EGYPT – TURKEY – TUNISIA
There is little that is encouraging about the current situation in Egypt. After the army removed the Morsi-led government, the Egyptian society found itself in a conundrum: in the name of democracy, an elected leader was deposed through that most undemocratic institution, the army; in the name of democracy, a ruler who was criticized for acting undemocratically was removed forcibly, wiping away the consequences of the elections that brought him to power.
In any regime, the army would possess the brute power to remove the political leadership. The reason it does not do so has to do with political culture: a constitutional consensus, lack of popular support, and the long-term lack of prospects; but it is never for lack of capacity. And, as we can see in Egypt, such a brute act, even if coming from “the best of intentions”, carries implications that simply can not be squared with the idea(l)s of liberal democracy.
The Egyptian army’s intervention into the social and political life of the country is very much reminiscent of recent Turkish history. During the second half of the twentieth century, it was the Turkish army that guaranteed and upheld the secular, “democratic” state – which was not really democratic, but was (at least partially) secular. The consequences of those decades of muted oppression and silent violence were the rise after the year 2000 of religiously-inspired political forces, who have now been in government, quite successfully, for the last ten years. Recent trials directed against attempts by military groups to remove this democratically elected regime through coups d’état have benefited from the support of the majority of the population. But Erdogan’s religiously-inspired AK Party has also learned from those decades of military-backed secular rule. They have learned to thread a careful path, knowing that a good part of the population is in fact culturally secular, and still very much supportive of the original, Atatürkian blueprint of the Turkish republic. Notwithstanding those lessons, Erdogan’s government could not help itself derailing here and there from the expectations of that part of the population – and the recent string of popular protests has demonstrated just how difficult this project is: to rule in a democratic political system, but also to try to shape it, from an Islamist-influenced perspective.
Yet that seems to be Erdogan’s project, and this is why he was also very much involved with, and supportive of, the Morsi-led Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt. He was hoping to help them carve out a path through which an Islam-influenced political group would prove that it can successfully hold power in a democratic system, while also leading the polity in the right direction, according to their ideology. An ambition apparently not very different from any other democratic party’s ambitions – to come to power, and to implement policies, based on a specific ideology.
But the dictum, “politics is the art of the compromise”, is learned by force of necessity, and not by choice. In Egypt, Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood clearly did not have the benefit of a similar set of experiences; unlike in Turkey, which was an illiberal democracy under the watchful guardianship of the military (but still a sort of democracy), Mubarak’s Egypt was an authoritarian state, where all and sundry were equally oppressed. And this lack of democratic political experience is true for all the political forces in Egypt: the Muslim Brotherhood, the Salafi party, and the very fragmented “opposition groups” (those who opposed both Mubarak, and Morsi as well, in the name of the 2011 Revolution). Case in point regarding this lack of political experience is Morsi’s economic record, which was dismal, showing that they did not understand that the first and foremost duty of any government, notwithstanding ideology, is to provide for the physical security of the population: food, order, basic services, the ability to earn a living.
Meanwhile, neighboring Tunisia is another site for a similar experiment: Islamic parties are in power, a natural consequence of surviving decades-long oppression, having well-established structures, and benefiting from the popular capital that opposition forces have, at the time of a regime change. So what is happening in Tunisia? Although the governmental forces are at pains to distance themselves from some of the more extreme Islamic groups, recent assassinations of prominent opposition figures, supposedly by some of these groups, have brought the people unto the streets, in protest against the government, which is accused of being secretly behind these acts.
THE FIRST QUESTION: SECULAR POLITICS
What do Turkey, Egypt, Tunisia have in common? In all three countries, Islamic parties have been trying to come up with a modus vivendi, and a modus operandi, to govern in a democratic setting. In all three societies, there are significant parts of the population that are culturally secular(ized) – and another good part, in fact a majority, that are culturally religious (and have voted these governments into power). The distinctions, as always, are not clear cut.
But one should also note here that “secular” means something, if used to describe to a life-style or philosophy, and a different thing, if used to describe a political system. To give an example, the religious denominations in Western Europe, even in the countries with established religion like the United Kingdom or Denmark, are politically secular; they look at politics as a sort of neutral means to regulate decision-making in a democratic polity. These “neutral” means, then, depending on who is elected into office, can be oriented in one or another ideological direction, according to the ruling party’s philosophy (which might be closer or less so, to the principles of these religious denominations; eg. the ruling Christian-Democratic Union in Germany).
Yet what appears to be clear-cut is always a bit more complicated, a bit more confuse, when looked at closely. Take, for example, the difference between the French understanding of the secular state (laïcité), and the traditional American understanding of the same concept. In France, the legacy of the French Revolution shaped a secularism that is a-religious, verging on the anti-religious. In the US tradition, the idea of the secular state implies a coexistence, in which the institutions of the state (which possess the power) do not impose their power, favorable or unfavorable, over religious institutions. These are the models, at least on paper. Yet a closer look at how these are actually lived out shows that even in the countries that produced these models, the situation is not clear. For example, there are plenty of American political actors (or regular citizens) who understand the state from a French perspective, and French citizens who naturally lean toward a model much closer to the American one.
It is no surprise, therefore, if confusions or questions about these issues appear in countries where such models have not yet been established or tried out – like Egypt, or Turkey, or Tunisia. There are religious people (as most Egyptians are, for example), who have a secular image of politics; and secularized citizens who support an Islamic-influenced government (as in Turkey); or, on the other hand, secularized or religious people, who understand this identity in a very militant way, and would like to enforce it on the others, democratically or not.
THE SECOND QUESTION: POLITICS AS COMPROMISE
In the video below, a remarkable young Egyptian presents with astonishing articulateness the complexities of the situation in Egypt, while also reflecting the complexities of Egyptian society (he accuses the Muslim Brotehrhood of not being true to religion), and the challenges the Morsi-opponents face in making the distinction between political adversary and full “enemy” ( a crucial distinction).
Many of the anti-Morsi political actors seem to dismiss all too easily the concern that, in a democratic political system, the only legitimate way to remove a government is through the mechanisms of the system. But, they could say, these mechanisms are excruciatingly slow and imperfect; and they could also say that they were justified, because they are right. As true as both these statements may be (or not be), they do not change the nature of these undemocratic actions. In a democracy, “being right”, even “being certain of being right”, is not reason enough to forcibly remove a government. Politics, just like living in a society, or in a family, is indeed “the art of the compromise”: a slow and imprecise process during which one is obliged to fight even the worse positions of the political adversary, through the established mechanisms of political and civic action.
But this is not to imply that the secular-minded (in the political sense) forces are alone with this impatience and irascibility. Their action was provoked by, and was met by, the equally impatient and irascible politics of the Morsi-led Muslim Brotherhood government, whose actions have indeed veered undemocratically. And the of the MB was surely “I am right.” Yet “I am right” – ideologically, morally, or metaphysically – is simply not enough of a justification to bypass by force the rules of the democratic political system (at least according to the current status quo about what democracy is).
These secular and religious forces in Egypt are not alone in this struggle to deal with the cognitive dissonance between the clarity of their moral principles, and the imperfection of democratic mechanisms. Even in the more established democracies – like in the US, for example – the borders between shaping policy according to one’s ideology, and manipulating the very mechanisms of politics, based on the same ideology, are confusing and fickle. The saving grace is that the exaggerations of a political actor can be checked by the other political actors, who have this ability by virtue of the same democratic political system (through elections, checks and balances, separation of powers etc.). What makes this work, more or less, is that all political actors have subscribed to the basic ideology of the system itself, by adhering to the Constitution. What makes the situation difficult for the political actors in Egypt or Tunisia is that they did not have yet the chance to internalize the rules of liberal democracy. And this applies equally to those who support the Islamic governments and to those who do not.
Is this, then, a vicious circle – that the basic institutions of democracy have a hard time being established, because they did not already exist, and viceversa? A vicious circle is synonymous with an impossible situation, but there is no such thing, politically speaking; what is needed, is a slow learning process; and the best that Western well-wishers, governmental or nongovernmental, can do, is to support this process of democratic enculturation.
THE FOUNDATIONS OF DEMOCRACY
Superficial commentators might voice opinions to the effect that the problem is with Islam itself (theology? culture?). That would ignore the democratic experience of the largest Muslim-populated country, Indonesia (as complex as it is). Yet it is true that in the Middle East and North Africa there have been very few experiments, and those only of late, of an Islamic political force governing a liberal democracy; which is why, again, the fate of Erdogan’s project is of such interest.
Yet the problem is much broader than the current events in Egypt or Tunisia or Turkey. The questions of the ethical, philosophical, and even metaphysical assumptions of the modern liberal democracy are studiously avoided, or remain unsatisfactorily answered, even in the West. The problem is that the modern (i.e. liberal, Enlightenment) model of democratic political systems is itself based on moral and philosophical assumptions, which have not been challenged, but which are constantly being “tried and tested” on an unsuspecting population. At the basis of this model there seems to be an impetus toward individualism, and toward individual liberty as the ultimate value – but also towards the state as the ever more powerful Leviathan that ensures the programmatic pursuit of these objectives. Yet these values, mentioned here, are very specific values, belonging to a specific ideology. They are not absolute universal values, neither horizontally (in different places, today), nor longitudinally (at different points in history). Working under the assumption of an immutable “march of history” in one specific direction is both irrational and clearly ideologically biased. In other words, the “neutral means” of democratic politics is not as neutral as it seems.
It is easy to understand, then, the unease of some of the newer political actors, in some of the more inexperienced democracies. After all, what in France looked like an inherent consequence of the basic principles of the French status quo, namely the ban on publicly-worn religious symbols, was met with incredulity and incomprehension in many other countries (for example in the United States). But just a few years later, the Barack Obama-led US government needed to be harshly rebuked by a rare unanimous decision of the Supreme Court, when ideological motivations led the government to trespassing on a long established constitutional clause, which was meant to provide for the free and peaceful co-existence of different philosophical/ ideological/ theological systems. So the dilemmas the Islamic-oriented political forces in Turkey or Tunisia are facing point towards deeper unsolved questions, about the basic assumptions of the modern democratic model.
We will not solve these questions here, but this awareness might help us see how seemingly unrelated issues, such as these difficulties in the MENA region, and the conflict between Hungary’s Viktor Orbán government and some of his EU counterparts, might have surprisingly similar roots. After all, part of the untold revolt of some Western European chancelleries had to do with the fact that the new Basic Law of Hungary makes explicit reference to the cultural heritage of the country, and it contains the flag and coat of arms of the country; unusual, perhaps – but is this not an innocuous detail? The irksomeness of these details in the eyes of some Western chancelleries points again to the fact that there are unexamined, fundamental assumptions, under which different democratic regimes work; clearly, these chancelleries have a specific interpretation of what the modern democratic model means or implies; to approach it somewhat glibly, one might say that “they have taken the Enlightenment and ran with it”. Whether one or the other interpretation is right or wrong, is not our concern. A more important question is if we could distinguish between a neutral, universal basis for democracy, or is it all just one ideology, which now has come to dominate the world? This is very relevant, from the point of view of the struggles of Islamic political forces, trying to be successful within the framework of functioning liberal democracies.
As with all things political, we usually make sense of things as they happen, or after they happened; and the strongest proof is always in practice; it is the tried that proves true or untrue. There is no question that the modern representative democracy is astonishingly attractive and appears germane to most people around the world. Successive opinion polls taken in the Middle East and North Africa before the Arab Spring have consistently showed that a large majority of those populations desire and are fond of the democratic model. One should not be reluctant then to say that some of democracy’s central principles – but not all! – clearly appeal to traits shared by all human beings (hence the universal popular appeal). On the other hand, one can not forget either that the actual, historical sources of the model are the Enlightenment, Judeo-Christian, and Classical Greek culture (probably in this order).
But how do we distinguish between what is universally valid, and the ideological excrescences? between freedom of religion, and the ban on religious symbols? Or, to turn around the question, is it not possible that there is a universal appeal, and there are universally valid traits, but they are developed slightly differently (yet equally democratically) in different cultural spaces? After all, religion vs state means very different things in the US and in France – and both are truly democratic. This is a most difficult question, as many illiberal democracies or even authoritarian regimes have excused their trespasses, by making reference to “cultural differences”. At this point, such references have almost become markers of something fishy going on.
But it might also be the case that the current experiments in Turkey, Tunisia, even Egypt, with this model of modern liberal democracy entering a relatively new cultural area, is an occasion to purify what is essential and universal about it, from what are ideological and cultural excrescences.
As said, the recent deposition of an elected government by an undemocratic institution left Egypt, its politics and its society, in a deep impasse. The tragic nature of the situation could not be better evidenced than by the recent bloodshed on the streets of Egypt, as a result of both the brutal actions of the army against a part of the Egyptian population (the Morsi-supporters), and by the violence inflicted by some of the latter on their co-citizens (see the burning of Coptic churches). Obviously, Egypt can not survive divided, yet the cleavages existing in the Egyptian society are only exasperated by such acts of violence. One such act generates a reaction, a reaction deserves a response – an unending cycle of violence, all under the illusion that “the other side” can actually be silenced, eliminated, terminated.
Politics and, more specifically, the institutions of representative democracy, are made for the management of inherent societal conflicts. The existence of sharply differing ethical, philosophical, ideological positions in a society is an inevitable reality; what stops these conflicts from being fought on the streets is the consensus of all political actors, and of a great majority of the population, that the legitimate means of solving these divergences is through the institutions of (democratic) politics, especially through parties, which coalesce differing opinions into structured programs; and through parliaments, where these positions are allowed to clash through debate, and to generate a course action through the shaping of policy. In other words, if these institutions are not allowed to play out their role, politics fails, and violence speaks.
One could thus say that the only possible “solution” for the current situation, is a return to functioning democratic institutions, which could channel these societal conflicts. The problem is that the army seems to act under the impression that it can first eliminate these conflicts, and then reestablish democratic politics. This, clearly, is false. What compounds the degree of difficulty in the current situation, is that no side seems ready, able, or willing to talk to the other; instead, one seems to notice on both sides the illusion that “we can solve the situation, once and for all”, that “we can defeat them” – through force. That, however, is the opposite of democracy, and its perfect poison, both short- and long-term.
ADDENDUM & TIME-OUT
A good example of the range of cultural identities existing in the societies mentioned above is the Harlem Shake staged by Tunisian high school students (below), and the varied reactions it engendered.
UK: The Dizzying Euro-Spiral of the Tories
As expected, David Cameron’s ultimatum regarding Britain’s relationship with the European Union – reform or (a kind of) exit – has put him and his party in an unnecessarily difficult position, creating an either/or situation that perhaps was not called for. Within the party, it opened a Pandora’s Box, amplifying and providing a platform for the Euro-skeptics, while forcing the pro-Europeans to take a vocal stand as well; in other words, dividing the party on a key issue. The results are apparent: there has been a flurry of newer and older leadership figures making appearances in the media, taking one or the other side on the issue. The Tory backbenchers spoke out as well, when half of them voted for an amendment to the Queen’s Speech, in which they deplored the omission of any reference to the planned 2017 referendum on the EU. This was a symbolic gesture, but a highly unusual act of censure nevertheless, and its echoes reverberated throughout the political sphere (even if the amendment was defeated, as expected, through the combined vote of the other half of the Tories, and of the Labour and LibDem MPs). It might be the first time since 1946 that members of a governing party voted against the Queen’s Speech, which in fact is the government’s statement on its political program for the next period.
To add fuel to the fire, in recent local elections UKIP – a party whose very raison d’être is opposition to everything EU – fared very well (shockingly well, for a two-and-half party system like England’s), benefiting from a protest vote that gave them 20 times (!) the number of local council seats they had won in 2009. Moreover, the opinion polls show UKIP enjoying the support of 20% of the population, with Labour at 37%, the Conservatives at 27%, and the Liberal Democrats at 7%. Of course, given the first-past-the-post British electoral system, this still means that they would not get any seats in the next Parliament. However, it does represent an added pressure on the Tories, which will necessarily sharpen – and shape – the debate within the party, and will by no means make Cameron’s life easier. There have already been rumors of a split within the party (to UKIP’s benefit).
At this point, therefore, under fire from within and from without, David Cameron’s party looks like a ship uncertain of its direction, populated by a partially mutinous crew. While Ed Milliband’s leadership of the Labour Party and the LibDem’s results in the polls are equally unimpressive, they are at least able to put up a (mostly) united front, opposing Cameron’s EU plans (and the opposition includes Cameron’s governing partner, Nick Clegg). The positives though for Cameron are that, as tortuous as his positions are, they do reflect the complicated relationship of the British public with the European idea, and also that opposing the EU referendum would not be a popular position (it would be like another one of those EU-related decisions taken over the heads of the citizens). At the same time, UKIP’s rise in the polls, the very vocal squabbles within the party, and the improbability of the European partners agreeing to a radical reform like the one he demanded, might eventually force Cameron in a corner in which he does not want to find himself: of being the Prime Minister who leads Britain in an unfortunate sort of exit from the EU. And that surely would not be a happy outcome for Britain, economically and politically.
Canada: Troubled Times for Toronto’s Mayor
He was elected in 2010 by a majority formed mostly of suburbanites, small business-owners and ethnic minorities, to the chagrin of the left-leaning elites of downtown Toronto. He rode in on a populist platform, promising to fix a municipal government that had been characterized by mismanagement and waste. He made his name by constructing an image of being a “man of the people”, and by cultivating a close relationship with, and responsiveness to, his constituency. It has always been his habit to give out the personal cell number, and to respond in person to the citizen’s complaints, going out on the field. Because of his colorful, nonconformist image, he had attracted comparisons with London Mayor Boris Johnson; because of the recent developments, the (in)famous name of former Washington, DC Mayor Marion Barry has been brought up repeatedly.
A few weeks ago, the news exploded that the US gossip website Gawker and the Canadian daily The Toronto Star had both been offered video footage of Rob Ford, Mayor of Toronto, smoking crack cocaine in the company of dubious characters. The footage was offered for sale at the price of $200,000. Since none of these outlets were able to come up with that money, what resulted were written testimonies from Toronto Star journalists and Gawker writers, and an effort by the latter to collect the money from readers (the Rob Ford Crackstarter). A couple of weeks later, both outlets made it public that they lost contact with the people who originally offered the tape, and that it is very probable that the footage is no longer retrievable.
Where does this leave Rob Ford? After the news broke, it took him several days to come out with an official declaration, in which he denied the charges. His – and his supporters’ – main defense is that these are fabricated accusations coming from ideological adversaries, mainly the liberal-leaning Toronto Star. To his misfortune, such troubles seem consistent with previous controversies in which he had been embroiled: accusations that he was intoxicated while at a public event, that he groped a female colleague, that he was seen reading while driving. At the same time, it is equally true that his election (which he won decisively, with 47.1%) has shocked, and his personality (some say genuine, some say outrageous) has continued to appall, the Toronto establishment. In fact, the latest “scandal”, before the cocaine allegations, had him accused of putting small advertising magnets on people’s cars, and thus campaigning for his causes; which seems more amusing than scandalous. Yet he is not a stranger to scandal, which is why the recent news stories have hit pretty hard; several of his key collaborators, both at City Hall and from his political circle, have resigned or have declared that they will not continue to work for him, until these issues are resolved. Furthermore, the recent allegation come in what was, from a governance perspective, a difficult situation already.
The City of Toronto (fifth largest municipal unit in Northern America, disposing of a budget of about 10 billion dollars) is governed by a City Council, which contains 44 members elected from individual wards, and a Mayor elected by the entire city. Besides being a member of the Council, the Mayor also acts as a CEO; but he can not make major changes in policy, without having the support of a majority in the Council (details). In the last period, however, Rob Ford has proven himself less than adept at building and sustaining such coalitions and, in consequence, has been handed several stinging defeats in the Council. In response to this, as a true populist, he decided to appeal directly to his base – the so called “Ford Nation” that voted him in office, and in general the citizens of TO – through a weekly radio show (thus bypassing “the establishment”). His brother, Doug Ford, himself a city councilor, is Rob’s main partner in this endeavor – and, more generally, in his political career. But the next mayoral elections are not far away, being scheduled to take place in October 2014. Will the embattled mayor manage to repair and salvage his public image? More importantly, will he manage to create the coalitions in the City Council (which depend on his public image), which will allow him to implement some of his ambitious policy projects? This last question is probably the one that will decide his political fate, because the voters will surely evaluate him first and foremost based on fulfilling his key electoral promise, of ending the “Gravy Train” – the financial waste, mismanagement and corruption that had characterized the City of Toronto government before his arrival. The Conservative Party, with which Rob Ford is affiliated (and which is currently in power at national level), can only hope that, just like in the case of Boris Johnson, a center-right politician will manage to remain in power and run successfully what is usually considered a fiefdom of the other parties (of the left), which had suffered from severe mismanagement. Of course, for this to happen, Rob Ford (twitter; portrait) will have to not mismanage his own life, first of all.
Sweden: Youth Riots in Stockholm’s Suburbs
Such news always come across as shocking – for the outside observers, maybe even for the given society writ large. A few years ago, before the economic crisis, it was the Greek youth; before that, the young French people of the banlieues; a year or so ago, pictures of senseless violence were coming out of London and other parts of England; and now, news and images of young rioters from the suburbs of Stockholm in Sweden (photos; video). It started in Husby, a suburb of concrete housing near Stockholm, and it continued for a few days, spreading to other areas as well, with hundreds of young people in their teens or 20s setting fire to businesses, destroying cars, and clashing with the police. The initial reaction is always: “Why?” The immediate answer usually brings up race, religion, class. The truth, however, is that one common factor in all these apparently senseless events – which do not have any specific goals, but have a direction: against society, authorities, surroundings, “them” – is that they arise from a context of deep hopelessness, from a culture of gratuitous violence, and from a life lived without a promising horizon. According to data published by various news sources, unemployment in the suburb of Husby is two to three times higher (6-9%) than in Stockholm (around 3%), and is much higher among the youth (20%). Culturally, many of these young people do not feel integrated in the society at large, both because of the immigrant background of their families, their social standing, and their immediate environment; not being in school or employed, their main channel of socialization is through the peer groups on the streets. Since the problems seem easily describable in broad social terms, surely what is needed is more social programs; indeed, the Swedish authorities were quick to promise better, ampler programs for this population. Yet these suburbs already have cultural centers and social programs, and a good 12% of the inhabitants are beneficiaries of financial support. The Swedish police, while intervening when needed (with trepidation, given the unusual character of such violence in a fairly homogeneous, peaceful society like the Swedish one), expressed their hope that the local “community”, the civil society, will themselves step up to address the root causes of these acts. Yet it is clear that these young people are no longer contained by their own families; the local residents themselves (many of whom are from immigrant backgrounds) have expressed shock and incomprehension at the possible motivations of these youths; and many of them have put the blame squarely on these young persons’ irresponsibility. But what comes across, again and again, is the depressing, hopeless outlook on life – especially for young persons – in these drab suburbs of concrete; and this is why a better understanding of the situation might arise from materials like this investigative piece on the life of youngsters in these suburbs.
[Note: for those of us whose Swedish is less than perfect, Google Translate can be a helpful tool.]
Burma: Ethnic Conflict Flares Up
Before the advent of multiparty politics in Burma and the slow but seemingly steady transition to democracy, it was not extraordinary to see in the West a car donning the bumper sticker, “Free Burma!”. And now, as Burma is indeed transitioning to democracy, old questions arise again about what is behind that name, “Burma”. Is there such a thing as “a” Burma? Well, the reality is that this country is one of the most ethno-culturally diverse ones in the world; its population of over 55 million comprises some 135 ethnocultural groups, speaking over 100 languages and dialects (report). In fact, Burma was not meant to be a unitary state; after gaining independence from British rule, the original plan was to build a federal system. But this was not mean to be, and successive regimes have tried to create a unitary state through force and propaganda, defining and imposing a “national identity” mostly designed around Buddhism. Of course, this was met with limited success; although most of the news in the past two decades have revolved around the conflict between the military junta and the political opposition (embodied by Aung San Suu Kyi), the deep(er) and (more) lasting divisions in the country, the ones that have continued to cause armed conflict and bloodshed in these 65 years of independence, and have not ceased to fester, are those along ethno-cultural lines. But the years of national and nationalist propaganda have not passed without leaving marks; just like in former Yugoslavia, where ethnic identity is based as much on religion as on language and region, Buddhism has become instrumentalized and enveloped by a much stronger, more prevalent identity – by a virulent national ideology.
Thus, the recent, brutal violence in Lashio and Meiktila have taken place along religiously-defined communal lines, but have not been “religious”, but typical examples of ethno-nationalist conflict. Unfortunately, just as typically, these recent conflicts have been appalling in their violence: besides the widespread devastation of property, tens of people have been killed (overwhelmingly Muslim, and among them many young), and thousands have been displaced.
[Warning: Graphic images!]
Because of the said incorporation of Buddhism in decades of nationalistic rhetoric, one of the prominent players is the so-called “969” movement and its instigator, Buddhist monk U Wirathu; and Buddhist monks have taken an active part in the recent violence, shoulder to shoulder with other men, women, youth. (This would only be shocking if one would hold to the naive assumption that “Buddhist monks” is an abstract, unitary, universally pacifist category; the reality is that “Buddhist monks” are part of the given society, and partake in its mores; see the role of the Buddhist monasteries in the power struggles of medieval Japan.)
What is the Burmese government doing? While the security forces stood by or even assisted in these violent events, its judiciary arrested and condemned only a few Muslims. Ethnic- and racially-infused nationalism seems to be alive and well as a guiding modus operandi, within the institutions of the state. On other fronts of the interethnic conflicts in Burma, however, the government has been very active and quite successful, making significant progress toward agreeing with the military groups associated with some of the larger ethnic groups (like the Kachin and the Shan).
But the multiethnic and multi-religious nature of the Burmese society is such an inescapable datum of the Burmese state, that there is simply no way to go forward, without addressing this in a decisive and coherent manner. This is especially true in a period as vulnerable as the transition from an authoritarian regime (which, through its strong institutions, has held these potential conflicts in check) to a yet undefined democratic arrangement; in such moments, the only thing known for sure is that the old checks are gone, and the institutions that would define the new order do not exist as yet – and thus there is the potential for disorder. But in order for Burma to survive and even prosper as a state, substantial solutions will have to be found; perhaps through a redefinition of the state along federal lines, perhaps through a re-construction of a national narrative along civic, political or historical lines – but away from the inherently divisive, ethnic or religious lines. This, of course, is easier said than done, and might sound like the idealistic imaginings of remote theoreticians; however, the nearby example of Indonesia and of the the solutions it has found in a similarly diverse and conflict-ridden context might prove quite useful.
Unrest in Turkey
At the end of May, a group of about 100 people gathered in Gezi Park in Istanbul to protest a planned redevelopment that would affect one of the few remaining green areas in the city. This small manifestation soon developed into marathon demonstrations that spread to the nearby Taksim Square and to other 48 cities in Turkey, sparked at first by the brutal intervention of the police against the initial group of protesters, but fueled for weeks by a deeper resentment toward Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK – Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi). But why would there be such enmity among these demonstrators towards Erdogan? This is the Prime Minister that eliminated the heavy hand of the military from Turkish politics and public life, after 50 years during which the military has dominated the state, even putting it through several coups d’état. This is the head of the executive under whose leadership Turkey has experienced a period of continued economic growth, for the first time in a long time, while the rest of the world was undergoing a major crisis. At his initiative, the Constitution of the republic was reformed in the direction of strengthening civilian rule and the representative institutions; and these reforms were supported by a strong majority of the population, and were hailed by the EU as decisive steps toward democracy. Erdogan even managed to reach a ceasefire agreement in the longstanding, bloody conflict of the Turkish state with the armed factions of the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party). It is unsurprising, then, that Recep Tayyip Erdogan is the first Prime Minister in Turkish history who managed to win three successive elections (’02, ’07, ’11), obtaining for his party 50% of the popular vote in the last elections. Then why these protests?
There are a few characteristics common to these protesters. Most of them are not politically affiliated, and for many this is the first act of political participation; a large number are educated, middle class; many belong to the generation of social media & individualism. First and foremost, the overwhelming majority of these protesters are united by their distaste towards what they perceive as Erdogan’s government’s attempt to redirect Turkey (notwithstanding the obvious economic and democratic advances) toward a non-secular course, more in line with the Islamist inspiration of the ruling AK party. They cite in this regard laws such as the banning of the sale of alcohol between 10 pm and 6 am; and actions that they perceive as coming from authoritarian tendencies: plans to ban kissing in public, attempted laws against abortion and adultery etc. Similarly, the brutal intervention of the police played into a deeper irritation with the generally abrasive, confrontational style of the Prime Minister, underlining the accusations that his policies and politics have divided the country. And indeed, during most of these troubled weeks, Erdogan did little to consciously shed this abrasive image: he called the protesters “extremists” and “looters” (names which they wore with pride); he accused them of being organized by shady foreign economic interest (a fairly risible accusation, given the participation of far left groups, among others); has continued to direct the police to intervene with unnecessary brutality, instead of trying to meet and reach a compromise (thus, as a result of violence from both sides, five people have died and thousands – protesters and policemen – have been injured). An added problem, however, is that the demonstrators could not – and still can not – speak with a united voice, true to the fact that they do not constitute a coherent mass: there are those who manifested against the redevelopment of Gezi Park; there are extreme left wingers; there are nationalists; there are many of the middle-class, who came out in solidarity or just against Erdogan. Furthermore, none of the parties of the parliamentary opposition can claim to represent them either: they are either nationalistic forces or they belong to the recent Turkish past, one that was military-dominated and economically-underdeveloped; a past for which these protesters have no fondness.
What is the current situation? After weeks of protest, Erdogan’s government agreed to meet with representatives of the demonstrators, and also agreed to hold off the proposed developments, letting the courts decide on the matter, and even putting the decision to a popular vote. This seems to have effected a calming down of the situation, except for a few hardline groups. But what are the deeper conclusions to be drawn from these events? On the one hand, they confirmed the adage that, when politics fails, the only remaining option is violence. In other words, they confirmed the goodness of (democratic) politics, of having institutions that would mediate the conflicts inherent in any society, through agreed rules of debate and decision-making. When these political institutions fail, or when they fail to transmit and process these inherent societal conflicts, the only other way to solve it is – on the streets. Secondarily, they illustrate a deeper problem, related to the philosophical or ideological foundations of democratic politics. Both “sides” in this crisis (if we can talk of “two sides”) are, by and large, supporters of Turkey’s democratization; as mentioned, Erdogan has done more than anyone in recent history in this direction. Yet their assumptions differ. Erdogan and AK are grounded in, and imagine a Turkey founded on, an Islamic society and culture (and nobody can deny that Turkey has always been, as a society, Islamic). The protesters, however, have been shaped by decades in which the official ideology was that of laicity: a secular state whose secularism is understood not as non-intervention in religious affairs (as in the American conception), but as an exclusion of religion from the state and the public sphere (as in the French Revolution-inspired laïcité). Moreover, some of these protesters base their ideas about democracy on vague notions of Western (European) liberal democracy; while others are motivated by left wing or radical ideologies; and others by nationalism. Moving from a military-dominated, illiberal democracy to a democratic (and prosperous!) state is not a simple path, especially when the society is clearly divided as to the fundamental assumptions that should guide their lives – and perhaps the state as well.
In June Central Europe was hit by massive floods along the Danube and Elbe rivers and their tributaries; in Germany (photo; video of Passau; reportage), the Czech Republic (photo; video of Prague), Hungary (video; photo), Austria, Slovakia, Switzerland, the historical levels of the waters forced thousands to leave their homes and left over 20 people dead; yet these numbers would have been much higher, were it not for the measures implemented after the floods of 2002. The deep involvement and strong leadership demonstrated by an Angela Merkel or Viktor Orbán will probably also have a positive effect on how they will be judged in the soon-to-come elections.
In Syria, the documented death toll of the civil war has reached 93,000, of which over 6,000 are children. Meanwhile, one of the leaders on foreign affairs in American politics, Senator John McCain, sneaked into the country to meet with opposition groups. In an act of defiance of the West’s efforts, Russia delivered anti-aircraft missiles to the Assad regime; in response, the Obama administration announced that it decided to expand the support it gives to the rebel groups, to include arms as well; while the European Union decided to lifts the arms embargo, thus allowing the member countries to pursue their own individual policies in this regard. Currently the Assad regime seems to have gained the upper hand on the battlefield, with support from Hezbollah and probably Iran. Within the rebel groups and organizations, besides those that have been recognized as legitimate conversation partners by the West (like FSA, partially SNC), there are also Islamist factions that have perpetrated vicious acts of violence against the members of other religious minorities. In fact, it seems that a “rebel victory”, given the problematic ideological profile of some of the opposition groups, will have devastating consequences for the Syrian Christians, who had previously enjoyed a protected status.
The African Union celebrated its 50 years’ anniversary, a period that has seen incontrovertible economic and social development on the continent, but also the failures of the AU to take charge of the problems facing it – whether because of a lack of political will, of cumbersome decision-making procedures, or a dearth of resources.
In a shocking decision in February, the International Olympic Committee voted to remove one of the most ancient sports – wrestling – from the list of Olympic disciplines. Behind the surprising decision is the intention to force the governing structures of the sport to finally address a host of issues that have been brought to their attention repeatedly, to no avail: women’s representation in its organizations, a streamlining of its cumbersome rules (which suffered many changes, yet remained obscure and unappealing to the public) etc. The shock had its effect, and one of the first acts was to elect a new president of FILA (the International Federation of Associated Wrestling Styles) in the person of Serbian Nenad Lalovic, who immediately engaged in an intense program of sport diplomacy (besides implemented the required internal changes). Among these efforts were a highly mediatized public competition between wrestlers of USA, Iran and Russia at the Grand Central train station in New York; press conferences at the UN; apparitions on popular talk shows etc. There are of course popular initiatives as well in support of the sport, a sport whose greatest tournament is actually the Olympics (unlike soccer, for example, where the World Cup is much more important). A first victory has already been already obtained, with the recent decision of the IOC Executive Board to include wrestling on the short list of sports (together with baseball/softball and squash) on which the general assembly of the International Olympic Committee will vote in September, for the one spot available for the 2020 Olympics.
Rumble on the Rails: USA vs. Iran vs. Russia, at the Grand Central Terminal in New York