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:
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 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’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.