May 30, 2012 § 2 Comments
A politician blasting the media for keeping alive a story that he believes should be put to bed, courting controversy in order to change the topic from one that is politically damaging to one that is potentially more favorable, curtailing women’s rights in order to appeal to more socially conservative voters, using abortion as a wedge issue…I’m pretty clearly describing American presidential politics in the 21st century, right? In this instance, the above events are taking place in Turkey and are being orchestrated by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan as a way of changing the conversation away from the Uludere airstrike that killed 34 Kurdish civilians and for which the government has not apologized and has been dragging its heels to investigate. In fact, the Uludere airstrike has been such a thorn in Erdoğan’s side that he has decided instead to start a grand national debate on abortion, which he sees as being far less fraught with danger for him politically and which speaks volumes about the government’s resolve to sweep Uludere under the table.
Erodğan’s frustration at the way the Uludere strike has continued to dog him for months was clearly evident last week, when he said that the government has done all that it can do and that steps to compensate victims’ families amount to a de facto apology (incidentally, Erdoğan has not been willing to grant the same leeway to Israel that he is requesting for himself). He also accused the opposition, the PKK, “Jewish lobbies,” and the Turkish media of unnecessarily keeping the story alive and exploiting the issue, while complaining that the civilian deaths have taken the focus off the fact that smuggling is illegitimate activity (the airstrike victims were smuggling gasoline and cigarettes across the border and were mistaken for PKK terrorists). The day after making these comments to reporters, Erdoğan told those gathered at the AKP’s Women’s Congress that abortion was murder, and that those media members who “live and breathe Uludere” should take note that “every abortion is an Uludere.” Predictably, the controversy has moved away from the Uludere strike itself and is now firmly ensconced on the fact that Erdoğan would compare abortion to civilian airstrike casualties, and Erdoğan ensured yesterday that the conversation would stay on abortion by announcing plans to pass legislation limiting abortion and and possibly prohibiting it altogether along with attacking c-section deliveries as part of a foreign plot to weaken Turkey by limiting its population. Needless to say, the media focus on Uludere is over for the moment.
This is all very smart domestic politics for Erdoğan. While abortion is not such a hot button issue in Turkey as it is in the U.S., taking the stance that he has is a win-win for the prime minister. On the one hand, it is not going to cost him any voters or support since nobody has ever voted for Erdoğan under the illusion that he is a social liberal. In fact, this plays well for his core base of supporters who are socially conservative and economically (neo)liberal; the abortion issue is not going to affect Turkish trade in any meaningful way and it reinforces Erdoğan’s commitment to “traditional” values. In addition, the abortion uproar has been a masterful way for Erdoğan to change the conversation and let him get back to controlling Turkey’s political discourse. Erdoğan’s domination of Turkish politics is no accident and people should not underestimate his political instincts. Using controversy to change the subject, demagoguing opponents, and adopting hardline positions on social issues will be familiar to anyone who follows American politics, and Erdoğan is in many ways an American-style politician. While the Uludere controversy is not dead and buried for good, the recent furor has subsided and it appears that Erdoğan has weathered the storm successfully.
In addition, this whole thing suggests a hardening stance on the Kurdish issue just as the constitutional drafting process is getting underway, which is disappointing to say the least. Erdoğan has held fast to his position that he will not issue an apology over Uludere, and he and members of his government continue to make insulting remarks about the victims and imply that they were connected to the PKK. I and others have noted the importance of dealing with the simmering resentments of Turkey’s Kurdish population in the new constitution by allowing them to become full members of the Turkish polity without forcing them to abandon their language or cultural heritage, and the treatment of Uludere does not inspire confidence that this will be the case. If Erdoğan and the AKP join hands with the MHP in an effort to ram through hardline provisions on the Kurds that do not have the consensus of the entire political spectrum, the new Turkish constitution will eventually come to be as much of an obstacle for Turkey’s further political maturation as the current one.
May 29, 2012 § 1 Comment
Remember how I’ve been saying for months that Shaul Mofaz is going to eventually join Likud and that Kadima as we know it is going to disappear? It appears as if the maneuvering by all of the affected parties – Mofaz loyalists, Tzipi Livni loyalist, Likud members, etc. – is now starting in earnest. First though, a little background. Before 2009, if a faction of MKs wanted to break away from their party, they needed to have the votes of 1/3 of the party’s Knesset parliamentarians. In 2009, however, Bibi Netanyahu passed a bill through the Knesset that is known as the Mofaz Law, since its sole purpose was to entice Mofaz to leave Kadima, which at the time was controlled by Tzipi Livni. The Mofaz Law eliminated the 1/3 requirement and instead enabled a group of 7 MKs to leave a party, which was coincidentally the number of Kadima members who were reputedly unhappy under Livni’s stewardship and considering joining Mofaz and returning to Likud. Mofaz himself denounced the law and did not end up jumping ship, but the law is still in force.
Fast forward three years to the present day, and the situation in Kadima has been flipped. Mofaz is now in charge, and there is a group of Livni loyalists who are reportedly looking to leave Kadima. The Mofaz Law makes it easier for this group to do so since Kadima has 28 MKs in total, so they only need 7 dissenters rather than 10. In an effort to stop this from happening, Kadima MK Yuval Zellner, who is a Mofaz supporter, introduced what is being called the Confinement Bill, which would eliminate the Mofaz Law and restore the 1/3 requirement. The Kadima MKs who are upset with the party’s current direction have been pushing for the bill to be killed and at the moment its status is in limbo, although Mofaz himself has come out against the bill in an effort to keep the Kadima rebels placated and maintain party unity.
Yesterday, however, Israeli Channel 10 reported that a group of 7 has been formed and that they are looking for an opportunity to leave and form a new centrist party that will be headed by Livni and Haim Ramon, who was one of the original founders of Kadima and who quit the party earlier this month. Kadima has denied the report’s veracity but this move was pretty much preordained the day that Mofaz beat Livni in the Kadima leadership election. Kadima is a strange hybrid of clashing interests, having been founded by Ariel Sharon for the sole purpose of disengaging from Gaza and then morphing into a party concerned more with social issues under Livni’s tenure, and now led by a former Likud minister and general who is unconvincing as a champion of the lower rungs of society and who brought Kadima into a rightwing coalition. There is little chance that this party is able to hold together in the long term. Furthermore, Mofaz is going to have every incentive to rejoin Likud, either before the next election or immediately afterward when Kadima gets routed at the ballot box. Once the Livni faction breaks away and Kadima is comprised of more right leaning former Likud members, it won’t be long before Mofaz drops the charade. Joining the government was the first step, and I see no reason for the eventual reconciliation with Likud not to occur. Likud minister Dan Meridor recognized that fact this weekend in calling for Kadima to merge with Likud, noting that there is very little substantively separating the two parties at this point. So get ready for Kadima to split, with the larger group joining Likud and the smaller group forming a new party under Livni and Ramon. Kadima was doomed to eventually disappear the day after Israel pulled out of Gaza, and once it does it will make the Israeli political scene a bit more coherent.
May 24, 2012 § 8 Comments
Tel Aviv saw an ugly scene yesterday when an anti-immigrant protest turned violent and demonstrators went hunting for African migrants to attack. The background to this is that Israel has a growing problem of illegal immigrants, many of whom are Sudanese refugees, crossing the border from Egypt, which has stirred up a hornets nest of problems both real and perceived. The Interior Ministry estimates that there are 60,000 African illegal immigrants in the country, and Israel does not quite know how to deal with them given that this is a relatively new phenomenon. Yesterday’s demonstration featured a number of speeches by rightwing MKs, including Danny Danon (who always seems to be in the thick of things whenever there is controversy) and Miri Regev, who called the Sudanese immigrants a cancer on the Israeli host.
I think that precision in language is vitally important, since throwing around terms with reckless abandon strips them of any type of meaningful power. You will not find me calling people fascists, resorting to Holocaust analogies, or playing the anti-Semitism card at the drop of a hat. Yesterday a mob marched through the Hatikva section of Tel Aviv pulling people out of cars to check their ethnicity, smashing windows of African-owned businesses, and chanting for “infiltrators” to leave. Israeli Army Radio called this a pogrom, and I don’t know of any other noun that is a better descriptor.
This hardly needs to be noted because it is so glaringly obvious, but there is a terrible irony in Israelis, whose state was founded as a beacon for immigrants and refugees fleeing persecution, creating a climate of fear for immigrants and refugees fleeing persecution. If anything, Israel should be proud that Africans are seeking sanctuary within its borders, as it speaks volumes about Israeli state and society in comparison to all of its neighbors. Stop and reflect for a moment on the fact that non-Jewish black Africans are coming in droves to settle in a Jewish largely white state that has no cultural or historical significance for them. Isn’t this something that Israelis should be proud of? For all of the constant talk from Foreign Ministry spokesmen about Israeli democracy and respect for human rights, this simple fact is the best hasbarah that exists, as it demonstrates that Israel genuinely is a free and tolerant place no matter how many outsiders seek to demonize it. Unlike in Egypt, Israeli police have never massacred unarmed refugees fleeing persecution and Israel provides immigrants with plenty of economic opportunities. Undoubtedly illegal immigration presents an enormous problem, but Israel’s history, democratic status, and Jewish identity should point the way toward compassion rather than scorn. While Ovadia Yosef may think that saving lives on the Sabbath only applies to Jewish ones, even he would have a difficult time parsing the biblical injunction of ger lo tilhatz…ki geirim heyitem b’eretz Mitzraim (don’t oppress the stranger…for you were yourselves strangers in the land of Egypt). I am pretty confident that this clashes with calls to “expedite the construction of temporary detention facilities and remove Africans from population centers.”
The other point to make here is that those who are looking to use yesterday’s violence to indict Israel as a bastion of racist intolerance are missing the bigger picture entirely. The demonstration yesterday was comprised of only 1000 people, and ginning up far larger crowds for racist or illiberal causes is easily done in any liberal democracy on the planet, ours included. Furthermore, the presence of a number of Likud MKs yesterday is deceiving; they were not there speaking in support of the government, but rather were opposing the government for not taking more forceful action. In fact, the reason the government’s promises to deport illegal immigrants have not yet been fulfilled is because it is complying with standard international law on asylum seekers and refugees and ensuring that it does not deport any of them back to their home countries if their lives will be endangered. Yesterday’s race riot was precipitated by a group of people angry that the state is not taking a harder line against illegal immigration, and the preceding demonstration was comparably small as far as these things go. It is vital to call out the criminals who rioted in the streets and the thuggish politicians who whipped them up into a frenzy, but Israel is generally trying to develop an illegal immigration policy that balances the legitimate right of the state to control population inflows against humanitarian concerns. Let’s confine the criticism here to those who deserve it rather than tarring all of Israel with the same brush.
May 23, 2012 § 1 Comment
I mentioned a couple of weeks ago the news that Turkish indictments were forthcoming against Israeli soldiers over the Mavi Marmara flotilla. Apparently, Turkey has decided to set its sights very high by returning indictments against the top Israeli military leadership – former IDF chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi, Navy head Eliezer Marom, and military and air force intelligence chiefs Amos Yadlin and Avishai Levi. This is not only an exercise in futility, as none of these people stand any chance of ever appearing before a Turkish court, but a symbolic demonstration that makes Turkey look like it is not serious about justice and is rather seeking to prolong its feud with Israel. I have written before that I understand the anger felt by Turks and realize why they do not want to give Israel a free pass over the flotilla incident, but at the same time there is holding people accountable and then there is pure posturing. This falls squarely into the latter category. If Turkey had made a good faith effort to identify the actual IDF soldiers on board the ship it would be one thing, as those are the people with whom they have an actual beef. But to indict Israel’s top military and intelligence leadership? That is not a serious effort but a publicity shot across the bow. It is not designed to accomplish anything tangible or substantive, and in fact makes it that much harder for Turkey and Israel to come to an agreement acceptable to both sides that will amicably settle their differences.
As I wrote just yesterday, I am convinced that there is a power struggle of sorts going on behind the scenes at the upper echelons of Turkish government, with some pushing hard to maintain a muscular Turkish nationalism that widens the rift with Israel and with others looking to dial things back. There are too many conflicting signals being issued at the same time, and I think that there must be back channel efforts to reconcile with the Israelis while other attempts are being made to sabotage any progress that is made. There must be some high ranking Turkish officials beginning to wonder how the constant feuding with Israel is actually benefitting Turkey at this point, and it is obviously a good question for them to ask themselves. As I view things from my limited vantage point, the possible domestic politics advantage is being far outpaced by foreign policy problems that Turkey is creating for itself. Whether it is Davutoğlu or someone else who is continuing to push for a hard and unrelenting line against Israel, it is now crossing over into the absurd. Turkey is no closer to getting an Israeli apology or compensation, and wasn’t that the whole stated point to begin with?
May 23, 2012 § 3 Comments
For anyone who spends their time thinking and writing about the Middle East, today’s big news item is the Egyptian presidential election. While I spend most of my (non-dissertation) time on Turkey and Israel these days, my original academic interest was in the Arab world and I follow it generally, and Egypt specifically, very closely. Lots has been written over the past year about the “Turkish model” and whether it is applicable to Egypt, and indeed a recent Brookings poll indicates a preference among Egyptians to emulate Turkey. There is no need for me to rehash the specific reasons that Egypt may or may not be a good place to replicate the Turkish model, since plenty of smart people who know Egypt far better than I have already done so. I would only quickly note that based on the Brookings poll, Egyptians don’t actually know how Turkey is governed, as 54% of the respondents listed Turkey as the country that best reflected their aspirations for the role of Islam in politics while 66% of Egyptians support basing their laws on sharia. Even allowing for the 83% that say sharia should be adopted to modern times, a majority of Egyptians appear to believe that Turkish law is based in some loose way on sharia, which is not the case.
Instead of getting into the weeds on Egypt, I’d like to discuss why no country, Egypt included, should be looking to replicate the Turkish model. To be clear, when I talk about the Turkish model I don’t mean the military being the arbiter of secular politics or guardian of the state, but an ostensibly Islamic party governing through secular state institutions without imposing any religious dictates. To begin with, the synthesis of Islam and democracy in Turkey has taken a very long time. The fact is that the Turkish model has only emerged in the past ten years after decades of instability, military coups, varying degrees of authoritarianism, and a complete lack of vertical accountability. When Mustafa Kemal Atatürk founded Turkey out of the remnants of the Ottoman Empire, he did so with clearly thought out ideas about how his new state should be organized and what goals it should seek to attain. Furthermore, unlike in other states where an ideology may be adopted after the institutions of the state are already in place, Atatürk built Turkey’s political and social institutions at the same time that he was installing Kemalism as the state’s official ideology. This enabled him to create structures and rules that were explicitly designed to strengthen and enable Kemalism, meaning that any challenge to the state would unmistakably be a challenge to Kemalism as well.
Since ideology was so wrapped up and intertwined with the state itself, it meant that Turkey was unable to convert first order battles over ideology into a lower grade conflict even after the first successful transition to democracy after WWII. Any ideological wobble away from Kemalism precipitated a crisis, particularly given the fact that the most important and powerful state institution, the military, saw itself as the ultimate guardian of Kemalism irrespective of which party was in power. That the AKP was finally able to emerge out of the ashes of the Refah Party, win multiple elections, and govern without completely dismantling the state is the culmination of a long process of ideological softening on both sides. The overarching point here is that this process took 75 years to play out, and took 50 years after Turkey’s first democratic election. Democracy does not happen overnight under the best of circumstances, and Egypt is far from being an ideal staging ground. There are many things to contend with: a strong authoritarian legacy, social cleavages, a pending economic crisis, disputes over religion and what the state should look like, just to name a few of the big ones. Aiming for a synthesis of Islamic politics and secular government is a fool’s errand in the short run, and while Egypt may be able to eventually pull it off successfully, it will be years before that happens.
Another primary reason why the Turkish model cannot be replicated is that, as Steven Cook points out in Ruling But Not Governing, Turkey adapted for a specific purpose, which was joining the EU. The EU process made future military interventions more unlikely while also forcing the state to become more democratic, but at the same time it made the non-secular AKP soften any tendencies it might have had to weaken state secularism. When joining the EU is the ultimate goal, there is zero chance of adopting any type of sharia law or religious compulsion, and while I do not fall in the camp of those who think that the AKP actually desires to do this anyway, it would never happen while the EU negotiating process is underway. Egypt, and all other majority Muslim countries, do not have this structural constraint to contend with. If the Muslim Brotherhood is in power in Egypt and decides that it wants to legislate according to religious dictates, there is no comparable outside incentive to slow that down. The Turkish model did not emerge in a vacuum, but out of a highly specific context that does not exist elsewhere.
Finally, the specific electoral rules used in Turkey contribute to a unique situation in which extremist views on the poles of political thought are kept at bay. One need only look at the op-ed on Indonesia in the New York Times yesterday to get a sense of how this works. In Indonesia, the government coalition includes a number of extremely conservative Islamist parties, which in turn leads to restrictions on religious minorities and religiously motivated violence that the state ignores. In Turkey, however, the vote threshold for parliament is 10% of the vote, which means that smaller and more extremist parties get left out. This in turn has made the AKP a big tent that includes religious conservatives, merchants, the middle class, and some of the new urban elite. Such a party cannot afford to alienate religious minorities or condone any Islamist-led violence, and thus the AKP largely keeps its religious piety confined to personal behavior and governs over a secular state. Erdoğan’s lecture to the Muslim Brotherhood on his trip to Egypt about the vital need for secular governance was not an act; say what you will about him, but he practices what he preaches.
If Egypt is able to get to a place down the road where it embodies Alfred Stepan’s twin tolerations of the state being free from the yoke of religion and religion being free from the yoke of the state, it will be an amazing accomplishment. If it is able to replicate the Turkish model, it would be a positive development for its citizens and governing institutions. Nobody should fool themselves, however, on the likelihood of this happening. The Turkish model emerged out of a confluence of events playing out over decades with some unique structural constraints weighing on the entire process, and it is folly to imagine that this might happen elsewhere in what is in historical terms the blink of an eye.