Category Archives: Middle East

Istanbul’s anger at autocratic Erdogan

tumblr_mnu268GCHw1ste7qoo1_1280Anger at political leaders is not new in İstanbul. In 532, rival groups in the then Constantinople united in anger at the Emperor, Justinian. 30,000 people died and half the city burned to the ground in the Nika riots. Justinian, needing a stern word from his wife, Theodora, only regained control by bribing one of the groups.

Justinian had few worries about democratic rights. Modern-day Turkey’s leaders have plenty. On May 28th, much of the country exploded in a paroxysm of anger. The focus was the increasing authoritarianism and paternalism of the Prime Minister, Racep Tayyip Erdoğan.

In power since 2003, Erdoğan has led Turkey at a time of huge change. After many years of political paralysis and economic turmoil during the 1990s, his time in office has brought stability and economic transformation. Average incomes grew from $2,800 in 2001 to around $10,000 in 2011.

That economic transformation has brought a development boom to İstanbul. More than $80bn of state-supported development include plans for the world’s largest airport, a new super-port and the construction of a third bridge across the Bosphorus.

But, rapid growth has a price. That price, at Gezi Park in the heart of Istanbul, was deemed too high by some. Tucked at the back of fume-filled Taksım Square, the tiny park, just nine acres, is earmarked to be redeveloped. The proposals, firmly supported by Erdoğan, are to build a replica of the former Ottoman-era barracks that once sat where the park is now. Contained within will be a shopping centre.

Research has demonstrated the psychological benefits of access to green spaces. In a city where only 1.5% of the land mass is green space, it is unsurprising that some people want to protect what little there is. 70 or so people gathered to stop the bulldozers from razing trees. They were met by riot police firing tear gas. Thousands quickly poured onto İstanbul’s streets, angry at the government’s handling of the situation. Erdoğan’s reaction to legitimate protest served to underline the reason for the anger.

The national venting of frustration now includes a two-day strike. It is rooted in his autocratic style and a not-so-subtle moralising. Those, for example, who opposed new restrictions on the sale of alcohol were “alcoholics.” Such attitudes caused the protests to spread quickly. By June 2nd, 1,700 people had been arrested in 67 cities.

Protestors charged Erdoğan with being a dictator. Bemused, he dismissed those who oppose him for simply wanting to do what is best for Turkey. He triumphantly declared that the redevelopment of Gezi Park would continue. He dismissed the protests as undemocratic, blaming them on the opposition and extremists. He declared that if the protestors massed 100,000 people on the streets, he would gather one million.

Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) is a dominant force in Turkish politics. It won just under 50% of the popular vote in 2011, increasing its support from both 2002 and 2007. The opposition is ineffective and divided. Demands for the Prime Minister’s resignation began on the streets. The very lack of an effective opposition has increased Erdoğan’s hubris, much the same way as happened with Margaret Thatcher over the Poll Tax during her final years in power.

Public anger also mounted at the Turkish media. Often controlled by business groups with close links to the government, the media largely chose to ignore the first days of protests. Social media became the focus for information. This allowed Erdoğan to decry the medium as a “curse” and a vehicle for lies.

“Turkey’s democracy is maturing and civil society has taken root,” declared The Economist. Protestors may actually have to thank Erdoğan for this. Reforms since 2002 have curtailed the power of the military. In previous generations, the army may well have stepped in by now and simply removed the AKP from power. Citizens are, instead, choosing to defend their rights.

Some early commentary compared Taksım Square with Tahrir Square, and the overthrow of the Mubarak regime in Egypt, in 2011. Others said that was overblown. After all, they said, Turkey is a democracy. But, as Stephen Cook, Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, and Michael Koplow of the Israel Institute, as well as protestors on the streets of İstanbul and Ankara, point out, successful democracy is about more than elections.

President Gül, after five days of protests, told the people on the streets that their concerns had been heard. Erdoğan promptly flew to North Africa. Yet, two of his dearest wishes might require some humility on his part. He does not hide his desire to be the next President, a post which he hopes will have increased powers under a new Constitution. A more conciliatory tone might be needed to secure both.

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Lebanon at the mercy of regional fires

Live Love Beirut

Live Love Beirut

Live Love Beirut was founded in late 2012. Inspired by bracelets from Brazil, a group of young creatives aim to highlight the positive in Lebanon. Instagram and Facebook feeds show a colourful country filled with smiles and sunshine, sullied only by some ugly development along Beirut’s waterfront.

I imagine Beirut to mix Western and Oriental influences with an edge of uncertainty. From my childhood, I remember news reports of bombings and kidnappings. Those memories have given way to a fascination with Lebanon; to a desire to explore this troubled land. It comes, perhaps, from the same place as my desire to be a foreign correspondent.

Live Love Beirut has its work cut out. Almost a quarter-century has passed since the end of the country’s civil war. But, the sound of gunfire again prompts nothing more than a shrug of shoulders. Fanned by war in neighbouring Syria, Lebanon is at risk of another sectarian implosion.

Two rockets hit a Beirut suburb, populated by Shias, on May 26th. More than 30 people have been killed in sectarian clashes in the northern, mostly Sunni, city of Tripoli in recent weeks. Hezbollah, Lebanon’s dominant political and military force, has finally declared its long-suspected involvement in Syria, in support of President Assad.

Sectarian tensions and the arrival of thousands of Palestinian refugees helped to birth civil war in 1975. Religious attachment has often meant life or death in Lebanon. The arrival of thousands of mainly Sunni refugees fleeing Syria has upended the delicate sectarian headcount.

Power vacuums do not help. The country has been without a government since March. Hezbollah attempted to assert its authority over internal security and election laws. A Shiite group backed by Iran and Syria, it did not want the country’s police chief, a Sunni, reappointed. The Prime Minister, Najib Makiti, also a Sunni, promptly resigned. Elections are due next month. A postponement seems inevitable.

Lebanon is a patchwork of religions. Stitched together by the whims of post-World War I geopolitics, its existence has been questioned since independence in 1943. The centre is weak, and tribal affiliations are more influential than national identity. The constitution is based on confessional compromise. Presidents are Christian; Prime Ministers are Sunni and Speakers of Parliament are Shia.

There was a time when Beirut was known as the Paris of the East; Lebanon was the Switzerland of the Orient. The hedonistic and open-minded outlook of its residents helped the country become a tourist mecca. Beirut was a cosmopolitan city, Brigitte Bardot a regular visitor. That ended in 1975.

Thomas Friedman, the New York Times’ Beirut Correspondent between 1982 and 1987, wrote an evocative memoir of his time there. In it, he laments the death of the city. But, in his own words, “Beirut was never just a city. It was an idea.” The idea was that of co-existence, tolerance and the mingling of religions and communities.

The possibility of the Levantine sprit was reborn after 1990. Tourists returned. GDP grew from $14.7bn in 2000 to $49.5bn in 2012. Possibility, nevertheless, is different from reality. A fractured society and a lack of authority were always risks to this nascent rebirth.

Syria’s involvement in Lebanon has been less than benign. Iran used Syria as a conduit for aid to Hezbollah. With no state institutions able to check its growth, the militia group became akin to a shadow government in parts of Lebanon. It is now more powerful than the Lebanese army.

On May 25th, Hassan Nasrallah, the militant leader of Hezbollah, put another nail in the coffin of Lebanon’s spirit. “This battle is ours, and I promise you victory,” he declared. Nasrallah committed Hezbollah to fighting fellow Muslims in Syria. In doing so, it risks Lebanon’s future in defence of its key ally; Israel has threatened air strikes.

The recent discovery of gas in the Eastern Mediterranean may further raise tensions with Israel. Lebanon has warned that part of the gas field lies in its territorial waters. The precise maritime border between the two countries has never been agreed.

On his resignation Najib Mikati declared, “The region is heading toward the unknown and the regional fires are hitting us with their heat.” The longer those regional fires burn, the more Lebanon is at risk of being engulfed. No wonder Mr Mikati seeks salvation.

And yet, I imagine Beirut to know, despite all of its difficulties, what it is; I imagine a city that collects its identities into one, uniquely Beiruti character. The city’s residents are a famously resilient lot.

Writing of earlier times, Philip Mansel concluded, “In Beirut…the city was the prey of Beirutis themselves.” Some dismiss the prospect of sustained conflict in Lebanon now. Yet, perhaps my wish to visit Beirut will be fulfilled, just not as a tourist. Despite the efforts of Lebanon’s young people, perhaps my visit will be as a foreign correspondent.

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