Monday, October 29, 2012

The Republican March in Ankara: Crossing the Threshold

Onlookers watch military band in Taksim, commemorating
89th year of the founding of the Republic with police in background
For Turkey, this last week could have been remembered as a nice combination of religion and state. The Muslim Kurban Bayram (Eid al-Adha) fell right before the state holiday commemorating the founding of the Republic. With Turkey’s secular and religious politicians polarized, there was a chance that both groups could celebrate the two important days in unison.  However, once news came out last week that Ankara’s governor banned the Republican Day’s October 29th annual march things began to heat up. Today, defying the AK party’s banning of the march, Turkey’s secular elite marched, and what ensued was an show of force by the Turkish police, who were trying to uphold the government’s orders.

Here is a link to a video showing the violent protests in Ankarafeatured in Radikal.

Since coming to power, almost a decade ago, the AKP party, led by Prime Minister Erdogan, who can easily be defined as one of Turkey’s most influential leaders ever, has worked to curb the state’s secular institutions, which were historically guarded by the Turkish army. For the conservative secular elite, early on they accused the AKP as leading an Islamic revolution; claims that were exorbitant and baseless, but nevertheless, an expected reaction from a group whose influence was being cropped at the stem.  

Headquarters of the Youth Wing of the Secular People Republican Party
The competition of these two groups has touched upon the lives of meaning average Turkish citizens. For example, before the AKP, women were not allowed to wear the Islamic headscarf in universities, which the secular elite defined as a definitive way to block the influence of Islam into the public sphere. Let it be known, that with the Turkish society over 99 percent Muslim, the average citizen really never supported the headscarf ban (one that continues in public offices until today) and were perhaps even relieved when the AKP started allowing all women to study in universities. 

Another form of competition has been how each group defines Turkey’s history, the Republic itself, and how its founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, is memorialized. The AKP, while not banning the official republican days, has downgraded them, treating them to some extent as products of a secular republic which for years oppressed them. Erdogan has clearly maneuvered through these days, participating in them and respecting them; but not commemorating them with past zeal of the former secularists.  The AKP’s stance on the official Republican days also does not seem to represent the average Turkish citizen, who sees the national holidays as an integral part of their daily lives. 

It is for this reason that banning of the Republic Day March in Ankara, the capital of the Republic, should be seen as crossing a dangerous threshold.  The governor’s claim that it was cancelled due to security reasons was seen as a provocation, and once Erdogan publicly supported this move, the Republic People’s Party (CHP) leader, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, called the masses to join him at the march. What ensued was a scene that is becoming more and more common in Turkey: a police force utilizing massive force against civilians protesting in a completely peaceful manner; civilians, young and old, having their faces covered with pepper spray, with water cannons throwing people to the ground, and massive clouds of teargas hovering over. And, it was just not civilians; Kilicdaroglu and other parliament members were also among the masses inhaling the teargas.    

Today’s events should be worrying to the government since it is another sign that the polarization between the two camps is widening, and as was the case today, can turn violent. Further, the AKP, as a result, seems to losing a grip on their massive constituency, who many do not identify with their political agenda but rather have been happy with their economic policies. Furthermore, the government would be wise to investigate how such an important day for so many of its citizens could end so badly. Perhaps, only then, can the two sides start to work together to reach common ground and understanding.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Netanyahu's Political Gamble: Uniting with Lieberman (Israeli 2013 Election Coverage, 1)

Since PM Netanyahu declared over two weeks ago that he was calling early elections, which will be held on January 22, the Israeli political world started to tremor; last Thursday evening, with Netanyahu and FM Lieberman’s announcement that their parties were uniting under the name, Likud Beitenu, an earthquake has taken place.

During the last 3.5 years, Israel has had one of its most stable governments in history. Despite not having the largest party in the Knesset, Netanyahu’s Likud party, together with Avigdor Lieberman’s Israel Beitenu party, stood solid.  The two parties formed the largest bloc in the Knesset with 42 seats out of 120, and together with the Sephardic religious party Shas, and other right wing and religious parties, Netanyahu was easily able to muster up a majority

Despite his majority, there were a few crises, and high and low moments. However, one trend remains clear: Netanyahu has always shown the need to bring in a strong ally from another party. Netanyahu, a shrewd politician, basically used Barak and Mofaz when needed and discarded them accordingly.  Ehud Barak will be remembered as the leader who defected from the Labor party, in order to continue to serve as Netanyahu’s loyal defense minister; as long as Netanyahu had Barak, he could create the illusion that Israel was interested in reaching a peace agreement with the Palestinians. Later, earlier this summer, in order to buy time, he enticed Shaul Mofaz, the leader of Kadima, the largest party in the Knesset, to join his coalition. This gave Netanyahu an almost historic majority; needless to say, this was a short-lived partnership.   

At times, it seemed as if Netanyahu believed that having a second-strong man in the coalition would neutralize the real force, Avigdor Lieberman. His party, Yisrael Beitunu (Israel’s Our Home), is a far-right party, who in the 2006 elections almost surpassed Likud’s performance. Lieberman in some senses can be seen as the “bad boy” of the Likud, since it was Netanyahu who helped give him his quick boost into Israeli politics, but left the Likud in 1997, objecting to Netanyahu’s concessions to Palestinians.  In 1999, he formed the Yisrael Beitunu, which bases its main source of voters from immigrants from the fomer Soviet Union. His party since has continued to grow, and is a major force in Israeli politics.  

For Netanyau, joining with Lieberman, who might be indicted in the near future due to an ongoing corruption case, is a huge political gamble. It is hard to find a more polarizing politician than Lieberman. Within the Likud, many see Lieberman as far too right wing; among Israel’s left he is seen as a racist, whose politics borderline on fascism; among Israel’s Palestinian citizens (20% of overall Israel population) he as seen as a threat. Put simply, he is a provocateur.  

For the Likud, a democratic party, with proper institutions, the fact that Netanyahu has made the decision to set up a joint list with Lieberman, without the blessing of the party, is not good news at all. If Netanyahu allows Lieberman to become too dominant, Likud has the chance of losing its center-right voters, who support the Likud as a right -wing party, which has remained true to its liberal and pluralistic foundations, represented by such politicians as Dan Meridor and Benny Begin. Further, with the recent announcement of Moshe Kahlon that he will not run for the upcoming elections, the Likud is left without a center-right Mizrahi candidate. One Israeli pundit correctly commented combining Likud’s traditional Mizrahi base together with Lieberman’s Russian base, is like mixing oil and water.

For Lieberman, this is a win-win situation. He is interested in infiltrating the center (along with importing his radical right-wing politics) and leaving his party behind.  Yisrael Beitunu as a party seems limited in scope and seem has reached its peak. What seems clear is that Lieberman is laughing out loud at his adversaries such as Ehud Barak and Shaul Mofaz, who seems to have been finished by Netanyahu’s slick moves; the question remains what Netanyahu has in his secret brief case for Lieberman. If he needs, will he be able to ditch Lieberman if polls in the next few weeks show the new Likud Beiteinu as not being able to dish out the strong numbers they are predicting.

On a personal note, over the years, I have made myself clear many times concerning Lieberman. I would claim that as Israel’s Foreign Minister, he has brought Israel to one of its lowest place ever, and his unruly behavior in the halls of the United Nations does not suit a country of Israel’s stature. He has proven time again that he has no interest whatsoever in the peace process, and even his politics can be seen not only as anti-Arab but generally unsympathetic to Muslims in general. Even the thought that one day he might become   Israel's defense minister, or even the Prime Minister, hopefully will be enough to convince the center-left in Israel that they need to unite and place their personal aspirations aside in order to save the Israeli democracy.  

*For more on the upcoming Israeli elections, and my point of view, please follow me on Twitter @istanbultelaviv, or find me by searching Louis Fishman

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Update: Israeli elections and Twitter

Dear all,

Just wanted to let you know that during the next few months, in addition to continuing to follow events in Turkey (especially related to Syria), I will begin to focus on the Israeli elections which will be held Jan 22, 2013. This blog can be your address for not only more detailed articles but also regular updates. Also, I will try to bring to you the reader information about some smaller parties which might be unfamiliar to readers outside of Israel.  Please feel free to write me via the blog about any questions you might have concerning the elections.

Also, during the last month I have started to use twitter more ambitiously. You are welcomed to follow me at @Istanbultelaviv Hope to see you there. I will be posting a link also on my blog in due time.....



Monday, October 22, 2012

Journalists, Students, and a Pianist: Turkish Freedoms put to Test

During the last few years, more and more Turkish and international organizations have been criticizing Turkey over how many journalists have recently been jailed. Last week, a report was issued by the Committee for the Protection of Journalists, and it is another reminder that the Turkish government needs to take measures to fix this injustice. Turkey now has more journalists jailed than any country in the world and it is a stain on its democracy.

The report, entitled Turkey’s PressFreedom Crisis, lashes out harsh accusations, claiming that “Turkish authorities are engaging in widespread criminal prosecution and jailing of journalists, and are applying other forms of severe pressure to promote self-censorship in the press,” and adds that they, “have mounted one of the world’s most widespread crackdowns on press freedom in recent history.” According to the report, as of August 2012, 76 journalists are being held, mostly for anti-state crimes (or similar), with three quarters of them in jail for extended periods of times (months and even years) without being officially charged. In addition “scores” of others are awaiting trial for other reasons, such as “degrading Turkishness” with “between 3000-5000 criminal cases pending.”  

Commenting on the amount of arrests, the report states that “the imprisonments constitute one of the largest crackdowns CPJ has documented in the 27 years it has been compiling records on journalists in prison,” and highlights that Turkey far surpasses other countries’ violations, such as Eritrea (with 28 held) and China (with 27 held).

Unfortunately, this story is not a new one. For the last two years, Turkish government officials, including PM Erdogan himself, have been asked to answer claims that their government is excessively jailing journalists, but to no avail; usually, when questioned, the officials brush it off as if this does not constitute a problem.  However, the problem is very real and not only for journalists, but also for students.

In Turkish jails, according to Hurriyet Daily News, there is a staggering 2,824 students being held, with many charged with “being a member of a terrorist organization.” In the past, many students have been arrested just for demonstrating and holding banners; later to find themselves in jail for over a year awaiting trial. The Turkish government's claim that these students support terrorist activity is inflated and as a result damages Turkey's genuine need to protect its citizens. Simply put, the students' plight provides us with such a flagrant violation of civil rights that it is hard to remain indifferent at any level.

If this is not enough, this week we saw Fazil Say, Turkey's world renowned pianist, in court defending his right to free expression on twitter. This ongoing trial, which will reconvene in February 2013, is related to comments which he placed on his private Twitter account; according to the state prosecutor, Say should be found guilty for his tweets, claiming they insult Islam, and violate the law which states that it is illegal to "insult the religious values of a section of society." Similar to the Orhan Pamuk case, when in 2006 he was charged with "insulting Turkishness," only to have the charges dropped, Say is well known abroad and a guilty verdict will make waves not only domestically but also internationally.

What is most ironic is that while PM Erdogan, and his government, has been rightly chiseling away at the injustices of the 1980 coup and its legacy, Erdogan is now perceived by some as creating new injustices in their place. Moreover, in my opinion, Erdogan has grossly misunderstood that his electorate victories were driven by his non-compromising stance towards the conservative secular state, a policy which led to the ushering of new found freedoms. However, now, as he retreats from the path of reform, and with no progress being made on the Kurdish issue, it seems that his popularity is on the decline. In other words, it appears that the Turkish society is becoming weary of a polarizing Erdogan, who is perceived by many as clamping down on personal freedoms.

It is for this reason, that at the annual opening of the parliament earlier this month, so many Turkish citizens breathed a sigh of relief when the President of Turkey, Abdullah Gul, a former government member and a strong ally of Erdogan, stated the following: “If there are shortcomings, or wrong practices, or instances that harm our democracy, then these must all be removed without delay. There should be no doubt or concerns in anyone’s mind that Turkey is a democratic state respecting the rule of law.” Lets hope that the government heeds these words, and starts working to implement legislation that will hastily work to bring these injustices to an end.  

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Syria Bleeds...

Graffiti from an Istanbul wall.....

Reports coming from Syria yesterday estimated over 200 people were killed in fighting. Long gone are the days, the weeks, and the months, when Syrians were peacefully protesting, marching directly into the aim of fire. When the protests started, men, women, and children, together marched and together were killed. In the hearts of free loving Syrians, regardless of Muslim, Christian, Alawi, or Druze, this protest was not about sectarian differences, this was about bringing down a government that had lost any legitimacy; bringing down a President who inherited his seat and was not able to reform the corrupt and oppressive government of his father Hafiz al-Assad. Bashar al-Assad was even given a second chance following the breakout of the revolution, when the protesters demanded reform; but he decided to fight and in so has caused death and destruction beyond belief. Over the last six months, things have got much more complicated with Turkey and the Gulf states supporting the Free Syrian army (backed by the US), while Iran supporting Assad (backed by Russia), leading to all out chaos in many parts of Syria, and a stalemate that has no end in sight.   

Do not believe the cynics who claim that bloodshed in the Middle East is inevitable, and that due to age-old conflicts its various religions and ethnicities can never coexist. As proof they will direct you to civil strife between Shia and Sunni in Iraq; if not, they will pull out the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and will try to convince you that the conflict is not a century old, but a clash of civilizations dating back over a thousand years.  However, the bloodshed we are encountering in Syria (and other parts of the Middle East) should teach us that wars just don’t happen and there is nothing natural about them.  The stalemate today in Syria is a result of regional superpowers, supported by greater powers, which are using Syria as their killing field, much in the way it happened in Lebanon during the 1970s and 1980s.   

As someone who supported the revolution since its first days, we cannot forget that in Syria there was no alternative to revolution.  However, as an outsider, it is becoming more and more difficult to understand the rampant violence and frustrating to see that the violence is greatly due to the manipulation of divided world.  Today, Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan and Iranian President Ahmedinejad  discussed the situation in Syria; tomorrow, Russia and the United States will discuss matters; the following day, the United Nations will once again condemn Russia; next week, the European Union will place another embargo on Syria; all this when more Syrians are killed and are made refugees.     

The longer these powers do not do their utmost to bring a halt to the violence and work to find a solution the more violent this conflict will become. The biggest fear is that even if Assad is forced to step down, the violence in Syria will have crossed the threshold of no return, and they will continue to pay the high cost of a war that long forgot the spirit of the revolution’s first days. 

Today, over 30,000 have been killed and there are over 300,000 Syrian refugees in camps spread out between Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon, and Iraq; not to mention the tens of thousands in the cities of these countries, who remain unaccounted for. With winter just around the corner the situation looks as bleak as ever.    

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Lacking a Clear Vision: Turkey Strikes back at Syria

Turkey’s recent strike on Syria was portrayed both in Turkey and in the world as Turkey acting out of its right to defend itself. However, if the Turkish government did not receive international support for the move, and was not pressured domestically, then the question remains why the change in policy. Let me be clear, Turkey has the right to defend itself; however, Syrian mortar fire falling on the Turkish side of the border is far from being an attack on Turkish sovereignty.

Following the Turkish reprisal, the US and the UN, and NATO, publicly supported Turkey, strongly condemning Syria.  However, I imagine behind closed doors there was a different reaction. The US paid lip service to Turkey, while the UN still has its hands tied due to Russia’s support of Syria. During the last six months of conflict, Turkey has often reminded NATO that under article 5 an attack on Turkey should be considered an attack on all participating countries. However, NATO just does not see Syria as posing a threat to the Turkish state and perceives the mortar fire as not more than a nuisance. In short, on the diplomatic front this attack has been another letdown. If Turkey keeps up the way it has, it will continue to lose its prestige within the eyes of Europe and the US.  

Internally there are those Turkish citizens who supported the reprisal; however, it seems that majority are not interested in heating up tensions between the two countries, and do not wish for their country to get militarily involved in the Syrian quagmire.  Furthermore, while Turkish casualties from the Syrian mortar are sad, internal violence and death in Turkey due to the ongoing Kurdish conflict is much more serious. Just this year, almost one hundred Turkish soldiers and police have been killed and the government seems as far as ever from reaching an understanding with the outlawed Kurdish organization, the PKK. It is easy for Turkey to raise its head and invoke some national pride by firing back at Syria, but its real work remains at home.  

Therefore, the question remains why did Turkey choose to retaliate against Syria, and even go so far to pass a bill in parliament allowing Turkish troops to cross into foreign countries.  In my opinion, the change in Turkish policy emerges due to the realization that the Free Syrian Army (FSA) divisions, which Turkey has been supporting, are losing ground. In other words, Turkey’s strengthening of its border is aimed at boosting up the FSA, who are trapped between the Turkish border and the Syrian army. Without Turkish action the FSA could in some places be pushed back into Turkish territory. Next, after Turkey’s failure at securing UN support for a buffer zone in Syria to house refugees  (see previous blog), it seems that the Turkish reprisal is bringing us one step closer to Turkey achieving that goal.  

Whether or not my analysis is correct, one point remains clear. From one failed policy to another, Turkey has been acting out of damage control and lacks a clear vision when it comes to Syria. It is for this reason the Turkish reprisal is worrying since this very well could be the opening of the door to greater Turkish military involvement in Syria; not tomorrow, or the next day, but certainly in the next few months.

Perhaps most worrying hitherto is that the FSA divisions Turkey is supporting seem to be an unruly group of radical Islamic factions, who are also wreaking havoc on the Syrian people and lack the vision and spirit of the revolution. Thus, I imagine that many of the pro-democratic anti-Assad forces are also unhappy with the Turkish involvement, leaving Turkey with many more enemies than friends in Syria.