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
But times have changed, and in the age of Twitter, Facebook,
and YouTube, agitation has gone online and epicenters have become
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 :
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.
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.
also what has been happening in Iran, albeit in a different way.
EQUIVALENT of Taksim Square was not last week’s presidential election, but the
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.