By Oguz Alyanak
Last week, Turkish democracy was put to the test as a local court reached a verdict on what is known as the Ergenekon trial—which began in 2008 as an investigation on the formation of a clandestine organization (Ergenekon) to overthrow the government—and concluded with the judges handing out aggravated and consecutive life sentences to over a dozen individuals, including the ex-Chief of Staff, former Turkish generals and Commander of the First Army in Turkey as well as prolonged sentences to a vast list of politicians, journalists, lawyers, professors, rectors and civil society representatives.
That the judges of this trial sentenced military generals would in itself suffice to make this verdict a historic one. However, the coup attempt, as was concluded by the verdict, was greater than a simple scheme of the military. Ergenekon was a rhizomatic organism with roots reaching into different corners of political, economic, social and intellectual life, and master-minded by a total of 275 defendants.
Ergenekon as a democratic paradox?
With the trial having reached a verdict, we are now at the stage where we discuss whether a big step has been taken in Turkey’s never-ending journey towards democracy or whether Ergenekon was even the right problem to address. These are questions that are discussed loudly in the Turkish media these days and the answers vary. The verdict was appreciated for pointing out the elephant in the room. Also known as the “deep state” [derin devlet], the five-year trial had undertaken the monumental task of dispensing with a clandestine organization that had originated even before the Turkish Republic was founded and lingered on to spread its strangling roots deep into existing institutions—a point made with precision by journalist/political scientist Nuray Mert. Ergenekon, in this sense, was to mark the judicial approval of the AKP’s efforts to dispense with the remnants of the Kemalist regime, and of its attempts to establish a classless, corporatist society where the national interest should override factional ones. With the Ergenekon verdict, Turkey was to put behind it a history of coup d’états, and to open a new page. Within this perspective, the trial was a success, even “a milestone for Turkish democracy” in that the judiciary was able to confront the military openly for its attempted intervention in politics and convict generals (whose raison d’etre for the past 30 years was to fight terrorism) for participating in what is now officially a ‘terrorist organization’.
However, equally true was the other side of the medallion—thus marking the paradox— that in cleansing politics of the remnants of one regime, of the memory of one kind of corporatism, and of one deep state, the AKP was simultaneously giving birth to a new one. In this sense, the verdict was not so much a failure as, “a dark chapter in Turkey’s history”, in that it was yet another opportunity for the ruling Justice and Development Party to use the rhetoric on national security to deal with criticism and to further consolidate distrust in Turkish institutions—thus finding the legitimacy to transform these institutions and invent new rules and regulations for organizing social life.
But how could the same verdict be both commended and regretted, considered the result of both a democratic trial and an undemocratic, broad witch-hunt? How could it be fair and unfair at the same time? How could it represent both a move towards demilitarization and authoritarianism, seen as exemplary of the triumph of Turkish judiciary and its very failure, representative of the voice of the people yet also the voice of their very entrenched divisions?
Losing hope in democracy in the post-Gezi world?
The paradox that Turkey faces makes sense if we compare it with other examples—as people on the street also do on an everyday basis. As people turn on their TVs and witness the American state ganging up with firms such as Facebook and Google against the people and see protests suppressed in Greece or Brazil in a fashion similar to the way it was done in their own country, questions pop up: “When others do it, it is democracy, it is acceptable. When we [Turkey] do it, it is considered bad and unacceptable,” are words that I have been hearing often around me mainly by the opponents of the Gezi protests, as a new regime of distrust settles in the post-Gezi world.
Police violence, I am told, exists everywhere—look at how they treat the Occupy protestors in the United States or anti-G8 protestors in the U.K.; look at Brazil. But is it really acceptable to use such measures, I ask, and then I am directed to examples like Syria, Egypt and other non-functional post-Arab Spring examples. Are these the only examples we have before us? Do we get to choose only from among bad examples? Will complete chaos follow if the army or the police decide not to intervene?
I stand behind the protests not because I take particular pleasure in chaos. But in a world lacking a strong role model to instill in us the faith lost in democracy and to remind us again why in the post-World War II world, democracy was chosen as “the natural environment for the protection and effective realization of human rights” - these protests provided us with alternative words such as “respect” and spaces such as local forums, which at least carry the capacity, as Nilufer Gole wrote, “to bring people together in a convivial way.”
Today, what frustrates many of us with democratic standards is that we see no possibility that an alternative reality can be constructed by the people. Democracy lacks the momentum to transform that alternate image into reality. In Turkey, when one form of nostalgia—for a Kemalist past—is taken down, another, neo-Ottoman one is installed. What we get is the recycling of actors within the given structure; one deep state replacing another, one form of elitism giving way to another, one instrument of oppression exchanged with another.
Up until last month, with the Gezi Protest spreading and consequently suppressed, Gezi Park, like Occupy on the Brooklyn Bridge gave many of us the hope that the awareness that a structural critique was much in need was out there on the streets. Both Occupy and Gezi were able to show that what was wrong was far more than simply a politician, political party, or even a particular country, but rather a system that scavenged on reproducing power inequality in politics, economics and society. It was as much the state as neoliberal economics and as much politicians as nationalism that perpetuated the fault lines at all costs which force us to believe that we live in a country divided. But today, it is almost as if we, as individuals, are nevertheless conditioned to construct a social imaginary only within this prescribed vocabulary. There seems to be no room to construct something new and extraordinary that would jettison the given normative frame.
Turkey is not the only country struggling with paradoxes of democracy. However, what is fearsome in Turkey is that these paradoxes push us further to lose trust in democratically established institutions, such as the legislative, executive and judiciary branches of the state, where each—under the democratic principle of the separation of powers—is equally empowered and equally responsible for checking on the other to make sure that no one institution has the monopoly. Experiencing problems in its implementation, we look for failures in the theory. Yet, equally important is to question how and by whom the theory gets to be transformed into practice. As one consequence of the Ergenekon trial, Professors Acemoglu and Robinson expect the rule of law in Turkey to suffer the most. The law will be perceived as an instrument of suppression more than an instrument of democratic rights and freedoms. And when this occurs, it is our belief in a democracy that is obstructed.
It is within this light that we need to reconsider the Ergenekon trial. In terms of Turkey facing its past, Ergenekon is a step taken in the right direction. However, in terms of the missing elements in Turkey’s past that it cannot furnish, or the existing ones that it endeavors to repeat, it is a failure.
The questions that it leaves us with are not sui-generis to Turkish democracy. Democracies around the world continuously undertake undemocratic measures and use double-talk in approaching the developments at the periphery. As human life loses its value while being transformed into a mere voyeuristic fetish object (in France, the U.K. or the U.S.), into the mere casualties of a revolution (as in Egypt and Syria), or into the two sides of a showdown (as in Turkey), trust in democratic institutions suffers the most. What is much needed, then, instead of these make-believe democracies with their interminable frustrations, is a collective, global dialogue that extends beyond national borders on what democracy really is.
This year, the Islamic holy month of Ramadan was a particularly difficult one for Libyans. Not only were the days long and excruciatingly hot, but frequent power outages meant families were left without electricity for up to 16 hours a day in some areas, while a wave of violent assassinations, terrorist attacks and criminal activity afflicted the country from east to west. As Libyans readjust to their normal routines post-Ramadan it feels as though the worst of the storm has passed, yet a flotsam of unidentified assailants, wayward militias and deepening lack of confidence in the state has been left behind and it will take some serious efforts to clean it up.
Two years after the National Transitional Council (NTC) issued the 2011 Constitutional Declaration setting out a road map for Libya's transition, the euphoria of the first heady days of liberation are long gone and the country is finding it increasingly difficult to drag itself out of the quagmire of weak state institutions, powerful militias and competing regional interests. After more than 40 years under Colonel Gaddafi's oppressive rule, which stripped the state down to the bare minimum and made its institutions almost indistinguishable from Gaddafi's close family and friends, it would have been naive to expect Libya to become a stable, democratic country overnight.
However, the relative success of last summer's general elections to the interim legislature, the General National Congress (GNC), combined with a return to pre-revolution levels of oil production only one year after the conflict had finished, heralded a period of optimism where it seemed Libya would be able to overcome the momentous obstacles in its path and stay on track throughout the transition and beyond. Although there were still numerous security threats, especially in the east of Libya, many felt that it could only be a matter of time before the powerful 'thuwar' (revolutionaries) disbanded or were assimilated into a new national army, thereby allowing the state to monopolise force more effectively. Concerns regarding reconstruction, infrastructure and employment were bitten back to some extent as Libyans allowed the new government and parliament time to tackle the formidable task of rebuilding the country.
Fast forward to summer 2013 however and this grace period seems to have passed. Even before Ramadan, the mood across the country had become increasingly dejected, marked by frustration and anger at the apparent lack of progress made by the GNC and government. Insofar as security is concerned, the situation in the eastern city of Benghazi has been steadily worsening with attacks on embassies and state institutions, assassinations of high profile security officials and activists, and a marked increase in criminal activities such as car-jacking and robbery. While the capital Tripoli had previously managed to avoid much of the violence experienced in the east, a string of attacks in recent weeks signals a shift towards a more precarious security situation in the capital too. Much of the blame for the deteriorating security situation in Libya is being put squarely on the government because of their inability to reign in the country's powerful armed groups and form a national army, as well as on the militias themselves for refusing to disarm and using force to further their own interests at the expense of those of the nation as a whole.
There is increasing mistrust of the government, GNC and political parties because they have so far made very little progress concerning fundamental issues such as the judiciary, the economy and the constitution, as well as failing to apprehend or charge any suspects in the recent attacks across the country. Political polarisation is seen to be seriously hampering the ability of both the GNC and government to make decisions, reinforcing deep-rooted suspicion towards political parties and leading to calls for all parties to be dissolved. To make matters worse, the various arms of the state do not have clear remits and are constantly accusing one another of having overstepped their respective boundaries, further reinforcing the perception that the state is more concerned with internal squabbles than the serious business of running the country.
The prolonged power cuts during Ramadan are indicative of the frustrations currently felt by many Libyans. Libya is an oil-rich nation with a small population (6 million) and a legitimately elected government, yet two years after fighting ceased the state still cannot provide enough energy to keep the lights on across the country. Whereas previously there was a certain amount of leniency afforded to the state where reconstruction and infrastructure were concerned, now there is just disappointment and anger. Not only has the state so far been unable to bring the militias under control, it has also not managed to repair roads, rebuild buildings, clean the streets or provide power to its citizens.
The government was quick to blame the power cuts on the armed protests and strikes which have plagued Libya's oil refineries and ports in recent weeks, carried out by oil workers and local residents staking claims to their share of the oil pie. With no strong army or police force to counter such protests, the state has struggled to shift these armed protesters, drawing yet more criticism. Furthermore, these strikes have had a negative impact on Libya's oil production, with levels dropping to below half of what they were pre-revolution. If the disruptions continue long term, this could have a detrimental effect on Libya's economy.
Although the developments of the past few weeks have left many both inside and outside the country despairing of Libya's future, there is still much to be hopeful about. The reality is that although the GNC and government undoubtedly have room for improvement, even the most experienced politicians in the world would struggle to find a way to guide Libya through this current transition without encountering opportunism, resistance and conflict along the way. Indeed, transition by its nature is conflictual and this was always going to be a tough period as different interest groups within society fight to come out of this interim period on top.
The state needs to reassure the public that it is doing its best to manage these challenges by showing that it is taking action. This not only means that the government should work around the clock to catch those responsible for recent violent attacks and protests, but also that it must make sure that basic tasks such as cleaning the streets, repairing roads and providing electricity are undertaken. The road to stability and democracy may be longer and more winding than initially hoped, but that doesn't mean that Libya won't get there in the end.
By Gigi Ibrahim
August 14, 2013 marks one of the darkest days in Egyptian modern history. Over 800 people were killed by security forces during the dispersal of the pro-Morsi Rabea and Nahda sit-ins that lasted over a month. Ever since, the emergency law has been reinstated as well as a month-long 7pm-6am curfew in 10 provinces, leaving nothing but the television as a source of information and news.
Since the dispersal, over 50 churches have been attacked and burnt in Upper Egypt; however, there has been very little media coverage of these attacks except when the Muslim Brotherhood can be blamed for it. Some police stations have also been attacked and police brutally murdered, as was the case in Kirdasa. This seized the media’s attention because it vilified the Muslim Brotherhood even more than their actual crimes had in the past. The unrest, clashes and deaths continue with the death toll now reaching over 1600 individuals, of whom quite a few were journalists. Hundreds have been arrested and many are still missing.
On August 18, 2013, 38 prisoners were killed in police custody while being transferred to prison. They allegedly died by suffocation through excessive use of tear gas fired into the truck transporting them. The Egyptian media, however, did not appear to be interested in this event since the pictures of the bodies were extremely graphic and suggested that the Muslim Brotherhood could have been the ‘victims’ in this incident. This, of course, is the one thing they are not in the eyes of the masses, especially with the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) propaganda constantly portraying the Muslim Brotherhood’s long history of “crimes and violence”.
Sinai, over the past weeks, has also witnessed a fair share of attacks on various security points and police stations. The most recent attack was on August 19, 2013 when 25 conscripts were killed in North Sinai. Almost instantly all media outlets focused solely on the killed conscripts, except Al Jazeera, erasing any possible speculations about what had happened to those 38 prisoners.
The media has been a crucial player in directing and polarizing events as they unfold. State media and several privately owned Egyptian channels such as CBC, Dream, Nahar, Tahrir, Mehwar, Sada El Balad, Qahera Wal Nas, and ONTV are all singing the same chorus of SCAF’s version of what has and is still taking place in Egypt since the 30th June. More ridiculously, all of these channels have put some variation of a “Fighting Terrorism” badge permanently on their screens. ONTV and Mehwar even created English-dubbed sister channels in the hopes of spreading the propaganda to western audiences and press, since they have been accused of failing to show the Muslim Brotherhood as “terrorists and monsters.”
Local media has created one-minute promo videos blasting “Egypt is above all” and “The People of Egypt against Terrorism” rhetoric mixed with 2-second shots of YouTube videos showing armed men on the “loose” with Independence-Day background music. This type of propaganda has replaced commercial breaks and actually puts Bush’s “Fight on Terrorism” campaign to shame.
On the other hand, some international and regional media outlets have been picking sides. The most popular examples are Al Jazeera and CNN, who have pre-selected guests that only represent the pro-Muslim Brotherhood camp whilst ignoring the other camp’s arguments. Al Jazeera have been the leading voice of the Muslim Brotherhood camp; they have streamed almost every Muslim Brotherhood event since the start of the Rabea and Nahda sit-ins.
On the international level, CNN has become the American version of Al Jazeera, also pre-selecting guests who are mostly on the Muslim Brotherhood’s side, and failing in investigative, balanced coverage. I even got a call from CNN to comment on the Rabea massacre and when I told the reporter I denounce the massacre, but that I am against both SCAF and Muslim Brotherhood, she said she would call back and never did.
In general, Al Jazeera has been very unwelcome in Egypt lately, and since it basically became the Muslim Brotherhood’s mouthpiece, which resulted in it being viciously attacked by both local media and the general public, the Arabic Al Jazeera channel’s office was closed.
In addition to Al Jazeera “hate posters” on the streets, Al Jazeera journalists have been banned from State press conferences and are, at times, attacked and forced out of other conferences by fellow journalists. Not to mention the unlawful arrest and current detention of their journalists Mohamed Badr and Abdullah El Shamy.
“The makers of sectarianism”
To be fair, Al Jazeera hasn’t sunk to the level of ONTV. Every now and then they have invited opposition figures to comment via the telephone and even Hassan Shahin, Tamarod’s (Rebel Campaign) spokesperson, was invited to comment recently.
One of the main videos circulating on ONTV portraying the message that “Al Jazeera is lying and unprofessional” is a video of a scene at the Fattah Mosque in Ramsis, where hundreds of Muslim Brotherhood supporters were under siege surrounded by security forces and thousands of “residents” who apparently wanted to kill them. The video shows a fire extinguisher being blown from inside the mosque, the footage itself doesn’t suggest that tear gas had been used or why the people inside the mosque used the fire extinguisher. ONTV’s presenter, Youssef Al Hosiny, chose to portray this as an attempt by those in the mosque to give a “tear gas effect” and attacked Al Jazeera for fabricating that tear gas had been used. Whether tear gas was fired or not, no one knows, and Youssef Al Hosiny certainly doesn’t know.
There is another video that was repeatedly shown, once again by Youssef Al Hosiny, on ONTV. It is of a “wounded person” inside Fattah mosque, who supposedly wasn’t actually wounded. The video depicts him lying down, not allowing the doctor to lift his shirt and when the doctor does so, it becomes clear that there is no wound underneath the bloodstained shirt. In this instance, it was OK of course, to use Al Jazeera’s “lying” footage because it served ONTV’s endless propaganda stream.
Ironically, on the other hand, some Egyptians have been raving about Fox News. This is because their reports are pushing for the same propaganda as has SCAF; against the Muslim Brotherhood. And of course, none other than ONTV rebroadcast this footage to their viewers who might have missed it.
Al Jazeera streams live coverage of all Muslim Brotherhood events and sit-ins while ONTV cheerfully streams live coverage of the army and security forces arresting citizens who break the curfew, shoving them like sardines into police vans. The media is extremely polarized and both discourses appear to be driven by their own agendas and incapable of reporting the truth. All they are showing are 2-minute videos dubbed with racist and fascist remarks, telling their viewers what to and what not to believe, and this is all done by supposed ‘professional’ presenters who are allegedly ‘professional journalists.’
One of the best examples is Youssef Al Hosiny of ONTV, who speaks for hours daily saying things like “When our state fights terrorism, we must put human rights to one side”, inciting racism and xenophobia. And, of course, he only invites guests that applaud this rhetoric. Most of the guests on Egyptian TV channels display chauvinistic political views bordering on the fascistic whilst promoting sectarianism. Vigilante committees are regularly warmly welcomed to help the police and army in catching those “terrorists,” while words like “conspiracy against Egypt” are regularly repeated instilling fear in people, which in many ways is the reason why so many have complied with military rule.
Anyone who speaks of “reason” now, or even takes a position against both the Muslim Brotherhood and SCAF, is labeled a traitor or Muslim Brotherhood member, because the word Muslim Brotherhood has, to a certain extent, become an insult. Those who are not praising Wednesday’s massacre are now considered not Egyptian “enough” to many of those TV presenters. And those who voiced concerns over human rights violations were accused of being part of a “mob”, as Youssef Al Hosiny confidently declared on ONTV, whilst making fun of them on social media.
The actual journalists on the ground, attempting to get at the truth and report on the daily deadly clashes, like Sarah Carr - who wrote about the scrutiny especially foreign journalists face - are too few to raise the voice of reason over the voices of the two extremes.
Basically there is no “real” coverage of what is happening in Egypt, only half-truths tailored to either side’s argument and broadcast to a population that is mostly inured to bloodshed. Thankfully, at least some of us still have the common sense to assess information given by either outlet, to get a glimpse of the truth.
Many of the videos and pictures broadcast are better understood if muted, to avoid listening to the ramblings of the presenters. This next video is a good example; it has been widely circulated on ONTV as “Oh look at what the Muslim Brotherhood are doing in Rabea! They are removing bodies from under the stage before the police attack!,” insinuating that they had killed these people during the month-long sit-in and were now attempting to make it appear that these were Muslim Brotherhood members who were killed by the police. The video doesn’t actually indicate anything close to the conclusion that Khaled Tallima, an ONTV presenter, provided. If one were to ignore his explanation and mute it, all one sees are people in Rabea moving dead bodies from one place to another while loud gunfire is shot in the background. When watching this 2-minute video, it is unclear who these people are, when and how they were killed, and definitely doesn’t tell you by whom. Someone overlooking Rabea shot the footage and all you can hear in the background is someone saying “look at how they are placing the dead bodies on the floor.”
There is endless similar footage, where one simply cannot understand the full story and certainly cannot figure out the truth. All local media outlets are blistering pro-SCAF, pro-police propaganda, as if the long history of police brutality were miraculously erased from people’s memories. However, there still are some who remember and refuse to forget.
Controlling through fear may succeed with some, but definitely not everyone. If General El-Sisi believes that the good old days of full control are back; controlling people through curfews, emergency law, media blackout, and a “terrorism scare,” it will not be effective for long. Egyptians no longer live in the 1990s let alone 1954. The people will soon see the “true colours” of SCAF and revolt just like they did under Mubarak and Morsi. The people will rise up again, and this time hopefully victory will be achieved!
*This article was originally published on Gigi Ibrahim’s blog on 20th August 2013.
Amid the ongoing, yet bloody confrontations between the Egyptian military-led government on one hand and supporters of the ousted President Mohammed Morsi on the other, local and foreign journalists alike are being shot at, assaulted, or detained.
On August 14, when the government launched a brutal crackdown on two pro-Morsi protest encampments in the Cairo and Giza governorates, the raids sparked violent clashes between Egypt's security forces and Morsi's proponents nationwide. Over 600 people were killed and almost 4000 injured by Thursday, August 15, according to the Egyptian Health Ministry.
Five journalists have been confirmed killed since August 14. Sky News Cameraman, Mick Deane, and Habiba Ahmed Abd Elaziz of the Dubai-based Gulf News newspaper, were shot dead while covering the violence that erupted on Wednesday, August 14. The state-run Al-Akhbar newspaper's reporter, Ahmed Abdel Gawad.
Five days later, Tamer Abdel Raouf, the Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram's regional bureau chief, was shot dead at a military checkpoint after a night-time curfew had fallen. In an attempt to shift the burden of guilt to the aforementioned journalist, the military said in its statement that soldiers fired warning shots before shooting at the car which was violating the curfew, denying that any shoot-to-kill policy was in place. But, Hamed Al-Barbari, another reporter from the Egyptian daily Al-Gomhoria who was accompanying Abdel Raouf and only suffered from hand and leg injuries, rebutted the military's claim by saying that he and his deceased friend obeyed the soldiers' orders to turn back, but they opened fire anyway as Abdel Raouf was making a U-turn!
Many media watchdogs have urged the Egyptian authorities to investigate the attacks on journalists, decrying the casualties that mounted steeply after the clearance of the two sit-ins by security forces, backed by armoured vehicles, bulldozers and helicopters. The Egyptian human rights group Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE) has meanwhile reported 32 separate violations against local journalists, including assaults, detentions and confiscation of press equipment, on August 14 alone. Later on, AFTE issued another report enumerating the violations against journalists carrying out their work mostly in Cairo on August 16 and 17. They say there were 12 separate violations against local and foreign journalists: two people missing, two reporters injured by rubber bullets and live rounds, another two journalists detained by security forces, and six journalists reportedly assaulted and beaten up by civilians.
The Wall Street Journal's Matt Bradley, the Independent's Alastair Beach, Patrick Kingsley of the Guardian and the Brazilian journalist Hugo Bachega, were among the journalists who have been harassed and threatened by Egypt's security officers or civilians in the past few days.
Khaled El Balshi, board member of Egypt's Press Syndicate, told the Qatar-based Doha Centre for Media Freedom, a non-profit organization working for press freedom and quality journalism in the Middle East, that the Syndicate has received numerous reports indicating that journalists were specifically targeted by both the pro-Morsi protesters and security forces, because they were carrying cameras in their hands, adding that "testimonies from survivors confirmed that there is a state of targeting journalists in general."
It's worth mentioning that Egypt's state-run media outlets, along with the privately-owned ones in Egypt, have been united in driving home the same messages; defending whatever the military-led government does, whilst demonizing the Muslim Brotherhood and their supporters by referring to them as "terrorists"!
This disheartening climate for journalists became even more tense and strained on August 17, when the State Information Service (SIS) issued an English-language statement to the foreign media excoriating their coverage of recent events. The statement criticizes some foreign reporters for steering away from "objectivity" and "neutrality" in their coverage of Egypt's events. "Egypt is feeling severe bitterness towards some Western media coverage that is biased to the Muslim Brotherhood and ignores shedding light on violent and terror acts that are perpetrated by this group," the statement pointed out. Much to the chagrin of the Egyptian government, many foreign media outlets are still describing Morsi's ouster as a military coup. So, the SIS's statement objected to the fact that some media "are still falling short of describing the (anti-Morsi protests) of June 30 as an expression of a popular will."
Later the same day, Egyptian presidency spokesman Mustafa Hegazy seemed to reiterate the SIS statement by condemning the international media's perceived bias in a press conference. When a journalist "dared" to ask Mr. Hegazy about the growing hostility towards the foreign media, the latter said that Egyptians were disappointed in the foreign media, specially when overlooking stories of MB's supporters killing soldiers, burning churches, not to mention using women and children as human shields.
One must conclude that the Egyptian government is keen either to instigate a media blackout by targeting local and foreign journalists trying to carry out their work, or, to find a way of persuading media outlets both at home and worldwide to adopt their own viewpoint.
By Milja Rämö
A protestor casually sitting in front of the police. Credit: Milja Rämö
Although the Gezi protests may have faded a little over the past six weeks, they haven’t for protesters. No youngster in Turkey has ever seen such massive state violence in action before. Before Gezi, many were passive family members, lacking any compulsion to get out on the streets and fight. At the same time their generation has lived under increasing pressure from the Turkish goverment and they have all experienced the attendant anxieties. So the protests carry on, low key, bringing various issues to the fore.
Many people seem to be suffering from protest fatigue, which has resulted in them eliciting a frequent groan when asked about their personal experiences of change as a result of the Gezi park protests. Some are willing to analyze events, from a general point of view, but are very reluctant to talk about their personal experiences. Yet the events in May and June were so massive that they did affect everyone who participanted and gradually that impact is coming to light, though not always in expected ways. It appears to be too early to get a grasp on their impact. After asking around, three young protesters agreed to share their thoughts and experiences of the protests and what it means to them.
Pinar, 23, lawyer
˝Our generation is often called apolitical. This does not mean that we don’t care about politics: there are just no loyalties to any political party. I am not alone in fighting against the party I voted for. In Gezi Park many people who voted AKP were fighting against them,” Pinar, a graduate from law school who was politically active before the Gezi Park protests, points out. ”We are always described as a lazy generation, too lazy to even go to the cinema to watch a movie. But the violence used by the police was a shock to our systems. And there were people who walked all the way from the Anatolian side to Taksim. For me, this was one of the most important turning points in the protests. Another very important moment was the loss of trust in our media. We don't believe what we hear or see anymore.”
For Pinar, the protests were an unforgettable adrenalin rush, although she, like many others, has suffered from both physical and mental side-effects since. Participating in these protests was one of the most fulfilling experiences of her life: ˝My future will be determined by these protests, I’m convinced. I feel now that I have a goal, which is not money. Perhaps I will work in a non-governmental-organization or even volunteer. But what I want, without any doubt, is to be able to include politics in my life.” She is able to see similar changes in her friends' political awareness: ˝Before, friends might have made fun of gays for instance: they knew nothing about the LGBT parade. This year so many took part in it. This was a political awakening and part of the amazing solidarity we felt in the park.”
˝I met so many beautiful people in Gezi Park! I would say I come from an upper-middle class background, which to some extent, has hitherto confined the number of people I could’ve met. The protests gave me the chance to meet a vast range of people. Now, I also try to meet people with different political ideas than my own, and I try to build a dialogue with them.” I heard this many times from numerous protesters – that one of the greatest accomplishments, for them personally, was the chance to meet and experience unity with people from different religions, classes and ethnicities. Pinar also adds that Gezi Park gave many of them a new sense of identity. Prior to the protests, she simply didn’t have a strong sense of belonging. ˝I am so proud of being part of this movement. I like to think of myself as a Gezi citizen!” Pinar says and smiles.
A young man being arrested on the first few days of demonstrations. Credit: Milja Rämö
Ali Can, 23, engineering student
Ali Can was always interested in politics but felt he’d never previously had the chance to take part. Nothing had motivated him to go to the streets. However, this time the disproportionate state terror forced him to join the struggle. ˝I had never imagined such violence against civilians was possible and I had no notion of joining any such movement. This was the first time I got pepper sprayed. It was nothing like what you might see on television,” he commented. ˝At first, the more violence you encountered, the more courageous you became; but then it just all became too much.”
Ali Can was shot with rubber bullets, and this was the turning point for him. ”I discovered that I don’t have much resilience when it comes to dealing with physical violence and I became very scared to participate in protests. I still am. When I see a policeman let alone a TOMA, the water cannons they use, I know it’s going to hit me, even when there are no protests taking place. I am very afraid now. They have destroyed my mental resistance.”
After the protests, Ali Can and his friends started to talk politics; querying the acts of the Turkish government. They are much more rebellious. According to Ali, protests and political activism, for the time being, are undergoing fashion wave status. Everyone is asking everyone else if they are attending various protests. ˝It was certainly rewarding to observe the way the protests have ensured that the government simply cannot do whatever it wants. It appears they have to show more respect for the law. I understood that if we get together we achieve more. So if I’m psychologically able to do so, I will definitely go again to protest.”
A local vendor arguing with the police. Credit: Milja Rämö
Onur, 25, humanities student
Onur is an experienced activist who has taken part in many different kinds of protests before Gezi. In the Gezi protests he was hit by tear gas canisters and rubber bullets. For him the most rewarding moment was when Gezi Park, given its huge symbolic significance, was clawed back into the possession of the protesters. At the same time he acknowledges that the first few nights of the protest were hell - the scariest and also bloodiest experiences of his life.
Onur was known among his friends as a rather quiet person. ”I personally became more sociable because of the protests. Before I just felt so pessimistic about other people, watching their behaviour. But when you have the support of other people, you start talking to them and suddenly you trust them. Everyone simply accepted everyone else. That was a huge experience for me.” Another great change for Onur is that his friends used to occasionally make fun of his activism.”Now those friends who used to ask me what I was doing before, were in the barricades with me. I am happy that they have also got a taste of the feeling in the streets, which is so different compared to home. People meet other people and they open up.”
For Onur it is hard to think about the future. He doesn't want to be a pessimist but according to him there is still a lot to do before Turkey really changes. ˝One of the most miraculous aspects of Gezi Park was that people joined in the struggles that have been part of everyday life for Kurds, Alewites and other minorities in Turkey. People started to understand the struggle. This was not the first and definitely not the last protest. Now people have had the experience of demonstrating, so the barrier of hitting the streets, after this, is much lower.”
Last spring, in a buzzing coffee shop in Cairo, I listened to the analysis of a journalist from the old Mubarak regime as he described to me the likeliest scenario to bring president Morsi’s rule to an end. At the time, I took this scenario as an expression of wishful thinking. The journalist chose to distance himself from the prominent media discourse, in waiting for a possible comeback. He stressed that, “Morsi will not remain in power for more than a year. The anger of people and their frustration will drive them to the streets in their millions. In this case, the army will have to intervene.”
But how, I asked?
“They will have to find a civilian figure to formally lead this operation, but they might not need it,” he said.
The military coup backed by millions who took to the streets this June calling for an end to the Muslim Brotherhood regime could be a more sophisticated version of the scenario foreshadowed by my interviewee. According to the same scenario, the next phase will witness new elections in which the former candidate and figure from the Mubarak era, Ahmed Shafic, will win the vote. This also implies Shafic would be cleared from current charges against him by the judiciary and with him, former President Hosni Mubarak.
Whether this second phase will materialise or not is not so relevant; the implications of the “popular” coup d’etat in Egypt pose quite enough danger to the symbolism of the Arab Spring which is, in essence, an act of liberation and rebellion against the oppression so often administered by the security apparatus. The bloody crackdown on pro-Muslim Brotherhood protestors sparked little sympathy within a propagandist Egyptian local media and a military-friendly public opinion. Liberals who once went to the streets asking for a civilian democratic regime are equally supportive of these military operations. The military coup in Egypt has opened the door to a new chapter in the battle between the two unique institutions in the Arab world: the Islamists and the army. In this battle, the so-called liberals are barely visible.
We used often to portray the clashes in the Arab uprisings as an arm wrestle between the pro-liberal (secular) and the pro-Islamic camps. In the latest developments in Egypt, this description proves inaccurate. Who is this pro-liberal camp? Has this camp ever really existed beyond the discourse of hatred for the Muslim Brotherhood and radical Islam? Who and what do Arab liberals really want?
The first democratic elections post the Arab revolutions witnessed an easy triumph won by the Islamic parties. In the rush for the ballot boxes, the crucial priority of drafting new constitutions was dismissed. The election results gave little say to the revolutionaries, a leaderless group with no structure or any clear, unifying agenda. This camp – which includes leftists, nationalists and remnants of the old regime – rallies under the vague banner of liberalism. Their electoral failure could have been attributed to their desperate lack of credible leadership and their inability to find a unifying voice. Rather they perceived their loss as a result of a western conspiracy to support Islamists, not to mention the “vicious” media bias of regional Arab and foreign media in favour of the Brotherhood governments, according to the same conspiracy theory.
In Tunisia as in Egypt, to rule under the conditions of this transition is nothing but a deadly trap. There are acute economic problems, high rates of unemployment, the spread of violence and insecurity, the lack of consensus on crucial matters and, most importantly, the lack of a common vision for the future. How can any political party manage such a thorny process? Further to this, the newcomers to power had little to no experience in governance, as illustrated by their authoritarian double standards in policies. Their high inefficiency was exacerbated by an extremist discourse disseminated by religious national TV stations that had just begun taking up politics as an interest. The appalling radical content propagated by these TV channels, such as the denial of minorities and women’s rights, was enough to erode the Islamic government’s popularity among middle class citizens who are strongly conservative yet who still reject extremism. Ruling the country was quite an impossible task. The bloated body of civil servants known as the “deep state” was reluctant to cooperate with the Muslim Brotherhood, the longstanding enemy, demonised for decades as the worst threat to the country’s security and future.
The truce between the Islamic new rulers and the military was short lived in Egypt. The rapid fall of this partnership in Egypt should prompt us to ask whether the poor performance of the Muslim Brotherhood government was simply a golden opportunity for the military to assert its popularity and power.
The struggle between the two major institutional forces meant that it was high time for the ‘liberal’ camp to build its street credibility, as opposed to relying on its longstanding elitist role and dodgy links to former regimes. Instead, this camp defined its identity by rejecting the Islamic discourse, labelling the Islamic camp’s supporters as “mice” or “lambs”. Their ability to bring millions to the streets in protest was, once again, not translated into a political structure. The alignment between this camp and the military-backed government going so far as to applaud the violent crackdown against the Muslim Brotherhood must seriously question its integrity.
The unbearable lightness of the pseudo-liberal camp and its inability to translate its agenda into political goals means it can never represent a serious alternative nor a third way ahead. The conservative nature of Arab societies leads to a situation where the large majority of people are not able to understand what being liberal really means. It is no coincidence that Mahmood Jibril, the Libyan leader of the liberal coalition, was quick to state, “we are not liberal. We are not secular, we are Muslims” – immediately after the victory of his national coalition in Libya’s first democratic election! In the extremely conservative Libyan society, the ‘liberal’ label could easily be interpreted as anti-Islam. Millions who went to the streets in opposition to the Brotherhood’s rule in Egypt were misidentified as a growing liberal trend. They simply reject the Muslim Brotherhood, perceived as an anti-national and dodgy organization, with a regional agenda at odds with national interests. Those who voiced their support for the powerful General Sisi to back his intervention against “terrorism” were definitely not driven by a liberal quest but by the fear of a supposed “terrorist” threat of Islamists.
“What will be the role of the revolutionaries after Morsi?” I asked the Egyptian journalist at the Cairo coffee shop. His response: “These youth played a very important role in breaking the stagnation under Mubarak. This is their role, it cannot go beyond this.” Unfortunately, I have to agree with my interviewee. For the pseudo-liberal/revolutionary camp it is all about giving a round of applause to those who will accede to power in the name of democracy, and in waiting for… Godot?
By Ahmed Kadry
Egypt has been blown in various different political and ideological directions for over two and a half years. Yet, despite these tumultuous changes in its ever-complicated political paradigm, the date of January 25 2011 seemed forever immune to whatever was happening in the present, the undisputed start date of Egypt’s glorious, peaceful revolution - until now.
The ouster of former President Mohamed Morsi on July 3 sent events in Egypt into overdrive, and for the first time, the narrative of the January 25 Revolution finds itself under suspicion. The revolution was revered as a demographically inclusive movement against tyranny and corruption - against continued nepotism and social injustice - a refusal to allow Egypt to continue to be governed as if it were one man’s personal fiefdom.
Yet, for the first time, under the auspices of General Abdel Fattah El Sisi, the head of Egypt’s military and the most powerful man in Egypt, the narrative on January 25 has begun to be mixed in with the restrictive and biased binaries that currently plague Egyptian politics and its domestic life alike.
Since July 3, clear battle lines have been drawn up between the military and the Muslim Brotherhood, with every Egyptian seemingly picking a side. Pro-Morsi/Muslim Brotherhood protests and sit-ins have been attacked leaving hundreds dead and thousands injured, while in the Sinai, police and army personnel have been murdered by “Islamic militants.” Amidst the brutal violence, an ideological battle rages on for the soul of Egypt. State and private TV channels tell Egyptians daily that the military is “fighting terrorism” - now a synonym for the Muslim Brotherhood, while the Muslim Brotherhood, the TV channels favourable to their cause shut down since Morsi’s ouster, resort to YouTube videos and internet statements that condemn the military who they see as wanting to return Egypt to its pre-January 25 state. In retort, el-Sisi and the interim government characterise the Muslim Brotherhood as a counter-revolutionary force that seeks to impose its own religiously fascist agenda on Egypt. Tragically, and ironically, both sides are probably right, and Egypt is struggling to find any third options.
This has meant that both sides have inevitably dragged January 25 2011 into their armoury. All of a sudden, the revolution that was less about politics and more about social justice and equality, is being used for political gains as an end in itself. The Muslim Brotherhood claim this is the return of the “deep state” of Mubarak to undo all the achievements of January 25, while el-Sisi and his army, as well as many TV channels, now argue that January 25 was not an uprising against Mubarak and tyranny, but rather the rebirth of a different tyranny in the form of the Muslim Brotherhood.
While the death toll rises, Egypt has seen the return of the Emergency law, one of the most despised aspects of Mubarak’s regime – now being invoked in the fight against “terrorism” in every military and government statement, not to mention on almost every TV channel. It comes as no surprise that there have been no protests against the return of the Emergency Law. There have been no protests over the implementation of the evening curfew, further proof that Egyptians have placed their trust and security in the hands of the army, and most worryingly, accepted the military’s narrative of events as fact.
News of Hosni Mubarak’s release from prison makes one feel that January 25 2011 seems a lot longer than two and a half years ago. The spirit of the revolution that was once a source of pride for Egyptians appears to be at least temporarily lost to us. Tahrir Square is empty, perhaps patiently waiting for its people to remember why this all started in the first place. But for that to happen, TV’s need to be turned off. Egyptians only need to look outside onto the street to remember that there is a country worth fighting for here, and that that fight began on January 25 2011.