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.

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