North Africa, West Asia

This week's window on the Middle East - August 20, 2014

Arab Awakening's columnists offer their weekly perspective on what is happening on the ground in the Middle East. Leading the week: Israel, Hamas and the making of the New Arab World.

Arab Awakening
20 August 2014
  • Israel, Hamas and the making of the New Arab World
  • In Bahrain, tourism goes dry
  • Keeping Hamas at bay
  • Re-writing Egypt's unforgettable history
  • The middle: a casualty of the conflict in Gaza
  • Turkey's presidential election candidates
  • Israel, Hamas and the making of the New Arab World

    By Maged Mandour

    The latest round of fighting between Israel and Hamas has revealed a number of hidden dynamics in the Arab world, which signal increased polarization within the region, and, most interestingly, the end of Israeli isolation, not only at the level of intergovernmental relations.

    Interestingly, this latest round of fighting has revealed a deep split in the Arab world, with a number of Arab regimes taking an unabashed position of blaming Hamas for the violence, and explicitly or implicitly supporting Israel. For the first time, the Israeli narrative is the dominant one, increasing the appeal for radical Islamist rhetoric, and opening up the way for even greater violence and rise of insurgencies across the Arab world. The people of Gaza are left to fend for themselves, not only on the practical level, as was previously the case, but also on a rhetorical level. Israel now finds itself in an alliance with Egypt and Saudi Arabia, trying to coopt Hamas; while Hamas is trying to find new allies, such as Turkey and Qatar.

    The first major player in need of closer examination is Egypt, which for the first time, has failed to play the role of mediator in this conflict, and has implicitly sided with Israel. Although there is a humanitarian ceasefire in place, it does not meet the Palestinian demands for lifting the blockade, in which Egypt plays an integral part. As such, the current ceasefire is just a political show.

    The Egyptian policy of blockading the Gaza strip goes back to the split between Hamas and Fatah that brought Hamas to power in Gaza. This policy of tightening the blockade intensified, and was one of the major rallying points against the Mubarak regime. Egypt’s value to the United States is in its ability to coopt radical movements and act as mediator in the Arab-Israeli conflict. It therefore actively participates in the blockade in an attempt to suppress Hamas. However, Egypt also always tried to keep up some façade of supporting the Palestinians, acting as the “ honest broker” between both sides. This is what is no longer the case.

    Even before the coup that removed President Morsi from power, an Egyptian media closely connected with the “deep state” had embarked on a defamation campaign against Hamas, and to a lesser extent Hezbollah, accusing them of being behind prison breaks and the attacks on police stations that took place during the early stages of the revolution in 2011. This was coupled with attempts to link the Muslim Brotherhood, even when Morsi was in power, to these groups. Now in 2014, the media is attempting to link Hamas with the terrorist attacks that have recently been occurring in Egypt. Needless to say, all of this is without a shred of evidence.

    The goal of the military regime is to kill two birds with one stone, namely, demonizing the Brotherhood as well as building support for its foreign policy. A goal it has so far been able to achieve due to the prevailing paranoia people have regarding the Brotherhood, and by extension Hamas. Thus, the suppression of both movements is an attempt to consolidate President Sisi’s legitimacy as the 'protector' of Egypt against terrorism and extremism.

    This is why, for the first time, Egypt has played such a marginal role in the conflict. The regime, striving to maintain its legitimacy at home, was left with no recourse but to continue its policy of blockading the Gaza Strip and suppressing Hamas. The only thing that has come out of Cairo was a ceasefire proposal, quickly dismissed by Hamas, because of its lack of any attempt to address the issue of the blockade. In essence, the Egyptian regime has successfully marginalized itself and preempted any chance of acting as a “mediator”, which ironically could result in a reduction of its value, as an ally, to the United States. As such, we could now be seeing the final act in a gradual decline of Egypt’s role in the Israel/Palestine conflict, which some might argue started with the Camp David accords.

    The other player is Saudi Arabia, which, like Egypt, has officially outlawed the Muslim Brotherhood in support of the military regime in Cairo. The Saudis, bastions of conservatism in the Arab World, have conveniently blamed Hamas for the violence in the conflict whilst ignoring the blockade and Israeli aggression. There are also some reports, denied by the Kingdom, that Saudi intelligence officials have participated in planning the war with Mossad. This would not be surprising, if one were to place this policy in its broader domestic and regional context; the Saudis, like all Middle East regimes, were afraid of the Arab revolt reaching the shores of their relatively stable land. The fear was of ideologically potent forces, namely moderate Islamists, who may have been able to offer an alternative to the rule of the Al Saud family, yet one consistent with the social fabric of the traditionally conservative Saudi society. Hence, the suppression of Hamas as well as of the Muslim Brotherhood was paramount.

    Therefore, both Egypt and Saudi, have implicitly or explicitly adopted the Israeli narrative of blaming Hamas for the violence. This only serves to provide further impetus for extremist movements like the Islamic State, and Ansar Bait el Maqdis in Egypt. However, it is important to note that this is hardly a drastic or a radical shift in policy. This has been a gradual process that has now reached its apex, where conservative regimes in the Arab World are no longer trying to pay lip service to the Palestinian cause.

    On the other hand, there is Syria, a traditional ally to Hamas. After the outbreak of the Syrian Revolution, and the murderous campaign of the Syrian regime, Hamas wisely distanced itself in an attempt to maintain its appeal on the Arab streets, preserving its soft power. However, this has cost Hamas the support of one of its staunchest historical allies, resulting in its further isolation, which in turn has made it more susceptible to the pressure of Arab conservative regimes. However, during its own raging civil war, had Syria wanted to support Hamas, this wouldn’t have been possible either on a material or a moral level. 

    Compared to the first war on Gaza, there is much less popular anger and street protests in the capitals of the Arab world. This can be attributed to two factors. Firstly, the almost total collapse of Arab political law and order has pushed people to focus more on domestic rather than foreign issues. Then there is the zero tolerance policy adopted by Arab governments towards political gatherings and demonstrations.

    Furthermore, due to the changing political situation, Arab regimes have stopped using the Palestinian cause as a safety valve to release popular anger. In Egypt, for example, the National Democratic Party, the ruling party of the Mubarak regime, sponsored a rally during the first war on Gaza in cooperation with the Muslim Brotherhood, so that the MB could let off some steam.

    Secondly, and most importantly, there is a general backlash against moderate Islamist movements, with connections being made between domestic movements like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Hamas  which allege that they are part of an international organization. This connection has little factual support. The notion that supporting Hamas is one and the same as supporting a local Islamist group is ludicrous, to say the least.

    Thus, the Arab Revolt, which gave so much hope to the Palestinians, has turned out to be a misfortune for the people of Gaza. The Israeli narrative has now found wide acceptance, not only in governments, but also on Arab streets. The pariah is no longer Israel; it is now Hamas and the wider Palestinian resistance. Israel has successfully truncated the nature of the struggle from an Arab-Israeli struggle to a Palestinian-Israeli struggle, weakening the Palestinians even further and masking the nature of the struggle. It has now become a struggle for land, rather than a wider Arab struggle against the neo-colonial construct which is the Arab world.                   

    In Bahrain, tourism goes dry

    By Hasan AlHasan

    BYOB, or Bring Your Own Beer, is a disclaimer one is accustomed to seeing during one’s freshman year of college, but it might increasingly become a defining feature of Bahrain’s tourism sector. The latest ban on serving alcohol or operating nightclubs slapped on three star hotels by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism will likely deal a hefty blow to parts of the hotel industry and will certainly ‘cramp the style’ of many a Saudi and Qatari tourist.

    The causeway linking Bahrain to Saudi Arabia, endearingly known to many as the Johnny Walker Bridge, serves as a bidirectional umbilical cord: it permits thirsty tourists from other Gulf nations to nurse at the figurative bosom of Bahrain’s bars and clubs, while bringing much needed cash into the local economy. A marriage of convenience indeed.

    In a typical week, more than 100,000 passengers drive across the causeway, roughly four to five times the equivalent of the number of people that cross the border through the airport on average. This year, during peak season (such as the period leading up to the holy month of Ramadan, during which the sale of alcohol is forbidden), 70,000 people a day crossed the bridge every day throughout the month. To put these figures into perspective, Bahrain’s total population barely exceeds one million people.

    The Ministry of Culture’s stated objective behind the ban is to encourage family tourism from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. In the GCC, middle class families, as opposed to working class and lower-middle class bachelors, are the real cash cows. They spend a significant portion of their income on entertainment, shopping and dining out. If successful, the Ministry of Culture and Tourism’s effort could substantially transform Bahrain’s tourism sector and increase its importance to the economy, which currently stands at 4.1 percent direct contribution to GDP (2014) according to the World Travel and Tourism Council.

    For once, the Ministry of Culture and Tourism has found itself in bed with local Islamist MPs over the ban – a very, very rare occurrence. In fact, the Ministry of Culture and Tourism has feuded for years with Islamists of all inclinations over a number of its events, musicals and theatrical plays, some of which have admittedly been distastefully westernised. In 2013 for instance, several MPs stirred a fuss over an announcement by the Ministry of Culture for a Halloween celebration. One MP, a career exorcist, slammed the celebration as an encouragement of sorcery and witchcraft. Another did not cease to refer to the holiday as ‘heroin’, an understandable mix up given that the two words rhyme when pronounced in Arabic. This time around though, Islamists have chosen to market the move as a first step toward an absolute ban on alcohol – a very popular demand among nationals.

    However, expats who form at least 54 percent of Bahrain’s population (2010) have begun to put up a fight in the local English-language press, arguing that the ban takes away from Bahrain’s “pluralism” and “openness”. Hitherto, writing in favour of nightclubs and the sale of alcohol was considered rather taboo.

    Owners of three star hotels also seemed unprepared to take it lying down. In an open letter published in the press, hotel owners criticised the Ministry’s abruptness, claiming some of them had their licenses renewed and visas granted shortly before the Ministry announced its decision. They implicitly claimed to be the victims of the Minister’s dual attempt to favour owners of the larger four and five star hotels and to score points with the Islamists. They rejected the claim that the measure was anything close to being part of an attempt to develop the industry or to crack down on the sale of alcohol.

    In fact, as the hotel owners rightly seem to suggest, it isn’t really the three star hotels that are cashing in on the booze. The market for alcohol in Bahrain is effectively an oligopoly, one in which a handful of big merchant oligarchs are awarded exclusive licenses to import and distribute alcohol at several times its price. The government, for its part, levies a 125 percent duty on imports, the cost of which is almost entirely transferred on to the end consumer. Some have suggested that the current ban, which resembles a similar ban imposed on one and two star hotels in 2011, seeks to favour the fat cats that own the big four and five star properties by forcing the alcohol-sipping clientele to upgrade. Four and five star hotels will continue to be able to serve alcohol and operate nightclubs and discos unabated.

    In sum, even if we were to take the Ministry’s policy at face value, its success remains highly uncertain. One can begin to poke holes in the policy’s rationale: are alcolhol and nightclubs that attract bachelors truly incompatible with promoting family tourism? The pair seem to coexist just fine in neighbouring Dubai. Some have already begun to sound the alarm on the damage that the ban could inflict on the economy as the tourism industry goes dry.

    Keeping Hamas at bay

    By Efraim Perlmutter

    I’ve spent a lot of time reading over the commentary on the latest fighting between Israel and Gaza that appeared both on openDemocracy and elsewhere. In a way it has been a form of escapism from the experience of being a civilian by-stander on the Israeli side of the war itself. Much of the commentary portrays the Palestinian side as nothing more than punching bags for the Israelis. Some of the media institutions kept a daily score card of how many Palestinians versus Israelis were killed as the fighting dragged on. Oddly while the Palestinian losses far outnumbered those of Israel, towards the end of the fighting commentators were beginning to describe the episode in terms of a Palestinian military victory.

    On reflection this is not so unusual. After the 1948 Nakba (catastrophe) the Egyptian army returned to Cairo and held a victory parade. The 1967 war is referred to as only a Naksah or setback and so on for all of the Israeli-Arab conflagrations. In each case one can find western observers who, with appropriate sophistry, explain how the Arab defeat was actually a victory which boded ill for Israel’s future military endeavors. This latest flare-up has produced similar analyses.

    While many commentators on this forum and elsewhere have reduced Israeli motivation to nothing more than an aggressive hunger for more Palestinian land or a desire to kill Palestinians, they are content to ignore what both the Hamas and the Israeli leaderships are saying and actually doing. On the Israeli side, at the start of the conflict Prime Minister Natanyahu was quite the minimalist in his statements about Israel’s war aims. The aim was to achieve quiet from Hamas in exchange for quiet from Israel. About a week into the conflict the Israeli government expanded the war aims to include the destruction of a tunnel system that had been dug by Hamas, some of which extended into Israeli territory and had been used to attack Israeli forces.

    This change was accompanied by the invasion of Gaza by IDF ground forces. Upon completion of the destruction of all known tunnels, the ground forces were withdrawn from Gaza in keeping with the previously announced war aims. Although he has been much criticized by his own right wing colleagues, Israeli commentators have been quite uniform in their assessment, and on rare occasions praise that Natanyahu had announced minimum goals in this military campaign and had pretty much kept to those goals. He had strikingly not called for the re-occupation of Gaza nor the elimination of the Hamas regime.  

    Throughout the entire conflict there were world-wide demonstrations demanding an end to the fighting. Unfortunately no one seemed to be able to convince the Hamas leadership that ending the fighting was a good idea. On two or three occasions Israel proposed humanitarian ceasefires and unilaterally stopped firing. The Hamas publicly rejected or ignored these efforts and they came to nothing. The United States proposed a cease fire which was accepted by both sides, however, fighting resumed when Hamas violated the agreement by attacking Israeli ground forces near Rafa in the southern Gaza Strip.

    Finally after almost a month of fighting and nearly 2,000 dead, Hamas accepted an Egyptian proposal, which they had rejected in the first days of the conflict, and the fighting came to a brief halt for 72 hours; only to be resumed when Hamas refused to extend the ceasefire beyond its 72 hour duration and began firing more rockets at Israel. Last night, at midnight, another 72 hour ceasefire was supposed to go into effect in accordance with the original terms proposed by Egypt.  

    What brought about this conflict is the subject of much debate. As noted above, some argue that it was just one more Israeli plot to bring death and destruction to Palestinians as a means of continuing Israeli territorial expansion. Of course, I don’t agree with this assessment. It seems to me that the conflict was generated by a Hamas leadership enmeshed in a crisis to which there was no solution. Prior to the Syrian civil war the Assad regime was a major supporter of Hamas. This ended when Hamas chose to support the Syrian Sunni opposition. The loss of Syrian support was compounded when the Muslim Brotherhood regime, another major Hamas supporter, was driven from power in Egypt.

    In addition the Egyptian government closed down the smuggling tunnels across its border with Gaza, thus depriving the Hamas government of over two hundred million dollars in revenue from taxes on the tunnel trade as well as blocking the shipment of funds to Gaza from Qatar, the last major financial backer of Hamas. The inability of Hamas to pay the salaries of its 40,000 public employees induced the kind of crisis that no regime can survive. Public opinion polls in Gaza illustrate the loss of popularity that the Hamas regime was facing.

    Finally Hamas was forced to do what it had avoided for the past several years, form a government of reconciliation with the PLO. However, the PA president Abbas refused to deliver on the expectation that the 40,000 Hamas public employees would be paid out of the PA coffer. At the same time Abbas was continuing to pay the salaries of about 70,000 PA civil servants in Gaza, which could not help but further adversely affect the Hamas image in the eyes of the Gaza public. So Hamas was left with no alternative but to gamble on picking a fight with Israel in the hopes of generating support from the Arab states, the people of Gaza and the PLO against the hated Zionist enemy.

    So far, the Hamas gamble has not paid off. While many observers have been distracted by mass anti-Israel demonstrations in Europe and elsewhere, support for Hamas has not been forthcoming from where it counts; Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority. Indeed when U.S. Secretary of State Kerry proposed a ceasefire which included Hamas terms, this was soundly rejected by these four states as well as Israel, a rather singular moment of agreement in the Middle East.

    While I was perusing some of the commentary on the war, I came across some references to the ineffectiveness (read harmlessness) of Hamas rockets. After the 72 hour truce ended, Hamas launched quite a few rockets into the area where I live. On Saturday afternoon one of them came down near our area’s transportation hub for buses. Luckily, being Saturday when the buses don’t run, there were no people around to be hurt or worse. The following day I dropped my wife off there to catch the bus to her job in Beersheba and took the opportunity to photograph some of the damage caused by the rocket. 

    In the first photo one can see the little crater left by the rocket’s explosion. The rocket itself has been removed and I was told it was one of the older models of the Kassam produced in Gaza. Notice the steel fence about one meter away from the impact site. The second photo shows some of the damage caused to the fence by shrapnel from the rocket.

    I took the third photograph while standing over the impact crater. It shows the general layout of the scene.

    The structure on the left is a kiosk which normally serves free coffee and snacks to IDF soldiers on their way to and from home. It is usually manned by civilian volunteers from the area. In front are steel frames which hold fabric coverings to provide shade. The small cubical structure in front of the bus is a bomb shelter; one of several in the hub. Behind it are roofed benches for people waiting for busses.

    The fourth photograph shows some of the damage to the kiosk. Inside, the opposite walls were also damaged as the shrapnel penetrated the wall, passed through the building and out the other side. Had anyone been inside there was every possibility that they would have been injured or worse.

    The fifth photograph shows the pock-marks made by the shrapnel which struck the shelter. There was no penetration and anyone inside would have been well protected.

    All photographs by Efraim Perlmutter.

    Re-writing Egypt's unforgettable history

    By Mina Fayek

    On 11 August 2014, the authorities barred a Human Rights Watch delegation from entering Egypt and, according to local media, had them deported to New York and Paris. The delegates were going to announce the findings of their yearlong investigation into the mass killings of protesters carried out by security forces last summer. This would have coincided with the first anniversary of the dispersals of the Rabaa and Nahda sit-ins, 14 August 2013.

    Meanwhile, the 'show trials' of the Mubarak era officials, responsible for years of corruption and the killing of protesters during the January 2011 revolution, are coming to their final stages. Ahmed Ezz, the steel tycoon and the one responsible for orchestrating the rigging of the 2010 parliamentary elections, to mention just a few of his crimes, was released on bail amid reports of negotiations for his return to the management of Dekheila Steel, a company he acquired under the Mubarak regime and through which he has monopolized the steel industry in Egypt.

    Habib el-Adly, Mubarak’s Minister of Interior, appeared on television during his trial, and for hours, kept ranting conspiracy theories about what had happened before and during the January 2011 revolution to justify his ministry’s use of torture, the killing of protesters, the collapse of police forces on 28 January 2011 and the prison breaks.

    One of his conspiracy theories was about the Two Saints Church bombing in Alexandria on 31 December 2010, where he claimed that those responsible were Egyptians who had joined and been trained by the “Islamic Palestinian Army” in Gaza, and that they did so due to a belief that churches are “temples of infidelity” which have to be destroyed. If this were true, why did this so called “Islamic Palestinian Army” not start by destroying the three “temples of infidelity” of Gaza? This defies belief. Adly also said that some of the victims that night were policemen, an assertion completely denied by the official Coptic Church spokesman. The lawyer of the church said that the ex-Minister’s statements were “far from the truth” and accused the Ministry of Interior of deliberately avoiding completing the investigations and hiding case reports, adding that he intends to take legal action against the ministry. Moreover, the false information Adly has given in this case is an indication of the degree of accuracy, or rather inaccuracy, of his testimonies for all other charges brought against him. 

    Ironically, while Adly and other ex-security officials, like the former head of state security, were given an extended period of time to defend themselves, and on air, the 25 January revolutionaries, arrested under the infamous protest law, were sentenced to years in prison in absentia despite being present outside the court at the time of the trial and denied entry by security. In other cases, mass numbers of prisoners were sentenced to death without even having their cases or charges read. As it stands, while these judges hand harsh sentences to activists and other defendants, in clearly flawed processes, the judges of Mubarak’s men are passionately interacting with the defendants, sometimes even smiling or crying - a clear indication of the trustworthiness of the Egyptian judiciary and justice system.

    For nearly a year now, media outlets have been dedicating a lot of their time to conspiracy theorists, who claim that the world is plotting against Egypt. However, Sisi doesn’t seem satisfied with their reporting. Earlier this week, he met with a group of journalists and TV anchors to express his dissatisfaction, clarifying that he wants them to focus more on “accentuating a sense of danger”. While some dangers in the region are truly of concern, preoccupying people with fear is a well-known tactic to prevent them from demanding democracy, freedom or even social and economic rights. On the other hand, Sisi previously urged the youth to participate in the constitutional referendum and the presidential elections, after reports of low turnouts. However, when asked about youth participation in governance, he said that he had “no time to try” experimenting in working with them.

    Winston Churchill once said “History is written by the victors”. This has happened in several instances throughout Egypt’s history. Different rulers who ruled autocratically defamed previous rulers and facts of war were rewritten. Egypt’s modern history is not an exception; Nasser’s regime defamed the monarchy (which was not perfect, of course) and Sadat’s regime rewrote the 1973 war to hide the setbacks. Now, the current regime is trying to rewrite events that took place in the last three and half years. However, they may be unaware that Churchill’s theory is no longer valid.

    While the state uses conventional methods, like newspapers, the television and educational curriculums, to assert its version of events, the youth who started this revolution use the Internet and social media to counter that. As soon as Mubarak’s men stated their false narratives, activists on Twitter and Facebook started to dig up old news about official investigations and fact-finding reports that were conducted by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) and published on different media outlets, including state-run newspapers. These reports, which date right back to just after the January 2011 revolution, held Mubarak’s officials and police chiefs responsible for the corruption and atrocities committed before and during the revolution.

    According to the Ministry of Communication the number of Internet users in Egypt has reached 44.5 million in June 2014 with an increase rate of 5.5% from the previous month and a 33.8% increase on the year before. Because more than half of the population use the Internet now, and considering that three out of four Egyptians are under the age of 40, Egypt's future in the long run will be in the hands of the revolutionary youth who through their embrace of technology will prevent historical revisionism and whitewashing. 

    The middle: a casualty of the conflict in Gaza

    By Raffaele Piccolo

    Home demolition in Beit Hanina. November 2011. Simon Krieger/Demotix. All rights reserved.Conflict is expensive. In purely economic terms it is estimated that the conflict in Gaza will cost upwards of almost US$ 3bn or 1.2 % of total economic output (for Israel). Moreover there are the costs associated with the destruction of civilian infrastructure in Gaza; homes, schools, hospitals and Gaza’s one and only power station have not been exempt from attack. The destruction of infrastructure in Gaza is estimated to amount to US$5bn. Then there is the loss of life. In purely numerical terms approximately 1400 Palestinian lives have been lost. Of the lives lost 80% were civilians and 20% of those were children. Three Israeli civilians and a Thai national have been killed along with 56 Israeli soldiers. There is no doubt that the loss of life will leave a scar that will take some time to heal.       

    However another big casualty of this conflict that has often been overlooked, is the loss of the middle. It may also be aptly described as the centre, the moderates or those willing to engage, so as to bring about a resolution of the greater Palestine-Israel conflict. This is not to say that the middle has been completely deserted. Rather it is evident that there is a growing polarisation in attitudes amongst Palestinians and Israelis towards one another.

    There are abundant signs of the weakening of Palestinian and Israeli willingness to engage with one another. This can be seen in the lack of humanity and empathy that people are able to express. In Sderot, an Israeli town that borders the Gaza Strip, local Israelis have made a habit of coming together to witness the attacks on Gaza. However they do not come to watch and wish it to end: for them it is a spectacle, a social outing. There is seating, drinks, snacks, people bring binoculars and take ‘selfies’, all the while they are cheering on the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) offensive.

    Then there is the fear, which many Palestinians who habitually reside in Jerusalem feel. They fear harassment, physical intimidation and violence from Israeli Jews as a result of the conflict in Gaza. This violence is promoted by Facebook pages that call for ‘death to Arabs’. Some include pictures of IDF soldiers posing with similar ‘death to Arabs’ slogans drawn across their body whilst holding a gun. The number of ‘likes’ numbers in the thousands. As such, Palestinians in Jerusalem are blamed for the conflict in Gaza and rockets targeted at Israeli cities. 

    The lack of empathy, growing polarisation and promotion and popularity of violence is not limited to Israelis. Similar sentiments can be found amongst Palestinians. Signs abound comparing the State of Israel with Nazi Germany. There appears to be an abundance of toy guns amongst children running about the streets (which could be a coincidence). Children are dressed up, painted with fake wounds and blood so as to symbolise the children killed during the conflict and they are also carried in the rallies that clog the streets at night. However, some are probably too young to really understand the events that are taking place. Then there is the music that features amongst it all. Popular at the rallies (compiled in 2012) is a song that promotes the bombing of Tel Aviv. The song can also be heard when walking down the street blaring from the stereo of the odd car that passes by. However, what’s more alarming is hearing the song being played at a children’s centre and the children present singing along to it.

    The propagation and rise in popularity of views that support violence is worrying, but at the same time it is somewhat understandable. In the case of the Palestinians, they are undoubtedly tired of having been told to be patient, to wait and to compromise all in the name of a Palestinian State that has been forthcoming for over 60 years yet still remains out of reach. For Israelis, particularly those on the border with the Gaza Strip (rightly or wrongly) they fear for their lives. Many have taken to the roads, travelling away from their homes in search of refuge. However tempting it is to resort to violence, or at least espouse beliefs that advocate violence, this temptation must not be allowed to take hold. 

    In the case of the Palestinians, resort to violence will only provide greater grounds for Israel to delay resolution of the greater conflict and the denial of a Palestinian state. For Israelis, violence will give greater credence to those groups that espouse violence as the only means to securing a Palestinian state. It will do nothing to bring about either a lasting peace or security. This might seem idealistic. However the reality is that it remains in the interests of each to see and empathise with the other and to come back to the middle. Coming to the middle does not guarantee that the greater conflict will be resolved overnight, however, the failure to come back to the middle guarantees that this conflict will not be resolved. This conflict will only be resolved when each sees the other and is willing to engage. That will only occur in the middle. 

    Turkey's presidential election candidates

    By Oguz Alyanak, Umit Kurt

    The first and – if one pays attention to the percentages Erdoğan obtained in the pre-election polls – possibly the only round of the Turkish presidential elections is only a few days away. As a result of the 2007 amendment to the Constitution, for the first time in history, Turkish constituents will be responsible for electing a presidential candidate instead of parliament voting on their behalf. The upcoming elections carry symbolic value, because up until the 1980s the position was mostly “reserved” for army generals.

    The following is an overview of the strengths and weaknesses of the three candidates. Our aim is not only to familiarize the reader with the candidates but also to explain why public opinion tends to see one candidate in particular—the current Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan—as the victor of the upcoming presidential elections.

    Candidate #1: Recep Tayyip Erdoğan

    The current Prime Minister of Turkey has held his position for twelve years. Having won consecutive general and municipal elections – three each – and two Justice and Development Party (AKP) proposed referenda, the 60-year-old Erdoğan enters the presidential elections with an insurmountable record of political success. Despite the many challenges Erdoğan has faced in his political career, he has shown cunning in playing the cards that can win the hearts of the majority of Turkish constituents.

    His winning streak is not one to overlook, as the electorate like winners. In a winner, they see qualities of a leader who not only dreams, but also has the capacity to turn dreams into realities. That this winner is also popular with the majority of Turkish parliament adds to his capacity to pass legislation with the least amount of resistance. The leader carries his electorate further on the path of creating a “stronger Turkey”, a goal that Erdoğan himself has set for the centennial of the founding of the Republic of Turkey, namely the “Turkey 2023” campaign.

    In a winner, the electorate see the possibility of realizing successful national projects: including but not limited to, massive projects such as building nuclear power plants, connecting the Black Sea with the Marmara Sea through a channel, building Europe's largest airport, installing an elaborate subway system, military infrastructure, national opera houses, etc…each contested by different segments of society yet with little to no impact on the outcome. While the projects he foresees may appear destructive dreams to his opponents, they are reasonable ambitions. Well aware of this, Erdoğan utilizes discourse that reassures his electorate that only by electing him, as the dreamer and miracle maker, can Turkey continue to prosper. Or, in Erdoğan's words as uttered in his most recent Istanbul rally: “We have shown the people that if we want [something] and believe [in it], it ceases to exist as a dream.”

    Moreover, the capability to always end up on the winning side gives Erdoğan the well-earned image of a stable figure. Furthermore, the resilience of the Turkish economy during the global financial crisis of 2008 and the ensuing recession – as opposed to the pre-Erdoğan crisis of 2000/01 – speaks both to Erdoğan voters' hearts and to their pockets. Who would want an emotionally or economically uncertain future if there already exists an example that satisfies the constituents? This was clear from the outcome of the most recent municipal elections. The Erdoğan-led AKP (the election was more about Erdoğan than the AKP, considering that he attended the majority of the pre-election rallies as the main speaker) won the elections, including metropolitan municipalities where the competitors competed collaboratively for the votes (i.e. proposing joint candidates), which is fairly unusual in Turkish politics.

    Erdoğan's success till now has added to his stability as a leader, but more importantly, it imbues him with charisma – a gracious and divine quality that is attributed to him by his electorate. It is no surprise that in the eyes of many, Erdoğan is a "God-send", he is God's grace [Allah'ın lütfu]. Turkey may be a secular country, but Turkish politics rarely functions secularly. It is no coincidence that in a recent rally (in Tekirdag), Erdoğan put up an exorcism-like show on of bringing a fainted woman back to consciousness by having her brought to him to shake her hand in front of a large crowd. Whether the “show” was set-up is a debate we are less interested in, but those in the audience seemed to enjoy it nevertheless.

    While divination is a resource that Erdoğan skillfully employs, one should also keep in mind that the kind of Islamic discourse that interferes with politics in Turkey is also not – and probably has never been – by the book. It is our belief that Erdoğan (and his electorate) care little about his following of Islam, but rather how he prioritises religion in politics. Unlike other presidential candidates, Erdoğan need not convince anyone of his piety. This is a point that analyses on Erdoğan often forgo. Yet it is necessary to remember that what makes him successful is the proximity of his discourse to the kind of Islam that the majority of constituents in Turkey find best suited to their needs.

    Here, the valid criticism – particularly within the context of the presidential elections, which, in its Turkish translation (Cumhurbaşkanlığı Seçimleri) connotes being representative of "the people" (cumhur) – is that his policies do not resonate with a larger majority – leaving him as a candidate who tends to exclude as much as he includes. Whether we like it or not, Erdoğan's politics of not reaching out to a larger audience – which includes peoples such as Armenians, Jews, Kurds or Alevis – fits flawlessly into a system that prioritizes the hearts that are won over those that are lost and left in frustration. Erdoğan's utilization of hate speech, as in shouting out to the leader of the opposition, "Come out and tell us all that you are an Alevi", which in any democratic regime is – and needs to be – considered a shortcoming, works to his advantage. This itself is an indication of his destructive potential for the democratic system in Turkey, which we have also seen in action on various occasions, including the Gezi Protests of summer 2013. However, Erdoğan's populist attitude resonates well with his constituents who represent the necessary majority of the populace to win him the title of President.

    Candidate #2: Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu

    Next on the list is Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu, whose candidacy caught many in Turkey by surprise. An independent candidate backed by the opposition parties, such as the secularist Republican People's Party (CHP) and the nationalist National Action Party (MHP), the 70-year-old academic Professor Doctor İhsanoğlu previously served as the Secretary General of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), an institution representative of the Islamic world. That the AKP as a whole, and particularly the current President Abdullah Gül, lobbied for him which makes his candidacy even more interesting. In some ways, Erdoğan is competing against an old friend, who he portrays as a bitter enemy.

    While İhsanoğlu's previous role in an Islamic institution and his proximity to members of the AKP has caused friction among secular-minded Turks, particularly among members of the CHP who were initially divided over his candidacy, İhsanoğlu's image as a scholar of Islam is a clever strategy utilized by the leader of the opposition to compete for the religious electorate in Turkey. Aware of this danger, Erdoğan attempts to delegitimize İhsanoğlu's candidacy by arguing that scholarly Islam is not representative of people's Islam: "Born in Cairo. Came to Turkey at the age of 30. What makes him a man of these lands? Who do you think you are fooling? We are the men of these lands. We are born here, raised here, and we have worked here," argued Erdoğan at a recent rally in the eastern Anatolian city of Van. Whether Islam à la İhsanoğlu will ring a bell for the constituents is uncertain, but his candidacy nevertheless pushes Erdoğan to justify his legitimacy over the use of religious capital in his populist rhetoric.

    What adds further strength to İhsanoğlu is his intellectual capital. As a prestigious professor who has represented Turkey in the upper echelons of the academic world (i.e. faculty member at the University of Ankara, chair of department of History at the University of Istanbul, visiting Professor at various European and American universities) as well as international politics (i.e. OIC), İhsanoğlu's professional credentials make him a strong presidential candidate. His intellectual capital is far superior to that of Erdoğan. However, it is equally questionable whether İhsanoğlu's intellectual expertise would work against Erdoğan's practical experience as a politician. Previous elections have shown that the Turkish constituents tend to vote not only for populist but also pragmatic leaders. They tend not to give a new candidate a try if the previous one provides them with sufficient means to economic comfort. Rather than voting for credentials, the electorate tends to cast its vote based on "on the ground" achievements. Erdoğan's 12-year rule as the prime minister is a point that proves this tendency. While one could argue that a presidential title is more symbolic than administrative one, Erdoğan has made it clear that he intends to assume greater powers once he is the president. Why then would the electorate be expected to vote for a president who will not work alongside the (AKP) government, while an already existing candidate will?

    Furthermore, İhsanoğlu's lack of expertise in Turkish politics has weakened his candidacy. The proponents of Erdoğan's rule as the Prime Minister like his attitude as an unruly leader. They appreciate his vulgar language particularly in the international arena – his accusations of Israel of tyranny, support for the Muslim Brotherhood, criticism of Europe and the US for their involvement in the escalation of violence in the Middle East and their alleged attempts to cause unrest in Turkey (i.e. the Gezi protests). As a former Secretary General of the OIC, İhsanoğlu remains reluctant in raising his voice over developments in the Middle East, which could be a precious reservoir to take votes from Erdoğan during the elections. However, İhsanoğlu remaining silent on issues that matter to the Turkish electorate, is received as a weakness in the eyes of Turkish voters.

    Candidate #3: Selahattin Demirtaş

    Selahattin Demirtaş, the 41-year-old candidate of the People's Democratic Party (BDP), is without a doubt the most colorful candidate of this election term. The youngest of the three, Demirtaş represents what could have previously been considered a dream: the Kurdish Presidential candidate of a Kurdish political party. A lawyer by profession who led the Human Rights Association in Diyarbakır, Turkey, Demirtaş went on to serve as a member of predecessors of HDP, such as the Democratic Society Party (DTP) and Peace and Democracy Party (BTP). The former was closed down by the constitutional court and the latter was disbanded by the party members and reformed under its current formation (BDP).

    Since his introduction into politics, the Kurdish movement in general and Demirtaş in particular has shifted away from politics based solely on ethnic (Kurdish) identity to one that is more interested in solving larger social issues and therefore more connected to the problems of the population at large. Contrary to Erdoğan, who skillfully utilizes a rhetoric of exclusion to appeal to his electorate, the co-chair of HDP (which promotes gender equality in party politics) employs a rhetoric of reconciliation and prioritizes pluralism. This coming from a candidate primarily supported by the Kurdish electorate shows how Kurdish politics have transformed over the years to become more inclusive.

    Moreover, Demirtaş represents a political approach that is also more outspoken on issues that lie outside the scope of the two other candidates, such as gender equality in politics, environmental issues, LGBT rights and Syriacs' and Alevis' religious freedoms. In that, Demirtaş comes out as a candidate who is more on par with the changing demands of a new generation, particularly those that are not attracted to the allure of Islamic capitalism. Demirtaş also stands as the only courageous candidate in speaking openly about class politics. During his Eid al-Fitr visit to the tombs of those killed in the Soma mining disaster, Demirtaş pointed out how the population at large suffers from economic inequalities due to the capitalistic nature of AKP rule. While the class-based nuances in Demirtaş' speech are reminiscent of the early days of the Kurdistan Worker's Party (PKK), which was established as a Marxist faction in 1975, Demirtaş' emphasis on class is less focused on the Kurdish working class and more on Turkey's working class as a whole.

    Nevertheless, Demirtaş's call for a new, peaceful and democratic life, as explicated by his slogan, has two obstacles that need to be overcome in order to compete with Erdoğan. First, Demirtaş does not have a monopoly over Kurdish votes. While his BDP may be enjoying the majority of Kurdish votes, Erdoğan's AKP is next in line, competing for the same votes. As the leader of the majority party, Erdoğan has taken audacious steps forward (as well as backwards) in negotiating with the Kurdish leader Abdullah Öcalan. Segments of Kurdish voters have been attentive of this process and trusted Erdoğan as the only political leader who has the power (parliamentary majority) in finding a solution to Öcalan's imprisonment. While one needs to be very critical in examining how the AKP uses the "Kurdish question", as a tactic to control Kurdish votes, one should also keep in mind that not all Kurds are distanced to the AKP’s capacity make their dreams come true.

    The second crucial question is whether the electorate at large would accept a new face for the Kurdish movement, as embodied by Demirtaş. Unsurprisingly, Erdoğan is not willing to accept that Demirtaş is sincere in his more inclusive approach. In a rally earlier this month, Erdoğan asserted that the HDP does not use the Turkish flag in its assemblies and works under the shadow of a gun. While Erdoğan's characterization of Demirtaş is skewed, the fear he emphasizes may nevertheless resonate with the majority of Turkish constituents who continue to equate Kurds as separatists. 

    Conclusion

    Turkey needs a fresh approach to politics. Out of the three candidates, only Demirtaş is representative of unconventional ways of thinking and talking about politics. His dynamism, which İhsanoğlu greatly lacks, brings hope that there are alternatives. Yet, how hopeful should one be? The winner of this election will be the candidate who displays the greatest expertise in reading the dynamics of the majority of the Turkish constituents and Erdoğan appears to come first in this category. Unlike Demirtaş or İhsanoğlu, Erdoğan also has the most to lose. During his 12 years as Prime Minister, he may have won the hearts of the majority of the Turkish constituents, yet he also made many enemies out of his previous allies, like the members of the Gülen community. Aware of the dangers of not winning and having to face previous accusations of corruption and explaining his involvement in shady deals with corrupt Middle Eastern leaders, this time without immunity and institutional support, Erdoğan is willing to spend extra time rallying and polarizing Turkish constituents to obtain the results he needs.

    Overall, however, one should keep in mind that the upcoming presidential election is a referendum. It reflects people's choice. And Erdoğan as the winner of the previous Turkish referenda also comes out as representative of his electorate's will. He certainly is not representative of the national will as he claims in his slogan; and this is a crucial problem that Turkish democracy will continue to face in the upcoming years under Erdoğan's helm. However, it is unlikely that Erdoğan's electorate—representative of a growing 50 percent in previous election—is as worried as other constituents may be about the shortcomings of Turkish democracy. 

    Time will only tell. The first round of elections will take place on 10 August 2014. If none of the candidates gain a simple majority, the second round will take place on 24 August 2014 between the two leading candidates. 

    Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email

    Comments

    We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
    Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram