War in Besiktas

I’m watching Halk TV in a bar in Yeni Levent tonight, cut off from the protests that have seized most of Besiktas, Istanbul’s most dense urban district surrounding Taksim Square. This map, produced by protesters, gives a good idea of the spread of the protests — as thousands tried to retake Taksim and Gezi, police head them off in the adjacent streets. Exclamation points indicate a police presence — near Taksim, rubber bullets and water cannons have been used. Houses indicate buildings offering sanctuary and medical care to protesters.

In Ankara, protests have escalated, with violence against police in Kizilay and Kugulu Square. Police appear to be deploying in a manner similar to previous weeks, which have seen scattered clashes with a few protesters and police and indiscriminate gassing.

Throngs continue to circulate around Taksim, encountering police aggression along the way.

A short update, with more to come tomorrow. My internet access has failed at the worst time, unfortunately.

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Gezi Falls

I’m fucking knackered and also 500 kilometers away in Ankara due to some ill-timed journalisticky travels, but this is a pretty important moment so here’s a roundup on the latest reports from Gezi Park:

Tonight, police seized and cleared Gezi Park in one of the most brutal police actions of the continued protest. Widespread reports mention young children and elderly gassed in Gezi Park and in the nearby Divan Hotel, which was used as a sanctuary for protesters fleeing police. Video and photos show police gassing the interior of the building.

There were numerous injuries. The governor of Istanbul has minimized this number, and also said provocateurs used weapons on police, injuring 2. Turkish EU Minister Egemen Bağış has said any gathering in Gezi are to be treated as terrorists. Protesters have vowed to bring millions to Taksim tomorrow in protest.

This comes at a very important time for the ruling AKP and the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The PM’s rhetoric escalated further tonight at the AKP rally — read this report for an example, I’m too tired to summarize it. Either way, his threat to protesters tonight, coupled with his scheduled pro-government rally in Istanbul tomorrow, and the follow-through on that threat with brutal police action, all indicates an unquestionably and increasingly authoritarian style.

In Ankara, thousands were brought on municipal buses commandeered for the purpose to fill a park in Sincan, an economically depressed suburb on the outskirts of Ankara. The mood in the park was mostly lukewarm, mostly families, with many leaving before the speech was over. Partisan networks put the number of participants in the millions; this is a gross exaggeration.

Sympathy protests in Ankara were met by police and given warnings, though clashes seemed unlikely as of 2 A.M.

The response to these police actions in Gezi, the ability of police to hold the park and square from counter-protests, and the continuing revelations about instances of disproportionate force will be very important for the opposition in the coming days. For AKP supporters, many will be watching pro-government channels tomorrow, which will undoubtedly eschew any coverage of Taksim, no matter how sizeable the protest, for coverage of the AKP rally — sure to draw thousands, even if they are bused in from as far as Izmir.

Gezi saved for another night, Syria goes all Syrian, and other news

Police move in to Taksim Square from the AKM parking lot.
Police move in to Taksim Square from the AKM parking lot.

Despite escalating rhetoric from Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the late hours of June 13, the government has appeared to have taken a deep breath and stepped back on its previously harsh approach to the Gezi Park protests.

Erdogan’s initial threat to “clean” the park of “terrorists” never came to fruition — instead, his government called an 11th-hour meeting (literally) with actors and spokespeople for Taksim Platform.

(As a side note, Turkey has an odd habit of viewing actors who speak in support of political issues as actual experts on the issue. During the peace negotiations with the PKK, the government invited a large number of popular soap actors and singers to a “Wise People’s Commission” — though the panel also included academics, it seems odd to me to invite a bunch of actors as supposed voices of the people.)

Protesters seemed highly skeptical but pleased. I spent a marathon 17 hours down at Taksim and Gezi yesterday, hoping for something to happen, but instead saw a lot of people play football and watched over sleepy police. At around 2:30 A.M., police began a gradual withdrawal from the square, some to sleep in buses on the adjacent streets. The police watching German pianist Davide Martello’s all-night outdoor solidarity concert in Taksim Square seemed to relax, joking around with protesters.

In all, it was a night of welcome (albeit at times incredibly boring) deescalating tensions. Erdogan’s government began the night with a barrage of threats and virulent criticism of the EU, which had earlier criticized the government for its unwillingness to “take steps towards reconciliation.” But by the end of the night, AKP spokespeople stated that if a planned appeal fails, they will be bound by an earlier court decision suspending construction. They even suggested that should their appeal succeed, the issue will be put to a referendum, though the protesters I talked to remained highly skeptical of this.

Either way, despite the lack of sleep it inflicted upon me, the change in tone is a welcome one. Looking forward, I think it’s reasonable to anticipate at least one police operation in or around Gezi before the AKP supporter rally next week. It will also be interesting to see if the more radical among the protesters, who are beginning to enjoy the permanence of Gezi’s anarchic society, will be willing to leave even with this new tone of compromise.

The news for this thundering morning in Istanbul:

  • One thousand Kurdish Iraqi soldiers have deserted the Iraqi army for peshmerga forces loyal to the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG). The final straw was evidently an operation directed against Sunnis by the Shi’ite government, though this has been brewing for a long time. The withdrawal of Kurdish militants from Turkey to Northern Iraq has strengthened the KRG’s claims to autonomy. Earlier, they demanded the government renegotiate oil rights in the north, and threats have been being tossed back and forth ever since.
  • The U.S. has agreed to provide direct military support to Syrian rebels, the New York Times reports, on the basis that chemical weapons have been used. Britain and France supplied the evidence to the E.U. earlier to bully them into making a similar decision. Most of these weapons will come via Turkey, which sees it at none too soon — Turkish troops just yesterday fired on a group of Syrian civilians trying to enter Turkey, and Turkey’s never been very good with refugees, which are a growing crisis. Despite the fact that this may help turn the tide for an opposition faced with losing its longest-standing stronghold, there are a litany of issues with supplying arms to Syrian rebels. Not least among them is that there is no identifiable single entity that can be called the Syrian opposition, according to expert on Syrian opposition groups Aaron Lund, despite the best efforts of the Syrian National Council (SNC) from Diyarbakir, Turkey. Many groups currently doing the best work against the government are also of the violent, jihadi, al-Qaeda-linked type that the U.S. should have learned their lesson about supporting with advanced weaponry.
  • Five were detained in ongoing clashes with police in the capital of Ankara, where I am finally for realsies headed. The protests in Ankara have been subject to gassing from police for the past five days in a row, and they have no sign of stopping in advance of the AKP supporter rally there on the 15th.
  • The government is beginning to suggest they will take legal action against Twitter for its role in “encouraging” the protests. Twitter, unlike Facebook and YouTube, is not required to open a Turkish subsidiary that complies with government censorship, and refuses to do so due to the lack of protections on personal information in Turkey. Given that Twitter was the only company to refuse to negotiate with the US government in their unprecedented cyber-spying PRISM program, it seems unlikely they will make this one easy for the AKP.
  • Erdogan continues to lash out at the “interest rate conspiracy” (and suggesting Israel?), despite evidently no one knowing what that means.
  • New restrictive liquor laws signed off on by President Abdullah Gul have had little effect on Istanbul vendors, who continue to sell late into the night. However, Efes Pilsen, one of Turkey’s (and the world’s) largest beer companies, has been forced to pull its Turkish website in compliance with the new law. It remains to be seen how some of the advertising laws can be enforced — there’s a basketball team in Istanbul that is literally called the “Andalou Efes”.
  • The controversy over shit coverage of the protests has claimed one media exec, Cem Aydın of NTV’s Doğuş Media. He was the only media person to apologize to staff over the coverage. In Gezi, Halk TV, which aired the protests live from the beginning, is now sacrosanct.
  • It’s election day in Iran, but you won’t hear much about it, because of intense media restrictions. There’s a “blanket ban” on UK outlets.

Taksim Square returns to “normal”, media goes quiet, and other news

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I published two articles today, one on Classless Magazine and another on Your Middle East. Classless has most of my photos.

According to reports from the Guardian and Hurriyet, Taksim Square has now been cleared of protesters, returning it to its normal state of being occupied by hundreds of police. Gassing and fighting with protesters on adjacent Recep Pasa Avenue continued long into the night. It’s hard now, from my home in Yeni Levent, to figure out what is going on in Taksim, as the local media has gone suspiciously and ominously quiet.

But news continues to come in from last night, including images of a wheelchair-bound protester being hit by a water cannon, and allegations that the molotov-throwing protester of yesterday morning were undercover police officers. I’m not sure how plausible that is, especially given that protesters demonstrated their willingness to resort to violence (I saw one protester making off with an undetonated tear gas grenade, covertly showing it off to his friends), but I did catch this picture of plainclothes officers on the scene.

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Though it’s not evidence of police involvement in the actions of protesters (I think the union would probably have something to say about allowing molotov cocktails to be used against their own officers), it does show that they were mingling in the protest for a large part of yesterday.

The violence of yesterday provided a lot of fodder for staunch opponents on either side. Police can now say with authority that much of their brutality is in self-defense, however dubiously, as protesters hurled rocks, bottles, and fireworks, and even set fire to a TOMA crowd control tank. Protesters can point to the brutality of the police repression, which used hundreds of canisters of tear gas (and also most definitely rubber bullets, however “unsure” the Turkish media may be) and resulted in hundreds of injuries.

It’s a tenuous position for the protesters now. Erdogan has demonstrated that without EU officials in the country, he will ruthlessly put down protests he continues to see as illegitimate, not just in Istanbul but across the country. Uncompromising phrases are issuing from the mouths of his government’s spokespeople and Istanbul Governor Hüseyin Avni Mutlu.

Many of the protesters’ worst fears about yesterdays intervention, ostensibly to “remove banners”, were true. The government was lying about their intentions — they sought to retake Taksim Square fully and reestablish control of Istanbul’s public space, leaving the easily controlled (although difficult to clear) Gezi Park to the protesters. A scheduled meeting between Erdogan and an 11-member negotiating team from Taksim Platform is unlikely to result in anything — Erdogan has already demonstrated and repeatedly stated that he is not willing to compromise in any way.

Despite stressing repeatedly that Turkey is a democratic country in his criticisms of the foreign media, Erdogan has clamped down hard on criticism, arresting lawyers and Twitter users and fining media that do cover the protests for “harming the development of children”.

For the past week has wildly lashed out at any and all who question his actions, including bank CEOs, opposition parties, and, of course, the media, alleging they are under the control of foreign powers. One Guardian columnist has drawn comparisons to Russian President Vladimir Putin, and he’s not far off the mark, considering Erdogan plans a similar constitutional power grab with his candidacy for the presidency in 2014.

Istanbul’s AKP supporter rally is scheduled for the 19th. Personally, I think Erdogan is hoping to have the protests completely cleared by then. That gives police a little over a week. We’ll see what happens.

In other news on this quiet, rainy day in Istanbul:

  • In disturbing news, defense contractors have viewed the police crackdown in Taksim with dollar signs ringing in their eyes. Several sources speaking to Hurriyet have said they see a good opportunity to sell new, powerful technology to Erdogan’s government, anticipating continuing unrest.
  • Protests in Ankara resulted in clashes between police and protesters for the fourth day in a row, marking a trend of harsh repression in the capital. I’m headed there this week…
  • In Iran, presidential elections are this Friday, and in good news for the West, the conservative vote is heavily divided while moderates have rallied behind reformist candidate Mohammed Khatami. Important conservative blocs are trying to convince some of the candidates to leave the field to give one of them a better chance.
  • Lebanon’s political problems may result in an economic collapse, writes the Daily Star. This would add too their ongoing problems of sectarian violence and a chronic refugee problem from neighbouring Syria. Some commentators have earlier stated that Lebanon could be headed for another civil war.
  • Morocco is both in a political deadlock and out of the news. This good post on the New York Times’ Latitude Blog from Ursula Lindsay, the intern at the Arabist, gives a good rundown of the political situation there, which has seen power concentrated in the hands of the king.

Also, these are my souvenirs from Taksim — two tear gas canisters from Homer City, PA’s “NonLethal Technologies”. My girlfriend wants to turn them into flowerpots.

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A Battle for Taksim (PHOTOS)

A protester returns a tear gas canister in Taksim Square.
A protester returns a tear gas canister in Taksim Square.

I was gassed five times today during my sunny afternoon in Taksim Square, and also got a really bad sunburn. I can’t decide which is worse.

Taksim degenerated to an all-out war between protester-ultras, the hardcore angry youths with covered faces and Besiktas JK jerseys, and armies of police — locally called “robocops”. What was a quiet morning of molotov cocktails and TOMA tanks relaxed into a comfortable game of capture the flag — by the time I left, burnt to a crisp and thoroughly gassed, it was only the pepper spray, rocks, and water cannons causing all the havoc.

I got tear gassed.
I got tear gassed.
A protester demonstrates his own futility. The sign reads, "Prohibit the use of gas bombs."
A protester demonstrates his own futility. The sign reads, “Prohibit the use of gas bombs.”
A man fires a slingshot at police. They fire tear gas back.
A man fires a slingshot at police. They fire tear gas back.

As of now, VICE has a live stream up of Taksim Square and Gezi Park. If you look in the corner, you can see Recep Pasa Avenue, the sight of the worst of the battle today. There teenaged protesters burned vehicles and construction materials to create a thick smoke screen while the built and rebuilt broken barricades.

When police tried to open another front, supporters rushed to the street to beat back police and toss back tear gas canisters, to the sound of war drums from up on Gezi Park’s western escarpment.

In times like this, Gezi Park operates like a well-oiled machine. When I made the mistake of coughing after taking the choice shot at the top of this article, I almost immediately fell over in pain and blindness. But some nearby voices called me over and poured a lemony milk mixture, sacred to the protesters here, gave me some water and patted me on the back. Around me, dozens of other gas-mask-wearing officials did the same — a free service in an anti-capitalist world.

Emergency aid in Gezi Park.
Emergency aid in Gezi Park.
Robocop.
Robocop.
Hardcore protesters throw rocks from behind cover.
Hardcore protesters throw rocks from behind cover.

When the gassing got worse, men in full hazmat suits with weed sprayers full of the stuff doused entire crowds of rock-throwing ultras on the escarpment as police let loose dozens and dozens of canisters on the protest.

Despite earlier claiming that Gezi Park was off limits, the actions of the ultras — who, though still representative of a small number of Gezi’s more than 10,000 occupants, showed their full force today (I counted more than 200 on the escarpment alone, another 150 on Recep Pasa at least) — forced police to gas their way in just a little bit, before quickly withdrawing.

When clashes first broke out early on, Taksim was a complete chaos of young men armed with slingshots and fireworks against water cannons and battalions of police with tear gas. I saw one police officer get badly injured, and counted at least six wounded protesters (Hurriyet, talking to medical staff, put the number from today in the “hundreds”, with five critical).

An officer gets badly injured by a stone.
An officer gets badly injured by a stone.
Ninja communists and stoners. Not the friendly kind.
Ninja communists and stoners. Not the friendly kind.
He's not holding shit.
He’s not holding shit.

The operation began ostensibly as one to remove banners on Taksim’s Ataturk Culture Centre (AKM) and monument to Kemal Ataturk. Besides these being public property, why this (and not the thousands of protesters illegally camping all around the place) would be a priority isn’t clear.

To me the operation was a win-win situation for a hardline government, especially one that wants to end the days of barricades and push protesters out of the way of business and into a controllable and concentrated area, in Gezi Park. In the unlikely event that protesters don’t resist, political radicals and opposition parties don’t get to brand the most popular resistance in Turkish history with their own (albeit ineffectual) brand.

In the much more likely event that they do resist, Taksim gets a show of the jackboot and a whiff of tear gas that has been sorely missed during Erdogan’s four-day trip to North Africa. Protesters end up boxed in in a park that can easily be cleared in another full-day operation, though it would likely require even more excessive brutality.

Erdogan maintained a hard line in statements today and yesterday, asking protesters to clear the streets, and protesters used molotov cocktails on police and the violence of today will do little to help the protest’s cause. The actions of what the government is calling “marginal groups” makes it much easier to treat the whole protest with violence.

The barrier on Recep Pasa Avenue. Before they drove the truck onto it (my battery died).
The barrier on Recep Pasa Avenue. Before they drove the truck onto it (my battery died).

For my part, I was absolutely knackered and gassed half to death, so I came home with some souvenir empty gas canisters and my sunburn. But Taksim still rages on, and the “tug-of-war” between rock-throwers and gas-throwers continues. Governor Mutlu of Istanbul has just said that the operations are to continue “day and night” until the square is cleared…

At least those pesky banners are gone, though, right?

Links and news for today:

  • More than 50 lawyers have been arrested for protesting against the government. Lawyers protesting lawyers being arrested have also been arrested. In the words of my girlfriend, lawyers everywhere are asking for the right to speak to themselves.
  • Your Middle East has a good primer on the protests, diffusing some all-to-easy lines of attack against Erdogan. You may think he is a right old bastard, but he is a democratically elected one — that means this is no Tahrir Square.
  • Erdogan is continuing his bizarre assault on foreign banks, threatening to “choke” the leaders of the broad interest rate conspiracy he believes is seeking to destroy the Turkish economy to oust him from power. This line of attack began when the CEO of one of Turkey’s biggest foreign-owned banks called himself a “marauder” or capulcu (pron. cha-PULL-choo) — the unofficial name for protesters, stolen from one of Erdogan’s speeches. The Guardian certainly thinks he has an idea — they think the falling Lira may do more damage to Erdogan than the protests have.
  • The AKP “vice chairman of media and public relations responsible for social media” has said that he thinks Twitter is more deadly than car bombs and is a vehicle for lies and conspiracy intended to topple the government. There are rumours now emerging of new legislation to censor Twitter, following on the now two year-old censorship of internet pornography.
  • Copy editors afraid of typos have largely ignored protests in not-at-all-nearby-Gezi Gazi, a district of faraway Sultanbey in Asian Istanbul. The working class Alevi neighbourhood has had fiery clashes with police over the past week. Erdogan was widely criticized for naming a controversial third bridge project for a sultan who murdered thousands of Alevis.
  • President Abdullah Gul has approved a controversial new liquor law that restricts sales to between 6 A.M. and 10 P.M. and forbids new licenses within 100 metres of a school or mosque, ruling out much of urban Istanbul.
  • Germany may be taking on 10,000 Syrian refugees following a deal with the U.N. Refugees from Syria are becoming a real problem and are only increasing in number now that the government is turning the tide of the war. In nearby Lebanon, their presence is one contributing factor to tensions that may possibly result in civil war; in Turkey, Syrian refugees are the object of much hate and are poorly treated in refugee camps, which can be so bad that refugees actually return to Syria. (They are also periodically tear gassed.)

There’s more but I’m tired!

Erdogan takes a hard line while protests continue

"Tree shadows do not stop capitalism" spray painted on the French Consulate, adjacent to Taksim Square.
“Tree shadows do not stop capitalism” spray painted on the French Consulate, adjacent to Taksim Square.

Last night, Taksim Square was the site of one of its biggest rallies yet, as Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan returned to Ankara sounding his usual defiant tone.

Though Taksim remains the “utopic freetown” of several days ago, sympathy protests in Ankara were gassed by police for a second day in a row. Disturbing allegations of police brutality, including an account of a police officer threatening one female detainee with rape, are now emerging. The Turkish media, still eager to please the government, remains in a cycle of narcissistic self-criticism and coverage of Erdogan’s speeches, instead relegating these allegations to their sex blog, presumably in the hopes they will escape litigation.

On the other side of the equation, six police have committed suicide since the protests began, according to the police union, facing brutal working conditions and general hatred from the populace. Many police are being drafted in to the centres of protest from far away towns and are removed from their families, forced to sleep on public benches and work long hours. Though sympathy for police is understandably difficult amid reports of such brutality, it probably does not help their sense of proportion and justice to be routinely exhausted and isolated.

Though other members of Erdogan’s government, including Istanbul Governor Hüseyin Avni Mutlu and Deputy PM Bulent Arinc have made conciliatory motions towards protesters (in the former’s case, even expressing a desire to be with them), Erdogan himself remains stubbornly defiant. Taking ownership of the police, he declared in a speech from conservative Ankara: “There are those who side with those swearing against the prime minister of this country. We are going to show patience, but patience has a limit as well.”

Continuing to lash out at other opponents, and wildly criticize abstract bodies of opposition including an alleged “interest rate lobby”, Erdogan added, “The moment we discover stock exchange speculation, we will ram it down your throat.”

These increasingly violent and defiant tones from the prime minister are all the more alarming as the AKP prepares for counter-protests scheduled in Ankara and Istanbul. Amid reports of supporter violence, there is a potential for this to grow ugly as the AKP attempts to galvanize opposition to the protests into a single bloc.

Meanwhile, foreign media outlets appear to be showing considerable sympathy with the protesters, who have escaped stereotyping as young, secular, and anti-religious. “Anti-capitalist Muslims,” now a considerable bloc within the protests, have attracted media attention as a symbol of the wide-reaching criticisms of the AKP represented in Gezi.

Two Ottoman-era houses in Sultanhamet. One needs a bit of TLC.
Two Ottoman-era houses in Sultanhamet. One needs a bit of TLC.

Though the protests began as an attempt to prevent the redevelopment of Istanbul’s historic square into what one article called an “neo-Ottoman theme park,” the brutality of the police response has created sympathy among opponents of the AKP’s religious and economic conservativism.

Despite ongoing protests, Erdogan still maintains he will redevelop the park. In the New York Times, Michael Kimmelman argues the importance of the project for Erdogan is the sanitization and Islamification of the public square, long a disorganized and yet harmonious whole, eschewing class and political distinction. Erdogan’s efforts to build a new, sizeable mosque and reconstruct an Ottoman-era building, he writes, are part of an effort to return Taksim to a pre-Republican past, a project dear to Erdogan’s religious sensibilities — the Ottoman period less unforgivably secular than Ataturk’s republic.

(It also seems Erdogan has little respect for the national hero of secular Turks, having called him a drunk in discussions over his proposed new liquor restrictions, much to the ire of Ataturk’s Kemalist fan clubs. Erdogan has previously stated that anyone drinking more than a few drinks a year is an alcoholic.)

This pro-development, Ottoman-revival attitude is not just limited to Gezi — as reported today, reconstructing a residence of the Sheikh al-Islam in a university’s botanical garden is also a pet project of Erdogan’s.

Amid continuing EU pressure and rumours of early elections, Erdogan is coming under increasing pressure to do something, anything, to indicate he is willing to compromise. However, as several commentators pointed out when the protests first began, this has become an issue of hubris, and Erdogan now risks losing his sway over his bloc of loyal supporters if he indicates any desire to be a Prime Minister for the other 49 percent.

More news:

  • EU criticism of Erdogan’s reponse to the protests remains heavy on police brutality and public censorship, but suspiciously light on media censorship. It seems the EU thinks Twitter is more important than a newspaper or television station able to broadcast criticism of government, but maybe that’s just because it’s doing more to undermine Erdogan’s government right now. Either way, for shame, EU, for shame.
  • A good article in the Economist points out something many commentators have missed in their criticisms of Erdogan — that he is preparing a bid to become Turkey’s first popularly elected president, while simultaneously expanding the power of the post to dissolve parliament and appoint the cabinet. If you think Erdogan is acting like an autocrat now, the enhanced powers of the presidency would certainly make him more immune to parliamentary criticism. If criticism continues to grow, writes the Economist, current President Abdullah Gul might be encouraged to run again — and may win the support of Turkey’s powerful Gulen movement to do it. Meanwhile, the party rank and file, not immune from the fallout, is concerned Gezi Park may end their majority in the November election.
  • The tourism and spirits industry has criticized proposed new liquor restrictions ahead of their final drafting, saying they were not consulted. The restrictions, which disallow sales between 10 P.M. and 6 A.M. and forbid alcohol within 100m of a school or mosque (which affects most of crowded urban Besiktas) have been widely criticized, leading some within the protests to ironically call it the “alcoholics” movement.
  • An ongoing controversy about whether protesters fleeing police and receiving medical care in a local mosque wore shoes and drank beer is getting a lot of media attention, not least because it trades on the idea that the protests are predominantly anti-religious. Despite the fact that the imam of the mosque denied the claims several times, Erdogan maintains this affront to Islam is indicative of the overall mood of the protest.
  • In neighbouring Iraq, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has visited Iraqi Kurdistan in a bid to ease rising tensions, which have increased since militants from Turkey began their withdrawal into the area last month. Longstanding disputes over oil resources have led to threats of “renegotiation” of the relationship between the two governments.
  • The situation in nearby Lebanon is deteriorating as Hezbollah gets more tangled up in the Syrian conflict. Your Middle East has an excellent piece on the sectarian troubles of Lebanon and why another civil war may be immanent.
  • Meanwhile, the Syrian army is gearing up to take the longtime rebel stronghold of Aleppo, according to the Daily Star. A victory here, with the assistance of Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia, could turn the tide of the civil war, just as allegations of chemical warfare and ethnic cleansing are pushing Western nations to intervene on behalf of the rebels.

Erdogan blames everyone, and other news from Taksim Square

#direngeziparki
Taksim Square awakes each morning like a hangover. The young ones, as always, are the first to bounce back — at 10 or 11 in the morning,  only the teenagers and the hardcore protesters, wearily unzipping their tents after a few hours of sleep, are milling about the “free zone”, where early-morning street vendors and sympathetic capitalists sell merchandise, supplies and food.

Right now, the biggest risk for the government seems to be the growing sense of permanence surrounding the protests. By now, Istanbullus are used to the periodic chants that ring through the metro, and it’s become a daily hobby for many to pop down to Taksim after work for a bite to eat and a scene to watch.

Erdogan tweaks the nipples of democracy. REUTERS/Osman Orsal
Erdogan tweaks the nipples of democracy. REUTERS/Osman Orsal

Despite Erdogan’s heavily documented triumphant return yesterday, Taksim, and neighbouring Besiktas, remain police free, and even in Ankara reports of police violence have slowed. That’s a good thing; so far, a police officer has died in the protests; 4,785 are wounded, among them 14 journalists; and 48 are in critical condition, according to the latest numbers from the Turkish Doctors’ Union, sympathetic to the protests.

Right now, the scariest and in my mind biggest risks come from supporter violence. What the police are seemingly unable to do, the legion of AKP supporters might. Erdogan has previously threatened that it is all he can do to keep them in their homes. The thousands that greeted him at the airport chanted violent slogans: “May the hands of those who harm the police be broken,” and “Let us go and we will crush Taksim.” To his credit, he said they should all go home.

His return certainly indicated the strength of support he still enjoys, due in large part to his strong organization and successful use of identity politics. His response to criticism highlights his constituency. His speech on his return was rife with religious language — “Only Allah may stop Turkey’s rise,” “May Allah make our brotherhood last forever,” and so on — and struck out at every oppositional body without sympathy or moderation. Since the protests began, Erdogan has blamed communists, the PKK, foreign governments (including Syria), the European Union, the international and national press, international banks, Twitter, a broad “interest rate conspiracy“, and, of course, “marauders“.

What remains is the AKP voter base — the politically and religiously conservative, pro-development new bosses in Istanbul, those who view this confrontation as a test of Erdogan’s authority by former powers. Gezi Park is, in their minds, a combined effort by members of the armed forces, the Istanbul elite, communists, nationalists, and foreigners to undermine what is a vast and wide reaching popular movement that swept the AKP to power 10 years ago. They elect to speak legitimately through ballot boxes, and not illegitimately through street protests, the argument follows.

Of course, not everyone shares their view. Joining their critics (finally) is the European Union, long the club which Erdogan has most longed to join. EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fule criticized Erdogan’s hardline stance to media criticism and protests, threatening Turkey’s long-fought bid for EU membership.

Unfortunately, this evidently only played into Erdogan’s hands. Turks are at best lukewarm on EU accession. Fule’s criticism allowed Erdogan to fire off charges of hypocrisy against the EU and US for their employment of similar police tactics to end Occupy protests, and play the Turkish “little man” finally standing up to international organizations which have had the AKP government by the political and economic balls over the past ten years (see the IMF; though interestingly, the EU has been relatively mute on social [i.e., human rights] criticisms until now).

And given that the US and EU members have employed brutal police tactics in the past, it’s a fair point. But in the eyes of most of the world, it fails to justify Erdogan’s unnecessarily severe stance. Once again, he has reiterated that the development project, including the controversial demolition of the Ataturk Culture Museum (AKM) for a mosque, museum, and opera house (one already exists in the AKM), will go ahead as planned (though evidently without a mall), and called for an immediate end to the protests with no negotiations. He is unwavering in this respect.

At least, for now, the risk to Istanbul’s protesters seems fairly low. One journalist friend of mine pointed out that even if the AKP supporters wanted to mount an attack on Taksim or sympathetic protests, they are unlikely to have the same tolerance for tear gas and street violence as communists, Kurds, and the supporters of Besiktas football club, who have endured it for years. The only danger, and it is a real one, is if police become complicit in the act — then it would seem a more widespread state failure is possible.

In addition to scary and escalating news from Turkey, there’s also scary and escalating news from Syria, Kurdistan, and Egypt. But first:

  • In an ongoing effort to represent religious alongside secular Turks, the Gezi Park protests held their first Friday prayers by a group of “anti-capitalist muslims,” among others.
  • Simultaneously, John McCain made some slightly islamophobic remarks about Erdogan, criticizing him for “push[ing] towards Islam” a “very modern nation and democracy,” and relating the long-established self-censorship of the press to the AKP’s islamist policies, calling the protests a “rebellion.”
  • Speaking of self-censorship, one Guardian reader spotted no less than seven Turkish newspapers with the same flattering headline on the day of Erdogan’s return (roughly translated as “we will die for democracy” or something like that). I spent the day myself in Hurriyet’s newsroom watching CNNTurk and NTV play on endless repeat Erdogan’s journey through throngs of loving supporters. Sadly, EU Commissioner Fule’s criticism was woefully feeble on the issue of media censorship — evidently it’s not a priority. (Interesting side note: The Hurriyet style guide says beside is entry on the AKP, “Note: It’s okay to call them conservative.”)
  • In possibly bad news for the protests, imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan has weighed in in favour of the protests. Though I’m sure it was good-intentioned, it will probably lend fuel to Erdogan’s argument that terrorists and Kurds are behind these protests
  • One AKP member of parliament, Mehmet Soyuk, has resigned over the allegations of police brutality. He is the first AKP member to leave the party over the Gezi Park protests.
  • The Turkish army has deployed to the eastern border in an effort to contain a deteriorating situation in Syria… or, if you’re the government of Bashar al-Assad, an improving situation. The Syrian army recently captured important points in Golan, which will probably turn the heat up on the Israelis involvement. The US and EU, led by Britain and France, are continuing to subtly build the case for military intervention in Syria.
  • In nearby Iraqi Kurdistan, protests against the central Iraqi government have led to the withdrawal of national forces. They’ve been replaced by Kurdish peshmerga militia, whose ranks are probably bolstered by the recent withdrawal of similar militias from Turkey under the PKK peace process. According to the Iraqi government, they are taking control of key oil fields, which is just not on. Iraq’s interior ministry has demanded all forces “loyal to the Kurdish government” withdraw, reports Hurriyet.
  • In Egypt, millions are facing food and fuel shortages due to a deteriorating economic situation. Egypt is totally in the shitter — its only house of government capable of passing legislation at the moment, the Shura Council, was just ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Constitutional Court (SCC), as was about everything else. Ongoing battles between the presidency, the SCC, Islamist allies of the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Shura Council are paralyzing the Egyptian state just when it needs to do something about impending shortages and a possible economic collapse.