Gezi Park Undone While Conflict Breaks Out in Turkey’s East

A Syrian rebel fighter in the northeastern Syrian border town of Ras al-Ayn on Nov. 11. Source: Murad Seezer/Reuters/Landov. via NPR.

It’s been a while since I’ve posted and yet so many newsworthy things are happening in Turkey right now.

The first is the slow but near-complete reversal of any changes, minor though they were, to result from the Gezi Park protests.

This began when the police officer charged with killing a protester avoided prosecution because the public prosecutor did not ask permission of the police to try him.

There was also the earlier release of a machete-wielding shopkeeper, who fled to Morocco (allegedly to return) and subsequent imitation attacks on demonstrators.

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Muslims Go Hungry While Army Men Go Rambo, and other news

Families break the fast in Taksim Square as protesters crowd the steps of Gezi Park.
Families break the fast in Taksim Square as protesters crowd the steps of Gezi Park.

It’s been considerably quieter in the Middle East lately — not necessarily a reflection of any particular quiet, more likely that a series of disasters at home and a complicated and multifaceted situation in Egypt has kept the media occupied.

It’s also the holy month of Ramadan, meaning that many in this part of the world are too exhausted with daytime fasting to be kicking up a fuss.

That said, protests and forums in the aftermath of the long-awaited reopening of Gezi Park, the heart of this summer’s anti-government protests, have demonstrated that the communal evening iftar, or breaking of the fast, is a powerful opportunity for organizing.

In one instance, as a response to the municipality’s decision to accommodate the daily meal in Taksim Square instead of Gezi Park as in previous years, the Anti-Capitalist Muslims, a faction within Taksim Platform, set up their own tables running the length of Istiklal Avenue.

The meals were followed by large marches up Istiklal into Gezi, which, although not occupied on a permanent basis, remains a hotbed of protest against the government’s handling of inquiries into the police violence that claimed five lives and injured thousands.

At least for now, it seems the police are hesitant to clash with protesters who demonstrate peacefully across from religiously observant families eating together during this spiritually important time.

Visitors light candles in Gezi Park for the five killed in clashes with police.
Visitors light candles in Gezi Park for the five killed in clashes with police.

The same can not be said of supporters of the governing  Freedom and Development (AK) party. A disturbing rise in the frequency of supporter violence has followed the release of two men seen in news video stalking the streets with machetes and assaulting protesters.

One of the men, who was a shop owner allegedly suffering crippling losses as a result of the unrest cause by protests, might even be compensated for his losses on the grounds that he is a “terror victim.”

Though the courts eventually issued a warrant out for his arrest, the man in question fled to Morocco, escaping persecution.

And in days following, imitation attacks took place in Ankara against Gezi sympathy protests. Footage has also emerged showing pro-AK party demonstrators attacking protesters with batons, and commemorative gatherings and forums run by Taksim Platform have also come under assault by assailants with knives and sticks, leaving several injured.

Journalists have also become the target of angry shop owners in Istanbul’s Beyoglu neighbourhood.

It is hard not to see this new brazenness as the result of the minimal response given to blatant instances of assault on demonstrators. Police and the courts seem reluctant to charge or investigate these acts of violence, and members of the AK party and pro-government media attempt to cast the assailants in a sympathetic light.

Inside Gezi Park, nightly marches still end in protests.
Inside Gezi Park, nightly marches still end in protests.

Still, it has nothing on Egypt, which this week has seen tensions rise considerably following the killing of 51 pro-Brotherhood demonstrators by the Egyptian Army. The new powers that be have also closed Islamist media outlets and arrested leading figures of the Muslim Brotherhood, while the once-independent media appears set to portray the army in the most positive possible light.

The “soft” coup against Egyptian President Mohammed Mursi drew some interesting replies from the Turkish government. Unsurprisingly, the initial response of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was one of unequivocal condemnation.

Rumours circulated almost immediately following his ouster that Mursi would be given asylum in Turkey, and though he remains under arrest, it is not entirely unlikely that a released Mursi would find his way to Turkey.

Turkey enjoyed renewed relations with Egypt following Mursi’s election as Erdogan’s AK party and the Muslim Brotherhood found themselves with the same strategic and social objectives.

Both governments depended on a wave of rural conservative discontent, and both increasingly relied on sectarian politics during times of crisis. Erdogan appealed continually to his Muslim base during Gezi, painting protesters as secularists, and Mursi relied all-to-heavily on sometimes hardline Islamist parties for his power.

This similarity shows in their rhetoric, and not just that directed against an allegedly purely secular opposition. Both appealed to “ballot box” democracy when their legitimacy as majoritarians was questioned.

Indeed, Erdogan even implied that the Gezi protests could have laid the groundwork for a Turkish coup, “like in Egypt,” suggesting modern coups are produced by squares full of protesters and that old menace, Twitter.

Following Mursi’s fall, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu pressured the European Union and longtime Brotherhood ally Qatar to intervene and condemn the coup, accusing them of hypocrisy in not intervening (though he accused them of the same when they tried to intervene to apply pressure on Erdogan during Gezi).

As for the new Egpytian govenrment, it looks as though relations with Turkey may be permanently marred, as the government continues to call for the release of Mursi and the reinstatement of his government. One spokesperson for the AK party accused Egypt of “backwardness” in ousting a democratic government, and suggested, as always, that foreign powers were responsible.

There are interesting parallels between modern Turkey and the Brotherhood in their mutual fear of an independent armed forces with the power to intervene on behalf of the often ambiguous “will of the people.”

In the shadow of Egypt’s coup, Turkey’s parliament just yesterday amended the constitution to specify the army as a defense against foreign aggressors, rather than as the much more loosely defined “safeguard [of] the Turkish Republic as stipulated by the Constitution”.

It was this article that enabled the army to overthrow and threaten previous governments, including the AK party during their appointment of Islamist president Abdullah Gul.

Though this constitutional change is widely supported in Turkey and indicates that, for Turks, the age of coups truly is over, Mursi’s attempt to assert the same merely resulted in his arrest and deposition.

It is no surprise that a fellow Islamist government with a recent memory of coups finds the overthrow and potential suppression of the Muslim Brotherhood so shocking.

But though Erdogan need not fear a coup anymore, he could learn something from the stunted regime of the Brotherhood about majoritarian governance. Some greater tact may be needed from a governing Islamist party than would be required from any other, especially when dealing with the voice of minorities and the opposition.

The protesters can learn something too. There were times during the Gezi protests where it seemed that if the people dared ask for a coup, the army would have given them one.

With the constitutional changes in effect, they will have to be much more intelligent about their opposition should they want a change in powers. The army can no longer provide the national unity in discontent that the opposition parties fail to provide.

Istiklal erupts in clashes as protesters move to retake Gezi

An updated (and more coherent) version of this article has been published on Your Middle East. You can read it here.


Above: A map showing the sites of clashes as of midnight, June 6. See the full map here.

All of Istanbul’s central Beyoglu district is in chaos again, after protesters attempting to march on Taksim Square were met with heavy police intervention.

If there is a new policy against indiscriminate tear gassing, it certainly isn’t in effect. Police wage minor street battles with protesters in side streets, firing countless rounds of tear gas as hardcore demonstrators respond with bottles and rocks.

Today’s demonstrations were an attempt by Taksim Platform, the organization to emerge from last month’s Gezi Park protests, to push police out of the park, which was the centre of anti-government protests for over 20 days.

The park remains occupied by police more than a month after a court decision rejecting government proposals to construct a shopping mall and historic barracks over one of Istanbul’s last green spaces.

A brutal police clearance that saw hundreds injured and medical staff, children, and elderly gassed and detained ended an Occupy-style protest in the park. Sympathy protests against the increasingly authoritarian regime of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) continue across the country, often being met with the same indiscriminate police violence.

Protesters attempting to erect barricades on Istiklal Avenue, the central shopping avenue of the Old City, have been beaten back by blasts of water from TOMA crowd control tanks and tear gas.

The Interior Minister has called the interventions “normal”, but Istiklal, normally the scene of wild parties and late-night shopping on Saturday nights, is filled with fearful bystanders jumping at the sound of exploding tear canisters.

From Taksim Square, which is completely cut off from the public by riot police, to Galatasary Tower, at the end of Istiklal Avenue, is being patrolled by small groups of police firing gas into side streets.

The operation, despite pushing protesters further and further off of the main avenue, will eventually have to end in indiscriminate police violence if it is to have any effect. Istanbul’s Beyoglu neighbourhood is a network of densely packed winding streets which provide perfect escape routes for protesters.

Businesses and local residents, ostensibly with their doors and windows shuttered, are sheltering protesters fleeing gas. The Istanbul Bar Association’s Beyoglu office is providing medical aid, and countless heavy iron gates from Ottoman days guard escapees from the riot tanks that race down Istiklal, firing gas down the avenue.

Next to the Pera Muzesi, where a small covered souk connects Istaklal Avenue to the adjacent Tarlabasi road, a fierce battle is being waged between stone throwers and police, filling the mall with clouds of gas.

Protesters driven from the side streets by gas are for the moment congregating near the Marmara Hotel, though there is constant movement to and from Istiklal.

Traffic continues to move on many of Istiklal’s non-pedestrianized side streets, and cars and cabs are being caught up in clouds of gas.

Two streets over from one of upper Istiklal’s most fierce battles, bars overflow with patrons enjoying beer on a street just recently subjected to the attentions of a TOMA tank.

Journalists with press cards were kettled behind riot police in Taksim Square, while unaccredited photographers roamed Istiklal, dodging tear gas canisters as they kicked up sparks on Istiklal’s cobbles.

Frightening video has emerged of indiscriminate machete attacks on fleeing bystanders and protesters earlier in the day. They have allegedly been detained by police.

Today was supposed to be a quiet night of jazz in Beyoglu, as the Istanbul Jazz Festival staged its “festival within a festival”, the Tunel Concerts. I was trying to get to Sisane, near Galatasaray Tunel, when the closure of Taksim Square’s metro station told me something was up.

Protesters had warned they would occupy the park by Sunday, when the interior minister said it would be reopened to the public, regardless of the police presence.

And of course I forgot my camera…

Egypt Invites the Army In, Turkey Blames the Jews, plus many links

Egypt looks increasingly like a clusterfuck and to hordes of internet commentators it is no surprise, though many seem to be big fans of the word “foreboding.”

As it stands today, the clock is ticking on a 48-hour ultimatum from the Egyptian Army to address “the will of the people.” President Mohammed Morsi has “rebuffed” the army, arguing that the ultimatum sets the stage for an unconstitutional coup.

Of course, that constitution he’s citing was the one he rushed through with Islamist support, largely ignoring the will of the opposition parties that constitute the bulk of those protesting.

After the 48 hours is up, which conveniently coincides with a deadline imposed by the protesters, the army will impose a “road map” to conciliation, though they’ve stressed they want no political role beyond possibly installing a technocratic government to rewrite the constitution and supervise presidential elections.

This itself is an interesting move given the Egyptian Army’s historical role as a political player since the coup that brought former President Gamal Abdel Nasser to power in 1952. It’s more than possible the army is taking this stance because of the threat that cutting the Islamist parties and the Brotherhood out of the conciliatory process would pose to Egypt’s security, the self-declared interest of the army.

Brotherhood supporters, which include a large number of Salafi extremists, are likely to view any move to oust Morsi as “a coup against not just the president but against Islam as they perceive it,” says Khalil al-Anani, an academic at Durham University, in the Guardian.

The implication here is that if you piss off a secular opposition, it’s street protests and urban chaos — but if you piss off an Islamists, especially by deriving them of power, there’s the possibility of this being rephrased in jihadi terms. The risk there is that the Salafis who provided so much support to Morsi, and who have received inordinate sway over Egyptian politics in return, may simply forgo democratic processes altogether, viewing them as corrupted by the opposition.

Attacks against the opposition by Salafi preachers already reached fever-pitch and suggested jihadi street politics before the opposition began calling explicitly for a coup. Any attempt to cut them out of the political process would not only be undemocratic, given their widespread support within Egypt, but also dangerous for the integrity of the Egyptian state. As one blogger put it, it would no longer be citizen against state, “it will be citizen against citizen.

Of course, the question remains whether the Egyptian state has any integrity left at all. Vigilante justice, like that suggested by supporters of Morsi donning homemade helmets and riot shields to “defend” Brotherhood headquarters, is no new feature, nor is it unique to Morsi’s loyalists.

The near-complete unraveling of the security state, so strong under former President Hosni Mubarak’s authoritarian regime, has created an entire generation of revolutionaries conditioned to street violence and able to purchase any manner of weapons on Egypt’s expanding black market. The police are powerless to stop this, both because of inadequacy in administration and their own unwillingness, many of them the same people who broke skulls and tortured prisoners under Mubarak.

There is also no guarantee any successor would be able to deal with the problems that have faced Egypt since well before the revolution, of food shortages, economic unsteadiness, sectarian violence, and unraveling security.

Nonetheless, as Nathan Brown in the Financial Post points out, protesters are prematurely jubilant as they were on the eve of the revolution that ousted Mubarak in favour of Morsi and the Brotherhood. This revolution has become a personal one, Brown writes, more to do with the deposition of Morsi and the perceived empowerment of secular opposition than it is about any systemic change.

One skeptical protester blogging Revolution 2.0 is right to point out that many who took to the streets to end the army’s repressive rule are now the ones clamouring for a coup. “It is either we have become the counter-revolutionaries or the revolution has become the counter-revolution,” she writes.

It is certainly becoming harder to imagine Morsi’s Brotherhood as the torchbearers of the revolution. If it is a counter-revolution, one can only hope that the whiff of power a coup will give to the military will not encourage them to seize the reigns and end Egypt’s “experiment with democracy.”

Meanwhile, in Turkey…

I can’t help looking at Morsi and seeing some interesting parallels to Erdogan during the Gezi Protests. Though they were in no way on the same scale as the June 30 protests, Erdogan’s approach during Gezi, and Morsi’s approach during these protests, seem to me to identify a type.

It’s the self-appointed democrat/authoritarian, the man in power who panders to his base, which may indeed constitute a thin majority, while taking an authoritarian stance to opposition.

A few comparisons. Both have employed pretty much identical rhetoric in the face of mass opposition. They began by delegitimizing protests as the work of foreigners, terrorists, and traitors, though this is nothing new.

They also both reigned in national media, instructing them to focus on their base, which they simultaneously galvanized to action with counter-protests and mass rallies. The both rose to power with the aid of “clan-based practices,” with electoral platforms promising wide-reaching reforms but, when in power, appealing to specific religious or ethnic bases.

Both have also been told off by President Obama using pretty much the same language — “Democracy is about more than elections.”

Perhaps where Morsi failed, and Erdogan succeeded, is in neutering the army. In both states, the army stood as the “powers that be”, the hand of the state that acts out of the reach of squabbling politicians but is given the power to remove them from office, at the whim of “the people”.

Even though Morsi used Erdogan’s exact words, saying “the age of military coups is over,” and even though the Egyptian Army argues they want no political role after the exhaustion of their post-Mubarak junta, the widespread support of the opposition in Egypt for a military coup, something abhorred by Turkey’s fledgling opposition, indicates that the age of military coups is anything but over.

In other news, one deputy prime minister, Bulent Arinc, said marriages at “early ages” is a “very rewarding thing”, while the other, Besir Atalay, said the “Jewish Diaspora” was behind the Gezi protests. Where else but Turkey?