Leaders in Arab states face new 'people power'

Anti-gov't dissent forcing Cairo, Tehran, Ankara to look inward; Taksim square represents a clash of wills and generations.

June 22, 2013 11:55
People sleep at Taksim Square, June 10, 2013

Taksim Square protesters370. (photo credit: Reuters)

As sanitation workers descended Sunday on Istanbul’s newly emptied Taksim Square, the debris, barricades, gas canisters and burned vehicles they faced loomed as monuments to a clash of wills and generations – not only in Istanbul, but also in Cairo and Tehran, which between them are witnessing the slow emergence of a “New Middle East.”

The Turkish decision to storm the protesters after several weeks of collisions with police seemed inspired by the assault on Beijing’s Tiananmen Square 24 years ago. The Turks, unlike the Chinese in their time, were wise enough to avoid firing live bullets into the crowds, but like the Chinese they assumed that if dealt a surgical and decisive blow at its epicenter, the unrest would be quelled and soon forgotten.

But times have changed, and in the age of Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube, agitation has gone online and epicenters have become elusive.

In Taksim, the police’s painstaking crackdown on the unrest quickly produced it in other places, from Ankara to Izmir. Soon enough, demonstrators were back in the square, resorting to new methods and giving rise to new heroes – like artist Erdem Gunduz, whose silent stand-still vigil there inspired others to emulate him. His image instantaneously flooded social media, where he came to be hailed as “the standing man.”

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose attitude toward the demonstrators was generally confrontational and demeaning, then emerged as he was not seen once during an 11-year incumbency highlighted by three electoral victories : aloof.

Meanwhile, p o l i t i c a l tremors were also felt in Tehran and Cairo, making the search for an epicenter even more cryptic than it already was. What, then, is going on? MUCH HAS BEEN SAID in recent years about the gradual unraveling of Erdogan’s “zero problems with neighbors” diplomacy.

That strategy, which sought reconciliations with regional adversaries from Greece, Cyprus and Bulgaria to Syria, Iran and Iraq, has since become a farce. The much-heralded rapprochement with Armenia has faltered, the Cypriot schism is alive and well, Syria is a full-time enemy and Iran is that enemy’s patron. Add to these the squandering of Israel’s friendship and the growing tensions over Syria with Russia, Turkey’s historic archenemy, and you get an entanglement of conflicts more complex, varied and explosive than anything Turkey has faced since World War I.

Now, not only has Ankara’s diplomacy deteriorated into what can be titled “zero neighbors without problems,” Turkey has also lost its last peaceful front, the home front.

E r d o g a n ’ s attempt to ascribe the pressure he faces from within to meddling from abroad only underscored his frustration in the face of an attack he failed to foresee, assess and contain. It now is clear that the environmentalist cause that touched off the riots in Istanbul, where Erdogan planned to impose a real estate development on one of the city’s last green lungs, was but a pretext.

What really drove thousands to the streets was a growing sense of political suffocation in the face of an Islamist regime, which had steadily hammered at freedom by arresting journalists, framing generals and conquering the judiciary while steadily imposing Islamist-inspired change, from banning beer ads to wrapping female flight attendants in maxigowns and funny hats.

In short, after having established himself as the only game in town, Erdogan finds himself challenged by a people power that he is doubtfully equipped to accommodate.

This is also what has been happening in Iran, albeit in a different way.

IRAN’S EQUIVALENT of Taksim Square was not last week’s presidential election, but the previous election.

Back in ’09, faced with mass rallies that demanded reforms and implicitly challenged his leadership, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei responded by rigging the election, clubbing demonstrators, arresting thousands and obstructing Internet access.

That unconcealed sense of insecurity multiplied two years later, when Arab regimes collapsed under street pressure and popular Iranian politicians were placed under house arrest, where they remain to this day.

Last week’s presidential election, both in its engineering and in its results, was an extension of this shadow war between a regime that knows it has lost the people’s trust, and a public whose potential eruption is a constant threat that the regime fears more than anything else.

It was this fear of people power that made Khamenei disqualify even the presidential candidacy of an establishment septuagenarian like Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, and it was this popular anger that made the public pick from a shortlist of Khamenei’s darlings the one least agreeable to him.

The president-elect, Hassan Rohani, is apparently neither authorized nor motivated to steer Iran in a new direction. On the contrary, his task, as far as the regime is concerned, is to give the Islamic Republic a nicer face while it continues provoking its people, their neighbors and the entire international system.

Yet Rohani will be hearing one way or another from the people, who now expect him to deliver on his wishful promises to defeat hyperinflation, create jobs, release political prisoners and retrain the modesty police that harass women pedestrians.

Rohani will try to satisfy the public with minimal prisoner releases and slight improvements on freedom of expression, only to learn that on the most pressing front, the economy, nothing will be effective as long as sanctions remain in effect – and the sanctions will not be removed unless Khamenei changes his skin.

That is why the people power that in recent weeks erupted in Istanbul will continue building in Tehran, and will constitute the regime’s main concern.

MEANWHILE, down by the Nile, President Mohamed Morsi’s opponents are preparing to mark his election’s first anniversary next weekend with mass demonstrations that, they promise, will rock Cairo and unseat its first democratically elected president.

Riots already broke out this week in several places including Alexandria and Fayoum, reportedly resulting in dozens of injuries, while opposition activists claimed they gathered 15 million signatures for a petition to hold early elections.

The gathering commotion has produced conflicting fatwas, with some Islamist clerics categorizing the protesters as infidels and thus potentially letting their blood, while al-Azhar Mosque’s Grand Imam Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb ruled the demonstrations legitimate, as did Coptic Pope Tawadros II.

The Egyptian people power indeed pits Islamists against secularists and Muslims against Christians, but above all it pits have-nots against have-nothings, reflecting a deep sense of despair in the face of the country’s deteriorating destitution.

Having been elected by a narrow majority that included non-Islamists who were prepared to give the Muslim Brotherhood a chance, it now is clear that Morsi and his movement, despite having had years to prepare for this moment, reached power with no contingency plans.

Morsi has introduced no economic reforms and done little other than muddle through, while foreign currency reserves have dwindled to several months’ worth of imports, fuel shortages and power outages have become routine, and street safety has become an oxymoron.

Just what kind of unrest will be visited upon Egypt remains to be seen. With Islamists promising to hold pro-Morsi demonstrations parallel to those organized by his opponents, next week’s prospective unrest might result in the army’s intervention, which in turn might be followed by its intervention in the political process.

Egypt, in short, is approaching a political boiling point that might make Turkey’s unrest seem like child play.

BETWEEN THEM, Turkey, Iran and Egypt shape the Middle East. Yet the three have seldom been on the same page simultaneously, as they hail from different civilizations, speak different languages, share no ethnic background, face three different continents, and have different economies, climates and landscapes.

Even so, once the Iranian Revolution was followed by Islamist victories in Turkey and Egypt, a new common denominator seemed to emerge between them, one that could potentially produce new cooperation, in the spirit of Turkey’s thinly veiled hopes to usher in a new Middle Eastern era of faith, business and regionalism.

Now the same people power that originally fueled the Islamists’ ascent is feeding anti-government dissent.

Middle Eastern politics, once the exclusive lot of generalissimos, kinglings, aristocrats and clerics, is being wrested by the people with growing aggressiveness.

This is not quite the free, integrated, tolerant and business-minded “New Middle East” that President Shimon Peres prophesied two decades ago, but it is one where governments are increasingly compelled to look inward, listen to the public, dialogue with adversaries and focus on delivering prosperity, mobility, hope and respect. The more this trend will develop, the more Middle Eastern leaders will deal with domestic policy and the more they will lose interest in foreign affairs.

This may not be a panacea, but it will be better than what preceded it, and it will in fact be good for everyone: the people, their leaders, and their neighbors – including the Jewish state.

Related Content

Supreme Court President Asher Grunis
August 28, 2014
Grapevine: September significance