Tuesday, May 22, 2018

After 15 Years, Is Turkey Saying 'Enough' to Erdogan?*

Haaretz: "If one day our nation says 'enough,' then we will step aside.' Erdogan's gaffe opened the gates of Turkish social media derision and gifted a slogan to a re-invigorated political opposition. But he won't give way without a fight."

"If one day our nation says 'enough,' then we will step aside," Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Tuesday in a speech in parliament, and opened the gates of Turkish social media derision and activism.

#Tamam ("Enough") took off like wildfire and became a trending Twitter topic worldwide, with over two million tweets telling Erdogan that, indeed, they have had enough of him. As journalist Rusen Cakir noted, the increasingly autocratic Erdogan had, strangely, just "offered the opposition a slogan to unite behind."

And they did, with the major political opposition heads tweeting the hashtag and declaring that the time had come.

That rare gaffe by Erdogan may be a sign of an unfamiliar stress the Turkish leader, and that he is, for now, facing the greatest challenge to his political survival since coming to power: Elections, with a newly revitalized opposition, are a month away.

It's almost three weeks since Erdogan declared snap presidential and parliamentary elections for June 24, more than a year earlier than scheduled.

That ended several months of speculation that signs of a major economic crisis in Turkey might trigger early elections. Some predict Erdogan and his party will benefit from the wave of Turkish nationalism that surged in the wake of a general consensus in Turkey that the military campaign against Kurdish forces in Afrin, northern Syria, succeeded in its objectives.

Early elections also will allow the ruling AKP party to pre-empt, if not arrest, the growing momentum of the new opposition party, "Iyi" (Good), led by Meral Aksener.

This party offers a new home to those nationalists who are abandoning the MHP in the wake of its leader’s 180 degree u-turn from opposing Erdogan to becoming his staunch ally. Despite Erdogan’s denials, many believe the speed with which the snap elections were called was an attempt by the AKP to sideline the Iyi party. That went hand-in-hand with speculation that the timing provided convenient grounds to disqualify the Aksener's party from running, because it had been registered less than the mandatory six-month period prior to elections.

Amidst fears the Iyi party might be disqualified, the main CHP opposition party stepped up to ensure Iyi’s participation. The CHP transferred 15 of its own parliamentarians to the Iyi party’s bloc of five (defectors from the MHP) entitling it to run in the election, regardless of its registration date.

Had the AKP been outsmarted? It certainly seems so, but the real importance of the move was that it exemplified a rare moment where the Turkish opposition at long last set the agenda.

The CHP’s move naturally opened the door for an alliance with the Iyi Party, and was followed by them joining forces with two smaller parties, the Muslim conservative party Saadet (the political home from which Erdogan himself emerged before launching the AKP in the early 2000s),  and another smaller faction, the Demokrat Party. Importantly, the alliance will let those two smaller Saadet and Demokrat parties to jump over the decades-old high ten-percent threshold.

The elephant in the room of course is the fact that the HDP, the mostly Kurdish party, was left out of the opposition alliance.

When the HDP crossed the vote threshold in the June 2015 elections, it pushed Erdogan's AKP into a corner for the first time since coming to power in 2002.

Erdogan faced a choice: to agree to be partner to a coalition government or call snap elections. It did the latter, and in the November 2015 elections the AKP swept enough votes to once again rule alone. With renewed fighting between Turkey and the PKK, the outlawed Kurdish separatist party, the HDP has been under attackand all but delegitimized by the state; its candidate for president and former co-chair of the party, Selahattin Demirtas, along with eight of its MPs are all behind bars.        
Bringing the Kurdish-majority party into the alliance may never have been on the bloc’s agenda. But their exclusion was a deliberate ploy by the mainstream opposition parties not to risk losing the nationalist vote, the Iyi party’s main constituency.

If the opposition alliance plays its cards right, a majority vote - or at least a vote that greatly closes the large gap between the AKP and the opposition - could be in reach for the first time in a decade and a half. If the HDP gets makes it, that will cut into the AKP’s piece of the pie in the upcoming parliament, something the opposition alliance itself recognizes.

As much as this election is about each party galvanizing its own constituency, the overriding need to strategize and build informal coalitions is just as important.

That strategic horse-trading is a crucial window into what kind of coalition might be formed after the elections. However, it’s complicated by the fact that there are two election campaigns in train simultaneously, for the president and for the legislature.

The presidential election is even more crucial than usual because the executive presidential laws, legitimated by last year’s referendum come into effect after the elections. That means the president will appoint all government ministers in the next parliament, and that cabinet will no longer be answerable to parliament, which will continue to be the legislative authority despite the limiting of its powers.

Although it seems a long shot in a political and media context that systematically privileges Erdogan, the opposition is also gearing up cleverly for the presidential elections.

First, they rightly refrained from choosing a joint candidate. One of the names floated for this was Abdullah Gul, a founder of the AKP and a former president; however, it was far from clear that this soft-spoken politician, who has opted for a passive resistance to Erdogan, could ever get to the necessary 50% in the first round.

Instead, all the opposition parties will run their own candidates; each camp can rile up their own base without compromising their messages. The thinking is they will then stand a better chance of pushing Erdogan into a second round vote.  

The stand-out presidential opposition candidate for now is the CHP’s Muharrem Ince. He is a fighter with a sharp tongue who can stand up to the charismatic Erdogan. Close behind is the Iyi party’s Meral Aksener, who would also be sure to keep the government on its toes, and some predict could even lead in the votes. In the 2014 presidential elections the HDP’s Selahattin Demirtas received almost 10% of the vote and it seems that his chances to reach the same number this time, is certainly in range – even though he is submitting his candidature from jail

A second-round of voting for the president is thus likely, as long as the parties succeed in energizing each of their bases and the vote is further split with small percentages for the Saadet Party and other minor candidates will attract. That vote would take place two weeks later, on July 8.

And Ince knows that if this happens, his best chance to challenge Erdogan in a run off is to reach out to the Kurdish vote. Since the start of his campaign, Ince has sent strong signals to the HDP; he has publicly demanded Demirtas’ release, and this week held a meeting with him in prison.

While the new opposition stirrings will be brushed off by some as a return to the 1990s politics of endless coalition-building, this old-new dynamic has one cause above all: Erdogan’s usurping of more and more power  to the dismay of many Turkish citizens. Despite Erdogan’s popularity in certain sections of the population, the AKP is very publicly failing to deal with an ever-weaker economy.

That means its veneer of untouchability is tarnishing; and that it is beginning to resemble the very parties it threw out in 2002, who were deeply resented due to their bad economic policies and incompetence at connecting to the electorate.

There are other signs that the AKP’s momentum is stalling. Apart from Erdogan, the main faces of the AKP today are far from being charismatic campaigners or crowd-pleasers, but rather robotic mouthpieces for their boss. That same uninspiring cadre led the AKP to lose the vote in every major city, including Istanbul, in the referendum.  

There is a sense in Turkey that the political winds might be starting to turn against the AKP, and that Erdogan, the leader that has ruled for 16 years, miscalculated the political map when calling early elections.

True, the opposition does not have a magic wand to remove the many obstacles it faces, not least lifting the draconian State of Emergency, effecting the release of the HDP’s presidential candidate Demirtas, or claiming their legitimate right for equal mainstream media time. It also cannot influence the election board’s strangely lenient policy toward counting questionable ballots, as we saw in the last referendum.

However, despite the obstacles, and for the first time in years, the opposition is certainly giving the AKP a run for its money; as the millions who viewed, shared and participated in the #Tamam campaign shows, their grassroots support is substantial and their opposition to the president emphatic.    

But Erdogan hasn’t survived this long and centralized power so determinedly to let that opposition narrative play out. The more he feels the heat, the more efforts will made to delegitimize the opposition and to place new obstacles in their way

*This article appeared in Haaretz on May, 10 2018. Click here for the link

Sunday, February 18, 2018

On Ahed Tamimi: Once, Israeli Pop Culture Icons Publicly Criticized the Occupation. What Silenced Them?*

Haaretz: "One iconic but solitary Israeli poet celebrated Ahed Tamimi’s heroism: The backlash he endured means there'll be even less mainstream dissent in the future."

A rare voice of opposition rose up recently in Israel against the wave of justifications for the arrest of the young 17-year-old Palestinian girl, Ahed Tamimi, who slapped an Israeli soldier in her West Bank home town of Nabeh Saleh, and is being held without bail until her trial in a military court.

The iconic Israeli poet Jonathan Geffen posted this short poem on his Instagram feed, portraying the teenager as a victim of the occupation:

A young beautiful 17-year-old girl has done something terrible

And when a proud Israeli officer raided her home

She dished him out a slapping

She was born into this, and in that slap

There were 50 years of occupation and shame

And, on the day the story of the struggle will be told

Oh, Ahed Tamimi

The redhead

Like David slapped Goliath

You will be immortalized along with

Joan of Arc, Hannah Senesh and Anne Frank

The poem outraged many in Israel. How dare Geffen compare a "Palestinian criminal" with Anne Frank? Was Geffen comparing Jews to Nazis? Clearly, Geffen’s intention was to highlight Tamimi’s heroism, and to note it will become one day be part of the Palestinian national narrative.

However, few in Israel had patience to hear him out. While he was portrayed as traitor among many in Israel’s political right, others, even from the liberal camp, quickly passed it off as a crazed moment of a great poet.    

As the story about the poem went viral, Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman demanded Israel’s popular Army Radio ban Geffen’s work, despite his canonical status in Israel akin to, or even exceeding, Bob Dylan. And, while Israel does not have a royal family, the Geffens belong to the legendary families of Moshav Nahalal, home also to his famous uncle, wartime hero and Defense Minister Moshe Dayan.

Lieberman slammed Geffen, suggesting his work was more suitable for the Hezbollah television network. He said: "The State of Israel will not provide a platform for a drunkard who compares a girl who perished in the Holocaust and a hero who combated the Nazi regime with Ahed Tamimi, a brat who attacked a soldier. Geffen's headline chasing is sickening and outrageous."

Joining Lieberman, Israel’s culture minister, Miri Regev blasted Geffen, calling Tamimi a "terror-supporting criminal," and commenting that "the ghastly comparison between the heroes of our people's Holocaust and terrorist Tamimi, on the same week the world marks International Holocaust Remembrance Day, is crossing a red line by someone seeking to rewrite history." 

Well, while calls to boycott Geffen grew on the right, Army Radio didn’t heed the call to boycott or censor, and its popular morning radio host, Razi Barkai, even opened his show with one of Geffen’s most famous songs, the 1970’s "Prettiest Girl in Kindergarten." Undermining Lieberman, the head of Army Radio rejected Lieberman’s demand, just as Israel’s Attorney General, who also clarified that the Defense Minister had no legal standing to order the boycott. 

Then, in a surprise move, Geffen himself issued an apology at an evening performance. In a question-answer session during his show, he clarified that he had no wish to harm the memory of the Holocaust and that it was a mistake to have brought Hannah Senesh and Anne Frank into the story and that, "Today, on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, I can tell you that it was a mistake, and I apologize for it, especially to those who were personally hurt."

He also seized the moment to reiterate his staunch opposition to the occupation, while stressing that he was an Israeli patriot, as if his lifelong contribution to Israeli culture was not enough to confirm this. 

Shortly thereafter, Lieberman accepted his apology via Twitter, stating the Biblical phrase, "He who confesses and recants shall find mercy." Geffen may have apologized, but he didn’t delete the poem from his Instagram account.

But rather than anger, Israel’s right-wing should have felt satisfaction from the whole affair. After all, Geffen was the only public figure they had to try and censor. Geffen’s was a lone voice highlighting Tamimi’s plight. And a lone, 71-year-old artist, who belongs to the old elite of Israel, is no challenge to 50 years of occupation and colonization. Let’s face it, most of Israel’s youth could care less what’s written on his Instagram account.

Geffen is a relic of Israel’s past where major cultural figures raising their voice in resistance to Israel’s policies regarding the Palestinians was actually a mainstream phenomenon.

That was a generation of singers such as Nurit Galron and Chava Alberstein, or the younger Si Hayman, who, during the First Intifada in the late 1980s, were banned from Army Radio, and shunned generally by public radio, for songs protesting the occupation.

Galron’s "Après nous, le déluge" (Ahkrenu HaMabul) in fact could be about Tamimi herself: "Don't tell me about the 12-year old girl" who lost her eye, her home, her childhood; "It just makes me feel terrible....We have a state of stones and Molotov cocktails, while in Tel Aviv we have parties, live our lives,  we eat and drink."

And, while Tamimi did not lose her eye, the same day she slapped a soldier, her 15-year-old young cousin, Muhammad, was shot in the head at close range, acquiring severe injuries and a recovery that will take years, if not a lifetime. 

Then, in the late 1980s, these singers were a threat to the establishment: they had large popular followings, hits in the charts. There was a need to censor Si Hayman, who in "Shooting and Crying," asked, "When did we learn to bury people alive? When did we forget that our own children were once killed?" as she learns from a Palestinian street cleaner that his life in the territories has been turned upside down by the Intifada.

Then, there was Chava Alberstein, who did a rendition of the traditional Passover Had Gadya song. In her version, she added one more question to the festive four questions of the Haggadah: "How much longer will this circle of violence continue?" adding that she no longer knows who she is: "Once a lamb and now a savage wolf."

It would be foolish to claim that these songs led to the rise of Rabin in 1992, and the subsequent peace process that led to the Oslo Accords, but the banned songs of 1988 were part of cumulative effect of protest parallel to the growing voice of the Peace Now movement and the Israeli disillusionment with the 1982 Lebanon War.

During this time, voices like peace firebrand Shulamit Aloni’s rang out daily in the Knesset, reminding us that we were no longer the oppressed, but now the oppressor. This came in tandem with nightly political shows discussing Benny Morris’ groundbreaking work, "The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem," exposing Israelis to the mass expulsion of Palestinians in 1948. It was in these years they started to hear for the first time the word "Nakba" as well.

Back then Israel only had one television channel, and the whole country tuned into the nightly news at the same time. I will never forget walking in the summertime in Tel Aviv’s streets, hearing an entire unbroken news broadcast, newscaster Haim Yavin’s voice perfectly audible as it was relayed through successive open balconies.

During the First Intifada, a whole nation watched as their boys as soldiers beat Palestinians, and Palestinian women, very much like Ahed, were crying and slapping the soldiers as their young boys were dragged away to detention. It was during these years that many Israelis came to terms with the fact that this reality could not continue.

Well, Rabin was assassinated, the Oslo Accords failed, the Second Intifada came and went, and Alberstein’s "vicious circle" only became more entrenched in blood. Walls were built and a new generation was born in Israel.

For those coming of age in Israel today, the conflict is a well-maintained one (all the while for Palestinians it remains a daily struggle), and Israel today is the safest it has been in decades. For most young people today, there is no Green Line, rather there is a wall that most will never cross, and there is even an university in Ariel built on occupied land, while one can reach the Holy City of Hebron today without almost not seeing any Palestinians. Politically speaking, what was once right wing is, today, mainstream.

                                         (See Haaretz clip on Tamimi arrest).

Ahed Tamimi was only arrested after the video of her went viral in the Israeli media, meaning the soldiers who she slapped did not see fit to arrest her, rather she was arrested only after the media held a campaign against that "blonde" Palestinian girl. It was the media that put her on trial, and it was the Israeli public that found her guilty.

Nowadays most of the Israeli public isn’t watching critical news programs. As TV channels opened up to private competition, they focused on completely depoliticized pop culture figures, who appear on endless reality shows. And, if by chance Arabs are participants on these shows, they are handpicked and sanitized for the Jewish majority. There’s no "conflict" on primetime.

It is in this atmosphere that Israel’s right wing, together with the media, has  enough political and cultural power to sell Ahed Tamimi to the Israeli public as an almost existential nightmare for the nation.

Even they, however, won’t be able to erase the iconic status she’s achieved: Her slap gave a human face to the Palestinians that the world sees, but most Israelis are blind to. Sad, but true, if she’d had a knife in her hand, she’d most likely had been shot dead, and would barely have made the nightly news, remaining the invisible enemy the Palestinians have become.

However, Ahed Tamimi is very much alive, and she is not going anywhere. She is here to stay, and will be with us long after the debate over Geffen’s poem dies out. As for Israel’s  current culture heroes, it’s likely Geffen’s case will act as as a lesson, or a warning. If they do speak out that they will be tried in the public square, and say goodbye to their careers. That’s the power of self-censorship.

In any case, that silence, or deliberate ‘forgetting’, of the injustices Israel is committing against the Palestinians puts them in good company: most of Israel’s center-left, whether Labor or Meretz, have also adopted the same operative strategy.

*This article appeared in Haaretz on February 7, 2018. Click here for the Link:

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Are Official Bans and Slurs the Start of Full-on Persecution for Turkey's LGBT Community?*

Haaretz: "Turkey's LGBT community is a tangible, visual challenge to Erdogan's vision of an Islamically 'pious generation' – and now he's cracking down on them, with enthusiastic support from other Islamists and ultra-nationalists."

A week ago, the governor of Turkey’s capital city banned all events - "cinema, theater, panels, interviews, exhibitions" - relating to the gay, lesbian and transgender community from taking place in the nation’s capital in the name of the wider "community’s public sensitivity [and] to provide peace and security." 

The governor’s official statement went on to say: "Such events publicly harbor hatred and hostilityand therefore pose a risk to public safety and morality."

It was only a matter of time until the ban reached Istanbul. And so it was: days later an LGBT-related film screening, to be held at the Pera Museum, was also banned by the Istanbul governor’s office, who claimed that the organizers had failed to submit the proper authorization papers. 

Why is Turkey cracking down on its gay and lesbian community right now? Is it an assertion of Islamist identity politics and a kick at secular opponents of an increasingly authoritarian regime? And how reasonable is it to assume that the orders for this repression came from President Erdogan at the top, with provincial governors acting as mere agents of the government?

If the intention was to silence the LGBT community, it didn't work, at least in the short term.

Two Ankara-based LGBT organizations, Kaos GL and Pembe Hayat, vowed to take legal steps to reverse the governor’s "illegal, discriminatory and arbitrary ban," and added that "there can be no legitimate or legal grounds for such a wholesale ban that touches the core of [our] rights."   

Defying the ban, students at Ankara’s prestigious Middle East Technical University screened a gay-oriented film. The university cut the electricity in order to stop the screening. Fortunately, the Turkish police opted not to use force against the students, who went on to march and chant slogans supporting LGBT rights.

Follwing that, a massive march held for the international day against violence against women included protesters proudly demonstrating with LGBT rainbow flags, a scene that has been less common on the streets of Istanbul and Ankara since 2015, when the annual Pride March was broken up by police with batons and water cannon. Although the police threatened intervention over the flags, the march ended peacefully.   

The LGBT ban should be seen in the wider context of Turkey’s ongoing clampdown on civil society. The first spike came during the Gezi Park protests, but accelerated since last year’s failed coup, when Turkey came under a State of Emergency that continues up to today.

The great pressure Turkey’s LGBT community has been under for several years contrasts with the early 2000s, when the community experienced a kind of public renaissance. At that time, Erdogan’s AKP was winning support from liberals, and a civil society niche for the LGBT community flourished.

During those years, the LGBT community built coalitions with many other civil society organizations, not least those representing other oppressed minorities, such as Kurds. This solidarity led the mostly Kurdish party, the HDP, to adopt an ambitious agenda that advocated for LGBT rights - despite their mostly conservative voter base.

The secular, yet more socially conservative, opposition party, the CHP, began to take part in discussions at the annual LGBT Pride lecture series. It, like the HDP, gradually opened its doors to openly gay and transgender candidates within the party.

That bridge-building paid off: By 2014, tens of thousands of allies were joining marchers in the Pride March, since banned.  

Of course, this is only one side of the picture.

For the ruling AKP, LGBT issues for years were too much of a taboo to address, both among the party leadership and its constituency. During its long rulethere have been plenty of of homophobic slurs by AKP members. However, these spiked as the LGBT community became more politically ambitious, as was evident during the 2015 parliamentary elections.

Then-prime minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, stated during the campaign that "Gays caused the destruction of the [Biblical] tribe of Lot, and the HDP offers [a gay] candidate." 

Just earlier this month, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who rarely mentions the subject of LGBT people, openly criticized a neighborhood committee controlled by the CHP for introducing positive discrimination quotas for LGBT participants, saying they had "broken their ties with our nation’s values."    

Clearly, the more LGBT community members enter the political arena, local or national, the more they pose a threat to the AKP: They offer a tangible, visual challenge to Erdogan’s attempts to raise a "pious generation," based on Islamic values. 

Just as important, the AKP’s attacks paint the opposition as being hopelessly liberal and out-of-sync with the generally conservative Turkish population at large, and has worked diligently to promote rifts within the opposition, where acceptance of LGBT rights does not enjoy the wholehearted support of all  members.

The AKP is, of course, also tending to its socially and religiously conservative base, and its anti-LGBT line also has the potential to attract hardline nationalists.
The increasingly homophobic tone of the government strengthens various Islamist constituencies, who take it as carte blanche for broadcasting repugnant anti-LGBT slurs, often in the same pro-government media where vicious anti-Semitism is an almost daily occurrence.

Turkish ultra-nationalists have also joined the fray. One group threatened last year’s Pride, which gave the government a proximate reason to block it for the following year to secure the "security of the marchers, tourists, and residents." It is in this context of support that the recent across-the-board ban of all LGBT events is a first sign of what could easily become an accelerating repression.

With rampant homophobia and violence - often hitting hard at the transgender community - LGBT individuals in Turkey have few safe spaces to express themselves, meet, and organize. Now, with these bans, this space will shrink further.

It's disheartening but perhaps not unsurprising that the Turkish government's anti-gay direction has many similarities with the officially-sanctioned persecution of the LGBT community in Russia and Egypt, where gays and lesbians are at any and every moment subject to harassment and assault if they dare organize any type of public expression.  

However, it is important to remember that Turkey’s LGBT organizations are rooted in decades-old resistance and are no stranger to animosity.

Even if there is a sustained clampdown, the seeds planted by activists, and by those activists in political circles, university organizations, and other civil society groups, know how to continue working and organizing.

And they'll also be strengthened by a wider circle of sympathizers and allies built by patient debate and interactions who, just a decade ago, would never have imagined that they would be defending the rights of the gay and lesbian community.

This article appeared in Haaretz on November 30,2017. Click here for the Link