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Are You Sure You Want to Say That?

May 24, 2020 Leave a comment

In the best tradition of books written by foreign correspondents, Hannah Lucinda Smith offers a journey in brave and well-informed company. Whether explaining the grip of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on Turkey, dodging Islamists in northern Syria or shining light into the backrooms of London’s relationship with Ankara, she’s a companion who writes frankly and well. And surprisingly for a book that declares its theme to be all about Erdoğan – a man who avoids any public display of humour or irony – it is also an enjoyable read.

The narrative in fact ranges well beyond just the current Turkish leader, tackling the impact of authoritarian rule in general. She is a canny observer, noting the little voice that comes into the head of any writer about Turkey over the years: “Are you sure you want to say that?” The larger frame also lets her include her dangerous forays into Syria’s civil war, which to some extent is about the fragmentation of that country after the death in 2000 of its long-standing dictator, Hafez al-Assad, and the inadequacy of his son Bashar.

Despite being called “Erdoğan Rising” and sporting a striking red cover dominated by an enigmatic photograph of the president, this is not a biography of Erdoğan. Smith admits that she never met the man up close. Perhaps the focus on Erdoğan is because, as she notes, any story about Turkey is easier to sell if it has brand Erdoğan front and centre. For sure, the complete inside story of Erdoğan’s rise to power and operating methods remains to be written. As I noted in an interview here, a full accounting will be scary and difficult to write as long as he remains in power.

Hannah Lucinda Smith (e)But Smith has written one of the first books I’ve seen about what the tumultuous late 2010s felt like under Erdoğan’s rule. She shows how the public-private partnership system channeled contracts to friends of his regime. She captures well the many manifestations of Erdoğan’s public character, from the mass rallies of his adoring followers to the sunglasses that make him look like a mafia don. She delves into the little-known role of Erdoğan’s early spin doctor Erol Olçok, who died in the popular resistance to the June 2016 coup attempt. Smith looks at all the angles of that fateful episode, including how the combination of repression and lack of full explanation has given rise to bizarre conspiracy theories that just might be true.

Smith found a calling in Turkey after traveling there in 2013 to cover the doomed Syrian opposition struggle with the regime in Damascus. Switching often into first person, present-tense reportage, Smith is good at giving voice to ordinary people, who, for instance, may go to a demonstration just to have a fight with the police, not with Erdoğan’s apparatus. She chronicles the people traffickers and human suffering of the Syrian refugee exodus through Turkey to Europe. She details the brutality endured by Turkey’s Kurds after Erdoğan ended peace efforts in 2015. And she spots a major driver of Erdoğan’s policymaking: anger, as reported by a diplomat after Erdoğan turned bitterly on his former friend Iraqi Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani in 2014. When interviewing him about the fate of Palestinians in Gaza, I remember Erdoğan displaying barely controlled fury.

Erdogan and Hugh Pope

An interview with Tayyip Erdoğan is rarely a relaxing experience. This one shortly after he became Prime Minister in 2003 went relatively smoothly, but he still admonished me: “You don’t speak very good Turkish!”  On another occasion, I heard that when he didn’t like the questions posed by a visiting foreign TV station, he stormed out of the interview and only let the crew go when they gave up the tapes.

There are times where her comments about Turkish history feel racy, like describing the population as “a genetic and cultural kedgeree.” And even if Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AK Party) did see advantages in reaching out to Europe after it came to power 2002, far from everyone in Europe saw him as a “darling”. My impression is that European leaders actually viewed him with a mix of condescension and more often fear. He is physically bigger and more imposing than most of them. And they still can’t control either his policies, his iron-clad steamrolling of election victories, his style of abrupt confrontation or his willingness to make and carry out threats.

The book’s mainspring descriptions of secular-religious polarisation and authoritarianism are not exactly new, of course. Ataturk’s state may have been staunchly secularist agenda, but the country has swung back and forth over the role of religion since the 1950s. Erdoğan may be authoritarian, but so was Ataturk, later military coup officers and actually many other leaders. The 2010s are not the first time one group or other in the country has been dangerously threatened: politics in the 1980s were grim, and in the 1990s, rough and chaotic. Smith herself describes Turkey as a “round-bottomed toy that rocks precariously from one side to the other but always returns upright”.

Smith quotes her predecessor as a correspondent for the London newspaper The Times from the early 1960s, I assume David Hotham, who also wrote an excellent book on the country. Like all of us, Hotham didn’t always get it right. For instance, he thought the first bridge of the Bosporus, opened in 1973, a year after he published his book, would prove a colossal waste of money. Smith was there to see Erdoğan open a third bridge across the Bosphorus in 2016, alongside one of the biggest airports in the world, a 1,000-room palace and an expansion of roads and vast new building projects throughout the country.

It’s possible that Smith is right that these are merely “costly monuments to the vanities of a leader who has increasingly little else to offer”. But the Turks will still be there once Erdoğan is gone, Turkey’s state debt is still relatively small compared to that of more advanced European countries, and, it’s possible that, like the first Bosphorus bridge, Erdoğan’s projects will be useful to people in the future. What will be left of Turkey’s democracy remains to be seen.

A ringside seat as Istanbul protests

June 1, 2013 21 comments

Living right on Istanbul’s main pedestrian boulevard of Istiklal St, 1km south of central Taksim Square and the now legendary Gezi Park, has given me a ringside seat to the wave of unrest that has gripped the city over the past 48 hours.

Police clear street with gas on Istiklal St. near Tunel, c. midnight 31 May, 2013

Police clear Istiklal Street with gas near Tunel, c. midnight 31 May, 2013

At times everything seemed normal, even if the passers-by were fewer than on a usual weekend. Until late last night the music shop opposite was still churning out its usual Istiklal St. dirges. Then a group of protestors entered stage right, retreating from Taksim (slogans included: “We are the soldiers of Mustafa Kemal [Ataturk]”, “You’re all sons of whores”, “Government Resign”, “Shoulder to shoulder against fascism”…), the first of several waves usually  pursued with a strange theatricality by a group of police with an ugly water cannon truck — water from its high pressure hose scattering people like the whip of an angry mythical beast – and a posse of riot squaders. A few explosive pops from the tear gas launchers, and gas would stream out of canisters where they landed, the smoke unfurling in ribbons down the street. At our third-floor height it usually only burns the eyes and nose. We closed the windows for a few minutes before opening them up again for a better look at the next wave of attack and counter-attack.

Police drive back crowd on Istiklal St south of Galatasaray, 11:45 on 1 June

Police drive back crowd on Istiklal St south of Galatasaray, 11:45 on 1 June

Early this morning, all seemed quiet. Municipality cleaning trucks had left the pedestrian precinct immaculately clean, the vans that restock the Istiklal St. shops turned up, and middle-aged north American tourists wandered down in new white sneakers & their pink, plum, and orange cottons, taking in the sights. But there was an odd silence in the street that did not bode well for the day ahead.

At 10am, a first group of protestors came running  down the street, chased by another police patrol spraying water left and right, popping off gas canisters and chasing demonstrators into side-streets. One group who took refuge in a shop got a special, almost casual gassing by passing police. At 10:30am, small groups of demonstrators gathered again. One came from the south, built a barricade outside our building to try to stop the police vehicles chasing them, and then headed off for Taksim. Throughout this, the seller of Turkish simit sesame bagels from a little red nostalgic ‘Beyoglu’ cart remained firmly at his post – doing steady business just meters from where the skeins of gas fumes were floating around. But even he fled at 1:15pm, when the police charged more strongly and fired a dozen gas canisters, some aimed high and sent spinning down this late 19th century boulevard like javelins on a battlefield. Everyone scattered into sidestreets. (My wife Jessica Lutz filmed it, here). Ten minutes later, they were back with even more people filling the pedestrian district, with even more scornful slogans about “Killer AKP” (the ruling party). At 2pm, the police counter-attacked, even more dramatically. The crowd regrouped, its slogans turning into low howls of anger; at 2.45pm the police pushed back again from behind a thick screen of gas. This time they also faced a barrage of stones from some protestors, among the very front lines of which could be seen the red flag of the Turkish Communist Party and even a lone flag of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).

At 4pm, after a last flurry of gas canisters near Galatasaray, the police reportedly received orders to allow demonstrators through to Taksim. Gradually the crowd – mostly cheerful, ordinary folk with no obvious political affiliation who filled the breadth and length of Istiklal St’s southern half – moved forward to Istanbul’s central square in celebratory mood.

So what’s new in all this? Social media, for a start. Many of my Turkish friends are glued to their Facebook accounts, sharing pictures of the worst police outrages – a remarkable one shows a policeman dousing a protestor with a device like an insect spray gun, as the protestor holds up a sign saying “Chemical Tayyip” [Erdogan] — and spoof posters like an ad for the “Istanbul Gas Festival”, “We can’t keep calm, we’re Turkish” and so on. The spontaneous look of the small groups of protestors coalescing and dispersing in the street outside is quite unlike the usual formal protests organized by unions and political parties, and lacks the angry, violent edge to the pop-up parades by radical left-wing groups. Mostly young and middle class, they include people in shirts for all Istanbul’s big rival football clubs, young women in headscarves, groups of white-coated medical volunteers, and a young man with a big bag of lemons, selling them to the crowd as an tear gas antidote.

On the other hand, Turkey had the same banging of pots and pans in anti-government neighbourhoods in the 1990s, which was widespread on the Asian side of Istanbul last night; and in my district of Beyoglu, every year or two a big issue brings angry demonstrators and policemen with gas weaponry that is used to clear people away. While the government is clearly rattled this time round, after four days, perhaps the only obvious long-term political consequence I can predict so far is that all this will be remembered when Prime Minister Erdogan launches his expected quest for the presidency in an election next year.

The demonstrations are already about a lot more than sympathy for condemned trees in a street-widening scheme at the Gezi Park, and have taken on a distinctly anti-government tone. Reasons for the protests I’ve heard from friends over the past 48 hours include: a reaction to the ruling party’s focus on building shopping centers everywhere, even in Istanbul’s last patches of green, like the future mall planned for Gezi Park; how the half of the population that didn’t vote for the government resents what it sees as its increasingly high-handed, majoritarian, we-know-best style; among secularists, a sense that the ruling party revealed a Islamist agenda that could infringe its lifestyle with sudden new regulations this month on alcohol consumption (my blog on that here); among the 10 per cent Alevi minority, anger at this month’s choice of Ottoman Sultan Selim the Grim’s name for a third bridge over the Bosphorus, since he killed many Alevis; the general feeling that there is little transparency in what the government plans and does, and that the media is under great pressure not to discuss real events or who benefits financially from projects (one mainstream TV program during last night’s was about radiation on Mars!); and above all, a sense of powerlessness, and frustration at the inadequacy of the main political opposition parties, which have left the bulk of secularists of Istanbul with a feeling that they’ve had no real political representation for years.

There’s a lot of talk among my Turkish friends of the Gezi Park demonstrations being a “turning point”, and today it feels that way, with growing numbers of demonstrators in the streets, many cities in Turkey protesting in sympathy, and the unscripted nature of proceedings. Normal patterns have been drastically changed in recent days, not just in  traffic but also in many peoples’ lives. Phone calls with friends in the center are often about “my street is all mixed up now, can’t talk for long”. If anyone gets killed, rather than 100 or so already injured, that will sharply escalate the situation. Here’s hoping the government manages to handle the next 24 hours more sensitively than the last. A good first move would be to get some traction by letting state television give a full version of events – currently, people are consuming a diet of wild rumors and partial views on social media, which can only add to the current escalation.