June 16, 2011
Number 06/11 #03
This Update focuses on the outcome of the Turkish election on Sunday, while also offering expert comments on the new Hezbollah-dominated Lebanese cabinet.
First up is Soner Cagaptay, an analyst focussing on Turkey at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Cagaptay highlights some of the problems with the past 8 years of rule in Turkey by the Islamist-leaning AKP party of PM Recep Tayyip Erdogan, especially its legal persecution of journalists and media outlets critical of the government, and other illiberal means to suppress political opposition. But he is optimistic that the failure of the ruling party to gain enough seats to change the constitution or pass major legislation unassisted may mean it will compromise with the reformed and increasingly liberal opposition CHP party. For his full analysis, CLICK HERE. An interesting analysis of how the election outcome might affect Israel-Turkish relations comes from BICOM.
A much more pessimistic picture on Turkey comes from an editorial in the Jerusalem Post, which argues that, despite the minor electoral setback, the AKP is poised to establish autocracy in Turkey. The paper focuses on the AKP government’s attempts to control the press, criminalise the opposition, and intimidate the population through massive wire-tapping. It also notes some conspiracy theories promoted by the AKP, even during the election, including claims that foreign media critical of elements of regime policy is “backed by Israel”. For the case that the victory by the AKP was definitely not a victory for democracy in Turkey, CLICK HERE. Possibly even more pessimistic about Turkey’s future is Israeli academic Barry Rubin, who has spent considerable time in Turkey. More neutral on the election result is Israeli academic Galia Lindenstrauss.
Finally, Washington Institute scholar Michael Singh looks at the newly sworn-in, Hezbollah-dominated government of Lebanon. Singh notes some lessons from these events – notably, that anti-democratic parties like Hezbollah are quite capable of exploiting democratic political institutions to undermine democracy, and that extended US engagement is necessary with nascent democracies to prevent a repeat of the Lebanon situation in other countries. Singh argues that by focussing on courting the Syrian Assad regime in the name of promoting peace with Israel, and thus reducing efforts to defend Lebanon from Syrian-Iranian encoachments, the US government contributed to the current situation there and now must find new ways to support democratic forces in Lebanon. For all that Singh has to say, CLICK HERE.
Readers may also be interested in:
- An analysis of the bizarre “Neo-Ottomanist” language – that is referring to numerous cities once part of the Ottoman empire but not now part of Turkey – used by Turkish PM Erdogan in his post-election victory speech.
- There are reports that Hamas and Fatah have reached agreement on most of the details for a new unity government – which will exclude current PM Salam Fayyad.
- Noted Israeli political scientist Shlomo Avineri writes about the reality behind the fate of Palestinian refugees during the 1948 war. Academic historian Efraim Karsh takes issue with one phrase of Avineri’s and explores the details of the refugee exodus further.
- The bizarre case of an Israeli-American student who has been arrested for spying in Egypt is discussed in reporting here, here and here, and in a Jerusalem Post editorial and a piece by former Cairo resident Dan Murphy at the Christian Science Monitor.
- American Middle East expert Fouad Ajami on the unmasking of the Assad family in Syria. Meanwhile, two Washington Institute scholars look at the Obama Administration’s possible leverage over Syria.
- Claims from both Syrian opposition groups and the US Government that Iran and Hezbollah are aiding the Assad regime to massacre its people.
- Noted military analysts Fred and Kimberly Kagan on the current momentum in Afghanistan.
- The Iranian Revolutionary Guard appears to admit, in an article on its website, that Iran is seeking nuclear weapons.
- A Syrian document, if proven genuine, appears to prove that Damascus orchestrated the recent violent cross-border clashes with Israeli soldiers by supposed Palestinian refugees.
By Soner Cagaptay
Wall Street Journal, June 14, 2011
Turkey’s Justice and Development Party, a coalition of Islamists and conservatives known as the AKP, won the country’s general elections for the third consecutive time since 2002 on Sunday, albeit with a reduced majority. That’s a milestone: The AKP is now the longest-serving government since Turkey became a multi-party democracy in 1946. And it makes the party’s bumpy, decade-long marriage of political Islam and democracy worth a closer look, especially given the popular upheavals rippling through other Muslim-majority countries in the Middle East.
The AKP won and held power by moving to the political center and toward economic liberalism. Recep Tayyip Erdogan founded the party in 2001 on the ashes of the Islamic Welfare Party, an illiberal predecessor, and promised to join the European Union, reform the economy and get rid of the draconian, anti-free-press sections of Turkey’s penal code. The strategy paid off: The AKP won 34% of the popular vote in 2002. In 2007, as its economic reforms took root, the party extended its grip on power.
But not all of the AKP’s success was due to its policies. Its long tenure has been immeasurably helped by the weakness of the opposition, secular Republican People’s Party, or CHP. Its former leaders provided no viable liberal alternative to the AKP’s platform, offering Turks instead platitudes and pro-status quo nationalism, while dismissing free-market ideas. The CHP’s empty platform, coupled with AKP’s increasing popularity, only fed into Mr. Erdogan’s authoritarian streak.
And what a streak it was: Mr. Erdogan interpreted his 2007 victory as a green light to limit freedoms and harass his opponents. After amending the country’s constitution in 2010, the AKP single-handedly appointed a majority of the high court without a confirmation process. The new, post-2007 AKP has also attacked the media. According to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe report, Turkey leads the world in jailing journalists, with 57 currently behind bars. Just before the elections, Mr. Erdogan warned two prominent columnists, Nuray Mert and Abbas Guclu, that “they will pay after the elections.” Ms. Mert had criticized Mr. Erdogan for not having a Kurdish policy, and Mr. Guclu had reported on irregularities in college entrance exams.
The opposition has finally figured out how to counter this radical agenda, thanks primarily to the election of a new party leader, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, last year. Mr. Kilicdaroglu has morphed the CHP into a mass liberal party in a very short period of time. He has built bridges with Turkey’s powerful business community and recruited its representatives to the party’s leadership. He has wooed back labor unions to the party’s executive organs. The CHP now boasts a record number of women in its leadership and more importantly, on grassroots level. Last but not least, the party has a fresh approach to the festering Kurdish problem, such as the recent proposal to implement Kurdish education in schools.
The question now is where Turkey will go from here. The AKP’s recent history shows that majority or near-majority popular support leads Islamist parties and illiberal political movements to re-embrace their authoritarian antecedents. Once in power, Islamist parties regress, for they interpret popular support as the green light to implement their radical agendas. The AKP equates winning elections with democracy. Hence, once it achieved popularity the AKP went after checks and balances, which it sees as an affront to popular support that needs to be eliminated.
Turkish voters, by and large, reject this radical agenda. On Sunday, although the AKP won the elections, for the first time since 2002 the party lost the required 330-seat majority needed to pass legislation in the Turkish parliament. This is the first legislative session since 2002 in which the AKP will have to seek consensus to make new laws. Mr. Erdogan conceded this point, saying his party “will reach out to and respect the lifestyle of all Turkish citizens,” which equates to a promise of working with the opposition.
The sine qua non of a potentially successful marriage between Islamist politics and democracy is a strong liberal partner. The new CHP could not only protect Turkish democracy, but also, ironically, might save the AKP from itself by checking the very popularity that lies at the root of that party’s authoritarianism. The lesson for the rest of the Middle East is exactly this: Islamist parties can moderate their platforms, but only if elections are free, if media is independent and if there is a strong liberal party that counters the Islamists’ desire to equate democracy with unchecked power.
Soner Cagaptay is director of the Turkish Research Program at The Washington Institute.
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Erdogan’s anti-Israel rhetoric cannot be seen in isolation from his oppressive policies at home and his pursuit of Islamist allies abroad.
The only good thing to be said of the pro-Islamist Justice and Development Party’s victory in Turkey’s parliamentary elections Sunday is that it was not complete. The AKP, headed by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, did not manage to clinch two-thirds of the seats in the parliament, which would have empowered it to revamp Turkey’s constitution singlehandedly in a decidedly pro-Islamist manner and create a presidential style of government that would enable to Erdogan to remain in power beyond his three terms as prime minister.
Nor did the AKP receive the requisite 330 seats in the 550-seat parliament that would have enabled it to call a referendum for the above mentioned reforms.
Theoretically, this could open the path for a consensus driven constitutional process, diminishing Turkey’s polarization between Islamist and secularist camps while sparking both internal and public debate regarding the AKP’s authoritarianism. More likely, however, the AKP will forgo compromise and opt to close deals with a few willing parliamentarians from other parties to obtain the five additional votes needed for submitting an AKP-authored constitution to a referendum. Judging from its success in the parliamentary elections, the AKP would likely win that referendum.
The AKP will undoubtedly be emboldened by its steady rise in popularity – from 34 percent of the vote in 2002 to 46.58% in 2007 and about 50% in Sunday’s elections – on a platform that includes religious conservatism at home and the strengthening of ties with Iran, Syria, Hamas and Hezbollah abroad. Quirks of the Turkish election process, not a fall in popularity, explain the AKP loss of seats in parliament from 363 in 2002 and 341 in 2007 to 326 today.
Erdogan’s excellent political instincts prompted him to steer his country away from European Union membership and all the tough economic and social reforms it demands, toward a more traditionalist, anti-liberal policy that appealed to religious Turks. Their rapid demographic growth compared to their secular counterparts, combined with a strong Islamist trend sweeping the region, have assured the AKP of a steadily expanding support base. After its landslide victory in the 2007 elections, the AKP gained confidence, gradually shedding its subtle, incremental push for an increasingly Islamist agenda under the guise of a “center-right” reform party platform.
TODAY TURKEY is on the verge of autocracy. The country has the highest number of imprisoned journalists (57) in the world – more than Russia, China or Iran – according to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe.
Government-led efforts to intimidate the media have intensified – in particular against the once combative Dogan media group, whose newspapers have been cowed into subservience by a combination of politically motivated tax audits and fines amounting to more than the worth of its media holdings.
The Ergenekon case, which began in 2007 as an investigation into an elaborate coup attempt planned by ultranationalist secular military officers, has since been exploited in a McCarthy-like witch hunt launched by the Islamist government against the secular establishment, which, it should be acknowledged, abused its power during the years it was in power. Over the past four years AKP-controlled police have taken more than 400 people into custody, including university presidents, journalists and women’s rights activists, without evidence of criminal activity. Some AKP opponents have been held for years without charge.
And rampant wiretapping has scared even the average Turk into refraining from discussing the case over the phone or via e-mail to avoid being accused of involvement.
Unsurprisingly, Turkey’s increasingly anti-democratic, pro-Islamist policies, both domestically and internationally, have included expressions of anti-Semitism and baseless attacks on Israel. In better days Turkey’s secular elites rightly valued close relations with the Jewish state as a positive sign of Turkey’s liberalism and freedom in a region dominated by reactionary, autocratic regimes. Now with reactionary changes sweeping Turkey, relations with Israel have suffered. Erdogan has not even bothered to hide his anti- Semitic views. When The Economist – which can hardly be suspected of undue sympathy for Israel – openly called on Turks to vote against the AKP, Erdogan, who had used anti- Israel rhetoric throughout his campaign to garner electoral support, lashed out at the British publication to the effect that “the international media, being backed by Israel, wouldn’t be happy with the continuation of the AKP.”
Erdogan’s anti-Israel rhetoric cannot be seen in isolation from his oppressive policies at home and his pursuit of Islamist allies abroad. It is almost axiomatic that Turkey’s relations with the Middle East’s only democracy suffer as Erdogan moves his country away from democracy toward an Islamic-inspired autocracy.
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By Michael Singh
ForeignPolicy.com, June 15, 2011
This week, Lebanon served up a reminder for the United States and the partisans of the Arab uprisings: don’t count your democracies before they’ve hatched. Having thrown off the yoke of Syrian occupation in 2005 after the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, Lebanon once again finds itself under the control of Iran and Syria. Allies of these two countries, including Hezbollah, control the majority of the posts in the new Lebanese cabinet announced on Monday.
This development is a blow to freedom and sovereignty in Lebanon, and a setback for U.S. interests in the region. It holds, however, two lessons which, if taken to heart, can help Arab democrats and U.S. policymakers successfully entrench democracy in places like Egypt and Tunisia.
The first of these lessons is that extremists are capable of exploiting democratic institutions to undermine democracy itself. Lebanon’s Cedar Revolution and the departure of Syrian forces were negative developments for Hezbollah and Lebanese allies of Damascus. Their patrons had departed or faded into the shadows, many of their compatriots were jailed for crimes committed under Syrian rule, and their longtime foes were politically ascendant.
But rather than hang their heads, Hezbollah and its allies changed tactics. Hezbollah had three powerful advantages. First, it enjoyed a not-insignificant degree of popularity amongst Lebanon’s Shia community. It bolstered this popularity by erecting a patronage network fueled by Iranian financial support, and using intimidation and violence to silence Shia rivals. Second, Lebanon’s explicitly sectarian political system allotted to the Shia — and thus to Hezbollah or its proxies, given its domination of the Shia political landscape — a sizable role in the country’s political institutions. Thirdly and most importantly, unlike other Lebanese militias, it had not disarmed following the Lebanese civil war, but instead used the pretext of “resistance” against Israel (despite Israeli forces’ withdrawal from Lebanon) not only to retain its weapons, but to build an arsenal surpassing that of many national armies. Hezbollah also erected a formidable command and control and logistical network, putting airports, telecommunications, and other infrastructure at its disposal.
Leveraging these advantages, Hezbollah became active in national politics and for the first time placed its members in the Lebanese cabinet. When it could not achieve its aims through politics, however, Hezbollah did not hesitate to resort to outright violence. In 2008, when its control of telecommunications was challenged, it turned its arms on fellow Lebanese and launched a war against the Lebanese state, seizing Beirut in the process. When its members were threatened with exposure and indictment in 2010 for their alleged role in the Hariri assassination, they brought down the Lebanese government.
Hezbollah’s actions illustrate the dangers of not excluding from democratic participation extremist groups which act as proxies for foreign powers, reject democratic values as a matter of principle, or fail to renounce violence. Hezbollah is a creature of Iran, conceived and built by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Many of its cabinet allies are themselves clients of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, with which Hezbollah coordinates closely. Indeed, it is no coincidence that this cabinet was formed just as the Assad regime finds itself in crisis. Facing pressure domestically, it is seeking strength (or at least to create distractions) outside its borders, whether by sending protesters to the Israeli border or maneuvering in Lebanon.
Many outside observers have hoped that serving in the government would moderate Hezbollah. Those hopes have gone unfulfilled and will continue to be dashed as long as Iran and Syria see advantage in destabilizing their neighbors and Hezbollah itself sees the ballot box as a complement to rifles and rockets.
The second lesson of Hezbollah’s ascendancy is the need for sustained U.S. engagement with nascent democracies. The Cedar Revolution of 2005 was less a victory for democracy than the beginning of a long, hard battle for it. Following the success of the March 14 forces in expelling Syrian troops and the rise of the pro-sovereignty government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, the U.S. and our allies engaged in diplomatic trench warfare against Iran and Syria for the future of Lebanon. U.S. support for Lebanese democrats from 2005-2008 included a steady stream of Lebanese visits to the White House and U.S. visits to Lebanon, increasing U.S. economic and security support for the Lebanese government, and U.N. Security Council resolutions and other measures designed to safeguard Lebanese sovereignty and beat back efforts by Iran and Syria to reassert control.
As Washington’s focus in the Middle East shifted more squarely to the pursuit of an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement, however, the U.S. took a different approach to Lebanon. U.S. rhetoric changed little, assistance increased, and visits (including a particularly successful one in 2009 by Vice President Biden) continued, albeit at a slower pace. But Lebanon tumbled down Washington’s list of foreign policy priorities, and support for Lebanon was subordinated to the Israeli-Palestinian issue. For the Obama administration, making progress on Middle East peace meant improving relations with Assad. Assad’s support was seen as vital for bolstering Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas against his Hamas rivals, who were nurtured and hosted by Damascus. It was also seen as important to the administration’s ambitions of achieving a “comprehensive” peace between Israel and all of its neighbors.
Ironically, therefore, pursuing statehood for Palestinians meant putting aside Lebanese sovereignty, as Assad could not be placated as long as the U.S. campaign to counter Syrian aims in the country continued. Ultimately, the new U.S. policy has proven futile — no progress has been made toward Israeli-Palestinian peace, and the man whom Washington hoped would help them achieve it is on a seemingly inexorable trajectory toward history’s dustbin. Many lessons can be taken from this experience, but the most important for Washington in dealing with today’s Middle East relates to democracy, whether Palestinian, Lebanese, Egyptian, or Tunisian. We cannot build democracy through shortcuts, Faustian bargains, or wishful thinking about extremists and their patrons. We must engage in a long, determined slog to build institutions and defend democrats against those determined to thwart them.
For Lebanon, it is not too late for the U.S. to learn these lessons and change course. While the cabinet has been formed, it still may crumble if it cannot agree on a common platform and secure parliamentary approval for it. If the cabinet holds together, it is unlikely that U.S. assistance to the Lebanese state can continue, with Hezbollah in control and the Interior Ministry and the Defense Ministry both in unfriendly hands. But the U.S. can continue to assist Lebanon by supporting those who are struggling for its freedom and sovereignty, interdicting Iranian support for Hezbollah and bringing to account the perpetrators of the Hariri assassination, and pressing for the international isolation of the Assad regime in Syria. Doing so will send the message not only to Lebanon, but to Arab democrats across the region, that democracy is not democracy without the freedom, rights, and values that imbue it with its unparalleled resilience and vitality.
Michael Singh is managing director of The Washington Institute and a former senior director for Middle East affairs at the National Security Council.