in a recreation of the peaceful uprising that led to the downfall of former President Hosni Mubarak.

Rumour has it they’ve tallied more than 15 million signatures, exceeding by millions the votes received by Morsi in presidential elections.

On the other side of the equation is a increasingly violent base of Salafi Islamists, who have been pulling Morsi’s strings to the ire of Egypt’s liberals. Counter-protests began recently and are due to end on June 27, but the potential for clashes on June 30 is high.

Morsi recently angered many Egyptians by taking a firm stance against the government of Syria’s embattled Shia President Bashar al-Assad and appointing Islamists and members of the Muslim Brotherhood (which controls Egypt’s upper house, the Shura Council) to important ministries. In the eyes of the opposition, these sorts of actions lend credence to the notion that he is increasingly controlled by hardcore Sunni extremists.

The Egyptian Army, which maintains an arms-length distance from the government of Morsi and has repeatedly indicated a wish for a more political role, has announced their intentions to stay out of June 30, protecting protesters and vital state institutions but not necessarily the government of Morsi.

Police and army both have said they will not protect the offices of the Muslim Brotherhood, frequently the targets of protester violence, and reports have it that thousands of police officers will be joining in.

It’s possible we could see another regime change a la Tahrir Square with both the army and police backing away so clearly from Morsi’s government. Hamdi Hassan nicely lays out the possible outcomes in a piece for Your Middle East.

LEBANON/SYRIA

Meanwhile, Egyptian Salafi clerics are increasingly convincing their middle class congregants to buy “a plane ticket and a gun” and join the Syrian revolution.

Even though fewer than 10 per cent of Syria’s rebel forces are foreign, according to the Washington Post, the influx of religiously motivated foreign fighters, including Gulf-backed Salafis and Iranian-backed Hezbollah, is making the conflict increasingly sectarian.

This threatens to complicate matters for big imperial powers like France, Britain, and the US, which, under the pretext of preventing chemical attacks, have started arming rebel groups. Exactly who are the “good”, “secular” rebels and who are the “bad”, “jihadi” types is the sort of question that has been complicated by the influx of al-Qaeda linked fighters, financial backing from Gulf theocracies like Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and Qatar, and videos of a Syrian rebel commander eating a human heart.

In Lebanon, the increasingly vital role of Hezbollah to the Syrian Army has drawn the ire of Sunni populations in Lebanon’s divided and sectarian society. Violence has routinely spilled over on Lebanon’s eastern border with Syria. Hezbollah accuses Israel and the US of financing the rebels (probably not far off from the truth in this crazy place), and Sunnis accuse Hezbollah of playing puppet to Iran in a crusade against fellow Muslims.

The religious dimension risks exacerbating violence against civilians, with reports of ethnic cleansing already emerging in Alawite (Assad’s sect of Shi’ite Islam) and Sunni strongholds. Syria is already one of the worst refugee crises in history, with millions displaced, heightening tensions with locals in Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey.

A Depressing Look Back on the Outcome of Gezi

#direngeziparki

Istanbul hit a milestone last night. At around 9 P.M., when two weeks earlier hundreds had paraded down my street banging pots and pans, only a single, solitary person protested against the regime of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

It seems as though the protests that rocked Istanbul’s Gezi Park and public spaces around Turkey for the past 20 days are over. Attempts to revive them have been thwarted by the police occupation of Gezi and Taksim in the days following their brutal clearing on 15 July.

Though silent civil disobedience continues around the city, the bulk of Istanbul’s population is tired enough to go home, and those who remain have lost their common enemy.

Now seems as good a time as ever to take stock of what, if anything, they actually managed to accomplish.

The protests began as an environmental sit-in to prevent the construction of an Ottoman-style barracks museum/shopping centre in one of Istanbul’s last remaining green spaces. The government attempt to repress the protests in a typically excessive fashion spurred thousands to join.

By the end of the first week, the numbers had grown to their peak as Taksim, Gezi, Besiktas and the bridge to Asia were packed with hundreds of thousands (possibly millions) of disenfranchised citizens, whose lists of grievances had expanded to include police brutality, media self-censorship, and the perceived religious authoritarianism of Erdogan’s Justice and Development (AK) party.

So what has been accomplished? To begin with, Erdogan’s government has agreed to stall construction projects in Gezi Park, in compliance with a court order. They’ve also agreed to put the issue to a referendum, should their planned appeal succeed.

Though this may seem like the aim of the protests have been accomplished (it certainly does to Erdogan’s supporters), it is at best a partial victory.

Even though construction is halted, Gezi Park remains occupied by police and closed to the public. It is as good as a construction site for anyone but the police officers that brutally cleared it.

The adjacent Ataturk Cultural Centre (AKM), which many protesters did not want to see demolished, is outside of the scope of the court order, and will be destroyed to make way for a mosque and museum as planned, in opposition to the will of many Istanbullus.

Furthermore, the government has no plans to back down on their appeal in Turkey’s increasingly politicized courts, and protesters were already deeply skeptical of the idea of a referendum, which, they argue, could easily be geared to deliver a win for Erdogan.

Similarly environmentally destructive and politically contentious projects, like Istanbul’s second airport, third bridge (named for an ethnically cleansing sultan), and new canal project, are all scheduled to go ahead without local consultation, the personal pet projects of Erdogan and his party.

But making these protests about Gezi, or even environmentalism, is perhaps a little deceptive. It can’t be forgotten that the court order preventing construction was issued on May 31, well before the protests expanded and international media got wind of them. In the end, many were protesting not about Gezi, but about the brutality of the police response.

On this front, nothing has been accomplished. Police are in the process of ordering 100,000 new canisters of tear gas, having used 130,000 on protests. There is no initiative for the banning of tear gas or the firing of Istanbul Governor Huseyin Avni Mutlu, who was instrumental in the escalation of violence, or the investigation of police responsible for brutality. These were all protest demands, all of them ignored.

Numerous breaches of human rights, including arbitrary arrest, attacks on media and medical staff, detention without access to lawyers, and the deaths of four protesters, will go uninvestigated. Police continue to brutally suppress protests outside Istanbul with the same equipment used in Gezi, often in the same excessive quantity.

Concerning media censorship, the protests successfully claimed one media executive, Cem Ayin of NTV, who was fired shortly after apologizing to his reporters for ignoring the protests in their early days.

But Andalou Agency, Sabah Daily, Today’s Zaman, and countless other outlets continue to unabashedly support the government even during its most repressive activities. Several continue to publish outright lies or refuse coverage to alternative voices.

Most shockingly, the government has spent the days following the clearance of Gezi arresting journalists and performing raids on alternative media outlets that supported the protests. The government is also drafting new laws that will increase their power of censorship, targeting social media.

Even worse, Erdogan questioned the validity of press card, issued by his own office, in determining who can and who can’t be arbitrarily arrested for being at the site of protests. Over the last twenty days, scores of journalists were injured and detained and there is no sense that this will change. Turkey remains the world’s largest prison for journalists.

It is true that Erdogan is now a bit of an international pariah, especially in Europe, which now looks set to deny Turkey EU membership. But this can hardly be counted as a victory, given that it wasn’t protesters who did this  (who would probably benefit economically from EU membership), but Erdogan himself.

It’s Erdogan’s own EU minister who is threatening to cut all diplomatic ties, and it’s in Germany, whose large Turkish expat population would probably love easier immigration between the two nations, that the government is making an end to accession talks part of their political platform.

Though Erdogan’s reputation has been damaged abroad, it’s only galvanized his base, which loves to see him challenging international institutions and was only lukewarm on EU accession to begin with. And for a city like Istanbul, which thrives on foreign investment and tourism, the image of Erdogan as another Middle Eastern tinpot dictator is worse than a thousand Gezi projects.

So in the end, what was accomplished?

Perhaps it’s easier to ask what has been changed. Gezi will stay a park, hopefully. Turkey will not be an EU member, at least for another decade. And if there is any memory for these protests, Erdogan’s planned power-grab for the presidency will at least be a challenge in 2014.

In parliament, however, little has changed. The AKP still has legions of unquestioning supporters, now evidently increasingly prone to violence. His deputy PM, one of the few voices of conciliation during the protests, is rumoured to have resigned after a personal spat with Erdogan, evidence of his continuing stranglehold over the party.

As for the opposition, they have the same common enemy, the AKP, that they always did, and the same countless ineffectual parties to choose from. Efforts by protesters to turn the movement into one that can be expressed at the ballot box seem as hopeful and deluded as those that came from the Occupy movement.

The anger expressed in Gezi is not the sort that falls neatly into political parties. It is a broader anger at a system that seems to be exploited by whoever is in power, the collective sigh of the masses for politics representative of people, not parties.

It is the same anger seen in Brazil, in London, in New York. And it’s the same anger that never seems to result in any change. At least, not before the media rush on to the next one.

In other news:

  • Growing protests in Egypt challenge the authority of President Mohammed Morsi and Muslim Brotherhood. The hardcore Islamist Salafis are issuing some scary statements and planning counter-protests from 21 to 30 June, when the opposition is planning to hold a big rally/march on the president’s office. Revolution 2.0? If so, probably with more bloodshed. Expect clashes.

Turks stand around, Egypt gets offended, & more

Protesters face up police in complete, unmoving silence in Istanbul's Taksim Square.
Protesters face up police in complete, unmoving silence in Istanbul’s Taksim Square.

Supporters of June protests against the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan have changed tactics again.

Yesterday, hundreds of imitators of Taksim Square’s now famous “standing man” took to streets across the country in an act of passive resistance.

By remaining completely unmoving, staring at a fixed point, and making no sound, protesters are immune to arrests by the legions of armed police ringing Taksim Square and Istanbul’s historical districts.

In library-like silence (many of them reading), protesters stand for hours on end in silent opposition to the brutality of police tactics and the uncompromising government response to criticism.

Protesters form a hugging circle, physically supporting each other over hours and inviting passersby.
Protesters form a hugging circle near historic Galatasaray High School, inviting passersby to join.

Across Besiktas district and on nearby Istiklal Avenue, one of Istanbul’s most iconic streets, small groups of protesters stages similar silent sit ins over hours, vowing to remain for days and months. Some carried signs declaring solidarity with anti-government protests in Brazil, which were met with similar police violence.

Similar protests took place across Turkey, including in Ankara, at the location where one protester was allegedly killed by police.

Today, the Turkish Doctors’ Union (TBB) released the number of injured and killed in the police actions over the weekend. According to TBB (whose estimates are usually higher than the media), 7,822 were injured (though this included “pepper gas-related [burn] and respiratory complications”), with 59 in serious or critical condition.

In addition, four protesters and one police officer were killed, one pregnant woman lost her baby during the gassing of Divan Hotel, and 11 lost eyesight.

A disturbing number of reports mention eye, brain, or facial injuries from rubber bullets aimed at the head, which can be lethal. Rubber bullets are intended to be ricocheted off pavement to minimize their impact. They were widely used in clashes with protesters before the clearance of Gezi.

Protesters read in silence on Istanbul's Istiklal Avenue in protest.
Protesters read in silence on Istanbul’s Istiklal Avenue in solidarity with Brazil.

In the shadow of this news, Erdogan has vowed to “strengthen” the power of police forces against anti-government protests, which he has branded as the work of “internal traitors and external collaborators.” Quoted by Hurriyet, he said:

“Within the authority the law provides, from now on, our police will not overlook any lawlessness, will continue to fulfill its duty. We will further strengthen our police… in every way… so that we will increase the intervention power against these events…

It is their most inherent right… When you do not obey, the police use this authority.”

Following the PM’s lead, members of his party are suggesting the protests were planned for several months and represent the interest of a foreign-led “interest rate” conspiracy to undermine the AKP government.

Alarmingly, Erdogan is now directly blaming the main opposition party, the Republican Peoples’ Party (CHP), amid widespread arrests of political opponents connected to Gezi. More than 70 were detained on charges of supporting journalists, including journalists.

Arbitrary arrests are on the rise, and many detained over the weekend are still missing, having not been allowed to contact relatives or legal aid.

Personally frightening is that Erdogan has now questioned the legitimacy of Turkey’s yellow press cards, issued by the Prime Ministry to journalists, essentially giving himself carte blanche to arrest any critical members of the media (not that I have one of those anyway).

Police look bored in Gezi Park, watching the "standing man" protests. Gezi remains closed to the public.
Police look bored in Gezi Park, watching the “standing man” protests. Gezi remains closed to the public.

Meanwhile, Erdogan’s personal spat with the European Union continues. The United Nations Secretary-General has issued a condemning statement, while the EU are considering suspending accession talks due to start next month. Turkey’s EU Minister earlier refused to meet an EU delegation, forcing them to postpone their visit.

In Germany, which has a large Turkish expat population, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) have put the rejection of Turkey’s EU membership in their election platform.

A father brings his young daughter to the standing protests.
A father brings his young daughter to the standing protests.

While hundreds imitate the standing man in their own form of silent protest, Gezi remains closed to the public which it was allegedly cleared to protect, occupied now not by protesters, but by bored police.

In Turkish news:

  • The government continues work on its internet censorship bill, which Interior Minister Muammer Guler said would protect against the spread of “false news.” Given the rose-tinted falsity of news published by hilarious government outlet Andalou Agency and pro-government Sabah Daily (which believes the protests were caused by Turkey’s rich economic potential), one hopes their Twitter accounts would be the first targeted. Unfortunately, looking at the history of media laws in Turkey, it is much more likely to target anti-government news, false or otherwise.
  • Turkey’s development plans may be threatening an entire endangered peoples in Northern Iraq, the Marsh Arabs. Global Post reports that Turkey’s plans to build several expansive hydroelectric dams on rivers that feed the marshes will probably be the final nail in the coffin of their way of life, unless they can convince the Turkish government not to build.

Elsewhere in the world:

  • Egypt is seeing a record number of blasphemy cases filed by Salafi (hardcore, Saudi-style) Islamists, who are buddy-buddy with the government of President Mohammed Morsi. According to the New York Times, though blasphemy laws have occasionally been employed to protect Egypt’s Christian minority from hate speech by Salafi preachers, the vast majority are filed by Salafis against Christians, who were accused by one lawyer of a “systemic campaign” to insult Islam. Egypt is also experiencing Occupy-style protests in front of the Culture Ministry over the perceived Islamisation of their culture program by a government that once described ballet as “indecent.”
A water cannon from the Turkish Department of Anti-Terrorism waits in Taksim. Protesters were previously alarmed by the presence of federal forces at the protests.
A water cannon from the Turkish Department of Anti-Terrorism waits in Taksim. Protesters were previously alarmed by the presence of federal forces at the protests.

Istanbul rests & gets arrested

Ankara on the night police cleared Gezi Park. Tensions have flared in Istanbul and across the country after police ended 20-day protests against the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan with shocking brutality.
Ankara on the night police cleared Gezi Park. Tensions have flared in Istanbul and across the country after police ended 20-day protests against the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan with shocking brutality.

The police seem to have won this round. Following dramatic and violent clashes two nights ago and the brutally violent clearance of Gezi Park Saturday evening, last night saw remarkably little action. Does this mean the protests are over?

Probably not. Thousands are still voicing their grievances about the government as pots and pans protests continue, and organizers are now looking for another spot to occupy. It seems Taksim is out of the realm of possibility. Police continue to occupy the square and park. Pedestrians can enter on foot, but those protesting are immediately detained following warnings from police, and bags are being searched on entry, arresting those carrying in what looks like protest gear. Police are also stationed in adjacent streets over a wide area, making it very difficult to approach the square.

Even despite this, Turkish performance artist Erdem Gündüz has invented a new form of protest, the “standing man”. Protesters are entering the square, stopping where they are searched and standing silently for hours, staring at the Turkish flags and portrait of Ataturk hung on the Ataturk Cultural Centre (AKM). Though Gündüz was eventually arrested, he has spawned eager imitators.

Politically, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has continued his broad and at times bizarre criticisms of opponents. He has criticised the EU for their lack of “respect for democracy,” arguing that Turkey and the EU have “different opinions on freedom” — something I think most will find it hard to argue with.

This aggression from Erdogan may seem like ill-timed hubris, given that his government have spent the past decade repeatedly bending over backwards for international institutions in an effort to secure EU membership. This latest spat may throw the whole process out the window, if the EU has a long enough memory.

More likely, however, is that, with election in November and membership unlikely for several years, Erdogan knows he is playing the long game internationally and the short game domestically. He can risk the EU bid for now to galvanize his base in time for the election, which loves the motif of plucky little Erdogan taking on the international institutions that have ravaged Turkey’s poor with austerity (instituted by the AKP, but who remembers that).

After winning the presidency, he’ll probably go back to kissing the feet of the EU, economically speaking, which in the end is all that ze Germans really care about so long as people aren’t getting gassed on CNN. A couple years of iron-fisted stability as president, and Turkey will be back on the EU watchlist.

The threat to utilize the army from Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc is met with skepticism by almost all the Turks I have spoken to. A section of the army, the gendarmerie, operates as a national police force and is under the control of the interior minister. It was this that shocked protesters after being deployed in some places, including Istanbul, to support flagging police.

Anonymous propaganda.
Anonymous propaganda.

But the army army it is not. The gendarmes are armed with much the same equipment as your ordinary robocop, and without the proper army, controlled by the generals, it would be impossible to impose curfews or checkpoints that would be demanded by martial law.

To declare martial law would probably require significant support within the armed forces, not just among the top brass, and this, according to what I’ve read, the AKP does not have. So for now, it remains a scary possibility, if an implausible one.

The news:

  • In ongoing revelations from the clearance of Gezi and subsequent clashes, videos and images show police aiming rubber bullets above ground (where they can be lethal), firing tear gas into hospitals, and beating protesters. Amnesty International reports detainees were being held in unknown locations without access to due process, and denied toilets, water, and food. Bianet reports 450 missing, still in detention but yet to be able to contact relatives or lawyers.
  • It may have been all communist party flags that littered Taksim’s monument, but the top 1 per cent evidently doesn’t like the AKP any more than the communists do. The Ekonomist (with a “k”), a Turkish business magazine, interviewed more than 100 Turkish CEOs and found that almost half had personally visited the Gezi Park protests and 90 per cent supported the demands of protesters. I was at a very fancy dinner party yesterday and heard the story of a fabulously wealthy CEO leaving his six year-old daughter’s birthday party to join protesters during the worst of the fighting. Even at this fancy party, when 9 o’clock rolled around, everyone clanged their plates and glasses for a few minutes in a miniature pots and pans protest.
  • The AKP government is drafting scary new laws that will restrict social media and prevent “crimes over the internet.” Erdogan and his party have at several points criticised social media for its powerful organizing capacity, accusing it of spreading lies and propaganda. Twitter has become famous both for being the target of government criticism during protests, and for being notoriously difficult to censor, as in the Egyptian revolution, when government attempts to shut down the internet were mitigated by ingenious efforts to record, transcribe, and translate Egyptian tweets over shaky cell phone connections. That might not work in Turkey, though — the government cell phone provider, Turkcell, has shut down communications in protest areas several times already.
My phone in Ankara.
My phone in Ankara during the protests.
  • Greece and Brazil have seen similar, wide reaching anti-government protests this weekend. In Greece, protesters occupied the public broadcaster, threatened with closure under new austerity measures, and has kept it going until now, drawing support from European broadcasters. In Brazil, hundreds of thousands are taking to the street in a protest that began over a 10 cent raise in public transit, but has since become the largest protest Brazil has seen in 20 years. Grievances include the generally poor quality of services, economic nepotism (also a common grievance in Turkey), police brutality, and recent spending sprees on international sporting events (Rio is hosting the World Cup in 2014 and Olympics in 2016).  A friend told me an anecdote that in Sao Paolo, the centre of the protests, protesters were chanting, “This is Turkey now.”
  • Fareed Zakaria at CNN has this terrible piece called “Why Turkey protests are a good thing,” in which he resorts to the cliches of referring to protests as a “culture war” and Turkey as an “immature democracy.” CNN hilariously eschewed live coverage of the protests on their Turkish affiliate while amping their coverage in the US media as a “Turkish Spring.” Now they’ve come under fire from Erdogan for mistakenly labeling aerial footage of Istanbul’s AKP rally as an anti-government protest. Don’t worry, Erdogan, it’s not an attempt to overthrow you, it’s just terrible journalism.
  • For an excellent article on who the AKP support base is in Turkey, read this op-ed by Semih Idiz in Hurriyet. According to Idiz, many AKP supporters believe Erdogan will get a boost from having handled protests so well. Confused how this is possible? Read pro-government Sabah’s coverage.
The AKP rally in Ankara. Even the Turkish flag seems less important to properly hang than the portrait of Erdogan. Ataturk's portrait was actually half-furled, with the two bottom corners both stuffed through an open window.
The AKP rally in Ankara. Even the Turkish flag seems less important to properly hang than the portrait of Erdogan. Ataturk’s portrait was actually still half-folded, never opening enough to show the man’s (probably disapproving) face.

The weekend from Hell

UPDATE: Interior Minister Bulent Arinc has suggested for the first time that the Turkish army may be used to quell the protests. This is an important moment, as it would no doubt have to have followed on days of serious negotiations — the army is one of Erdogan’s biggest opponents (some even supported the protesters in early days) and is fiercely secular. Until now, Erdogan’s neutering of the political power of the army was thought to have ruled them out as a possible last resort, potentially explaining the brutality of police intervention. If the army does get involved, this will become very, very ugly.

It has been one hell of a weekend.

I headed to Ankara on Friday with the aim of covering ongoing clashes in the capital and an AKP rally scheduled for Sunday evening. The city of Ankara is a classic example of urban planning a la Erdogan — it is a city without a heart, a series of pockets and enclaves full of monolithic buildings, skyscraping apartment complexes (many still under construction), and shopping mall after shopping mall. There is no place like Taksim or Gezi — even the hub of Kizilay is surrounded by broad motorways, and was for most of the time I spent in downtown Ankara almost vacant.

This has had an effect on the nature of the protests. Unlike Gezi, where thousands joined in largely peaceful action, the protests in Ankara over the weeks preceding my visit were sporadic and dispersed clashes involving a few protesters hurling rocks and setting fires, and indiscriminate daytime gassing by police.

Perhaps, as my host put it, because there are so few large public spaces in Ankara, Prime Minister Erdogan’s rally was held far from the city centre — more than an hour’s transit — in the suburb of Sincan. Though the area is economically depressed, all the roads were recently resurfaced — on the day of our visit, some even still smelled like tar.

Thousands of people were brought in by municipal buses taken out of service for the purpose, filled with flag-waving supporters from across Ankara and the surrounding country. Erdogan’s speech — we could understand little of it at the actual event — was prophetically  militant. Two hours later, Gezi was cleared in one of the most brutal police actions of his government.

In Ankara, thousands took to the streets in protest, creating one of the most concentrated acts of defiance yet seen by the city. It has, after all, also seen its share of disproportionate, even shocking police aggression, including, just this weekend, an assault on a funeral procession for a protester killed by police.

Of all the warnings I got in Ankara, by far the most frequent was for being a journalist. Unlike in Istanbul, where international media is concentrated, journalists in Ankara continue to be the targets of assaults from police. Freelancers like myself are often arrested, detained, and sometimes beaten before they are released and deported.

This is perhaps another reason why the decision of Istanbul police to prevent media from covering the clearance of Gezi Park is so alarming. The media, both international and national, is now left relying on shaky second-hand reports, or else the frantic videos of those unlucky enough to be inside the police cordon.

In historical Sultanahmet, Erdogan again ratcheted up his rhetoric, calling protesters “terrorists”, “traitors”, and “foreigners” — it’s worth reading the quotes from this Hurriyet article for an idea of the level of obstinacy protesters face from this government. He continued his line of attack against the foreign media, international organizations, and the large body of opposition within his own country, accusing them of a cooperative effort to undermine the AKP. These are seriously dictatorial claims, approaching paranoia.

While hundreds of thousands were brought to this event by municipal ferries and buses taken off service to prevent protesters from entering Besiktas district, Istanbul was reeling from news of mothers losing their children, hotels and rescue centres gassed, and medics being gassed, arrested and detained (on charges of supporting a terror organization, a catch-all for protesters), violating numerous international conventions to which Turkey is signatory. The government continues to deny many of the claims, despite growing video evidence and testimony. The governor of Istanbul initially said only 24 were detained — this is now evidently false, with the Turkish Bar Association claiming more than 300. Thousands have been injured since the protests began.

The reaction to this news, and to the brazen swagger of Erdogan’s AKP rally in Istanbul, was to organize a counter-protest to retake Taksim Square. Thousands took the streets, but were unable to concentrate as police closed off and gassed all roads to the square. The entire urban centre of Istanbul was, at some points, under attack or otherwise occupied. Police blocked highways and sent water cannons and gas into crowds of people as far up as Sisli, on the edge of Istanbul’s urban core. Hurriyet reports an instance of supporter violence against the headquarters of the rival Republican Peoples’ Party (CHP).

Internationally, Turkey’s reputation may finally be suffering as much as Erdogan says it is. The EU is unlikely to grant accession after numerous criticisms, with German Chancellor Angela Merkel joining the fray. That is, if it truly cares six months down the road, which is doubtful.

Clashes are likely to continue tonight, with five unions now joining the protest. The Guardian mentions some grumblings within police, who have been bused from across Turkey to Istanbul, but for me these are unconvincing signals. No one is capable of stopping the police brutality but the protesters or the government. Given Erdogan’s paranoid statements in the face of expansive criticism, and the generally uncompromising stance of his supporters and police, I see no budge room there. Given that protesters are equally adamant and increasingly cornered and potentially violent, I think this will continue to escalate for a while.

If you’re looking for some entertainment in the meantime, read the updates from Andalou Agency, the government media outlet.