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.
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.”
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.
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.