Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Erdoğan's Miracle Reprieve (Claire Berlinski)

Remember Turkey?  Yes, it's still there.  Here are some highlights from Claire Berlinski's latest update, direct from Istanbul.
If you’re reading the American press, you might think that the protests in Turkey have died down. Nothing could be further from the truth. On July 6—last Saturday—delivering a stern rebuke to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the Istanbul 1st Regional Court issued a decision cancelling the controversial Taksim construction and the Artillery Barracks project, thus reopening the park for public use. Happy Istanbullus planned to gather in the park to celebrate this victory at 7:00 p.m. But mere hours before, the Governor of Istanbul, Hüseyin Mutlu, issued a Proclamation by Tweet: “We are holding the much-anticipated opening of Gezi Park tomorrow. The park, which was embellished by the Istanbul Municipality, may bring peace and joy.” That was it.

Puzzled, I wrote back: “Pardon me, Efendim, but I understood that the court had decided the park would be open today. I don’t understand, am I mistaken?”

No answer.

Now, note: The Turkish constitution is exceptionally clear on this subject:

"ARTICLE 34. (As amended on October 17, 2001) Everyone has the right to hold unarmed and peaceful meetings and demonstration marches without prior permission. The right to hold meetings and demonstration marches shall only be restricted by law on the grounds of national security, and public order, or prevention of crime commitment, public health and public morals or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others."

The governor, in principle, does have the right to prohibit meetings on the grounds listed above, but as his Tweet suggested, he offered no argument that any of these grounds were applicable. Indeed, Istanbul citizens have walked through this park almost every day for the past century with no notable incident. His dicta was interpreted thus: You will enter that park when the Party tells you to, not when these uppity “courts” say you can.

The outcome was predictable: Outraged citizens gathered at Taksim Square at 7:00 p.m., brandishing the court order in their hands. They were immediately doused with water cannon and tear gas—which, according to two witnesses, was used without warning, despite recent promises from the government that a warning would henceforth always be issued. (In fact, that has always been the official policy, and almost never observed, but I suppose it sounded good to say it.)

Thousands of tear-gassed, panicking Turks flooded down İstiklal Avenue—which for lack of better translation may be described as the City’s main drag, and which on any normal day looks like this. This is the center of Istanbul, usually packed with happy pedestrians enjoying themselves, and there is no earthly, legal reason it should not have looked this way on July 6. The only reason it didn’t is because the government chose to engage in a massive, violent display of contempt of court (literally), one that targeted children, street cleaners, and the elderly alike. So instead, it it looked like this—and I know, because while I didn’t film this, I’m probably in the footage somewhere, obscured by the clouds of tear gas. Silly me for thinking it might be nice to take a walk down İstiklal Avenue on a lovely summer evening. [....]

The riot police, or more properly, the rioting police, pursued everyone on the streets of Istanbul within two miles of Taksim well into the early hours of Sunday morning with tear gas, sound bombs, plastic bullets and paintball guns (which are non-lethal in principle, but if targeted at someone who is not wearing proper eyewear can easily blind). So no, these protests have not “died down,” not in the least. Even my cats have decided that tear gas, screaming and flash-bangs are normal smells and sounds that require no special investigation. This is telling, because the sound of a vacuum cleaner sends them into a hysterical panic. And yes, I do vacuum at least once a week.

Interior Minister Güler described these events as “perfectly normal.” I suppose it has become perfectly normal here to see elderly sanitation workers vomiting in the streets, but I’m not yet persuaded that it should be. According to the government, the usually placid homeowners and manual laborers in my neighborhood are “marginal groups” and “communists.” [....]

But you might be forgiven for not knowing that this is happening in Turkey, because neither does the Turkish public, unless they’ve seen it first-hand. Erdoğan is famous for his ability to switch the topic of national conversation in a heartbeat, and famous as well for the discipline he asserts over the Turkish media. For example, on December 28, 2011 an airstrike on the town of Uludere, near the Turkish-Iraqi border, killed 34 Turkish civilians, all of Kurdish ethnicity. By late May, the main opposition party, the public and the media were expressing growing outrage with the government’s failure properly to investigate or shed light upon this “operational mistake.” Suddenly, out of absolutely nowhere, Erdoğan proposed to ban abortions and C-sections—an issue that until that day had been of no concern whatsoever to the Turkish public, particularly because Islamic law has nothing to say about either subject. Suddenly, Uludere was pushed from the headlines, replaced by endless discussions of abortion and parsings of Erdoğan’s bizarre objection to C-sections. It was a political masterstroke.

He is so well known for this trick that we knew immediately, following the May 11 terrorist attack on the Turkish-Syrian border town of Reyhanlı—which killed 52 Turkish citizens and prompted massive criticism of Erdoğan’s Syria policy—that the media would be put on lockdown (which it was) and that Erdoğan would soon do or say something so attention-grabbing that the country would focus on nothing else. Thus did the Turkish parliament rush through strict legislation that would severely curb alcohol sales in Turkey, and voilà—Reyhanlı became yesterday’s news.

Still, the Gezi protests were so massive, and so widely publicized, even internationally, that none of us could figure out how he’d change the subject this time, even with the customary media lockdown. “Frankly,” I said to a friend, “the only way he could do it is by announcing that he’s always felt like a woman trapped in a man’s body and announcing that he’s scheduled himself for immediate gender reassignment surgery.” I was wrong. God intervened. He handed Erdoğan a coup in Egypt, instead. [....]

Meanwhile, the PKK raided a military post in Hani, a town in Diyarbakir province, and claimed to have killed a soldier—which if true would deal a severe and perhaps fatal blow to the “peace process”—but this was scarcely reported. Wave upon wave of Gezi protesters were detained, along with their doctors and lawyers, but this too was scarcely reported. The Turkish lira fell to a record low against the dollar, but this too was scarcely reported. What was reported was that opposition CHP and ruling AKP deputies had to be separated in parliament lest they come to blows while discussing Egypt. (But what wasn’t reported was the content of the omnibus bill they were there to pass, or whether they passed it.) Even more strangely, there has been little news about what’s actually happening in Egypt—the entire conversation has been a metaphor for Turkey. This is notably different from Turkish coverage of Syria, which has in fact been very informative and much superior to American coverage of Syria. [....]

The strangest thing about this is that Turks paid almost no attention at all to the initial uprising in Tahrir Square. [....]

So this sudden Turkish obsession with Mursi’s downfall is, I suspect, a bit more complicated than one might think at first blush. And no, the unrest in Turkey has not died down. [....]
You can read the rest here.  —Jeff Weintraub