In Turkey, the crackdown on anti-government protesters has begun

The Turkish government’s spin doctors have linked the recent protests to cyber attacks and historical cases of secular dissent to silence anti-government demonstrators.

The latest joke among members of the Turkish protest movement is that they are “soldiers of the intergalactic coup lobby”. But it’s not just for fun; their humour is a response to what the Turkish government’s spin doctors are saying about the protesters, whose camps in Istanbul and elsewhere have been cleared forcibly by police in the past few weeks.

When the spin doctors claimed that Turkey was about to face a cyber attack, and that the anti-government demonstrations were linked to it, the protesters had no option but to mock their reasoning. But the government’s response is becoming increasingly sophisticated – and it’s not all so easy to laugh off.

“There are the names of nine illegal organisations in my criminal charge, Your Honour. Are you going to pick one for me or am I supposed to choose?” Those were the words of one young protester hauled before a court last month. Since protests began at the end of May – initially over the destruction of Gezi Park in Taksim Square but soon spreading from Istanbul to the rest of the country – thousands of people have been arrested. The charges vary from “joining illegal demonstrations” to “being a member of a terrorist organisation”. The justice system, which in Turkey is politicised, has increased the pressure on demonstrators.

On 22 June the government announced that prosecutors will link the protests to “Sledgehammer”, an alleged secularist coup plot that dates back to 2003 and has led since then to the prosecution of thousands of army personnel. Linking the 2013 protests to this case – even though both secularists and islamists were on the streets to voice their discontent with the Erdogan government – is a way to discredit the movement. Similarly politicised cases have been used to silence secular politicians and Kurdish activists over the past ten years.

While some protesters are brought before judges, others face physical violence. Since the protest camps were cleared, activists have been meeting in public parks in Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir in the evenings to discuss what they have been through and how the action should continue.

Recently three of these forums have been attacked by young, government-supporting thugs who then took to Twitter to declare that they were proud of what they had done. They operate with sticks and knives, and preferably in dark alleys. Somehow, the police seem unable to stop them. Elsewhere, vocal critics of the government, including myself, have been singled out by establishment newspapers, or by supporters of the governing Justice and Development (AK) Party, as “provocateurs”.

Clumsy indictments and the intergalactic coup lobby can be regarded as a joke. But as the days pass, we’re not sure how much longer we’ll be able to carry on laughing.

Ece Temelkuran is a novelist and political commentator based in Istanbul

Demonstrators with flares in the port city of Izmir, western Turkey. Photograph: Reuters

This article first appeared in the 08 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The world takes sides

FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty Images
Show Hide image

Under pressure at home, Donald Trump will struggle to deliver what Saudi Arabia wants

Above all, the Gulf states want stability. Can this beleaguered US president bring order?

There is a nervous energy around Riyadh. Fresh palm trees line the roads from the airport, punctuated by a wall of American flags and corporate slogans: “Together we prevail.” All the street lights are suddenly working.

The visit of any American president is always a lavish affair in Saudi Arabia, but there is an optimism to this visit that evaded the Obama years and even the recent visits of Theresa May and Angela Merkel.

Yet, there are two distinct parts to this trip – Trump’s first overseas engagement as president – that will determine its success. The first is relatively straightforward. Trump will sign huge defence contracts worth billions of dollars and offer trading opportunities that allow him to maintain his narrative of economic renewal for American businesses.

For the Saudis, too, these deals will fit into their ambitious project – known as Vision 2030 – to expand and diversify their economy away from its current dependence on oil revenues. Both parties are comfortable with this type of corporate and transactional government, enjoying the gaudy pomp and ceremony that comes with the signing of newly minted deals.

The more complicated aspects of the trip relate to its political dimensions. As the Middle East continues to convulse under the most significant turmoil to envelope it since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, what Gulf leaders desperately want is the re-establishment of order. At its core, that is what will define Donald Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia – and the Saudis are optimistic.

Their buoyancy is borne of shared regional interests, not least curbing Iranian influence. Ever since the Arab uprisings in 2011, Tehran has asserted itself across the Levant by organising hundreds of proxies to fight on its behalf in Syria and Iraq. Closer to home, too, the Gulf states accuse Iran of fomenting unrest within Shia communities in Saudi Arabia’s eastern provinces, in Bahrain, and in Yemen.

All of this has left the House of Saud feeling especially vulnerable. Having enjoyed an American security umbrella since the 1970s, Obama’s pursuit of the Iran deal left them feeling particularly exposed.

In part at least, this explains some of the Kingdom’s more frantic actions at home and abroad – including the execution of prominent Shia cleric, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, and the war in Yemen. Both are really about posturing to Iran: projecting power and demonstrating Saudi resolve.

Trump shares these concerns over Iranian influence, is prepared to look the other way on Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, and is deeply opposed to Obama’s nuclear deal. Riyadh believes he will restore the status quo and is encouraged by the direction of travel.

Just last month Trump commissioned a review of the Iran deal while the US Treasury imposed sanctions on two Iranian officials. Saudi Arabia also welcomed Trump’s decision to launch cruise missiles against a Syrian military base last month after Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons in the town of Khan Sheikhoun.

These measures have been largely tokenistic, but their broader impact has been very significant. The Saudis, and their Gulf partners more generally, feel greatly reassured. This is an American presence in the region that is aligned to their interests, that they know well and can manage.

That is why Gulf states have rushed to embrace the new president ever since he first entered the Oval Office. Saudi Arabia’s deputy crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman (colloquially known simply as “MBS”), already visited him in Washington earlier this year. The Emiratis and others followed shortly afterwards.

A spokesman for Mohammed bin Salman later described the meeting with Trump as an “historical turning point” in relations between the two countries. A White House readout of the meeting baldly stated: “The President and the deputy crown prince noted the importance of confronting Iran's destabilising regional activities.”

Now that Trump is visiting them, the Saudis are hoping to broker an even broader series of engagements between the current administration and the Islamic world. To that end, they are bringing 24 different Muslim leaders to Saudi Arabia for this visit.

This is where Trump’s visit is likely to be fraught because he plans to deliver a major speech about Islam during his visit – a move that has seemingly no positives associated with it.

There is a lot of interest (and bemusement) from ordinary Saudis about what Trump will actually say. Most are willing to look beyond his divisive campaign rhetoric – he did, after all, declare “I think Islam hates us” – and listen to him in Riyadh. But what can he say?

Either he will indulge his audience by describing Islam as a great civilisation, thereby angering much of his political base; or he will stick to the deeply hostile rhetoric of his campaign.

There is, of course, room for an informed, careful, and nuanced speech to be made on the topic, but these are not adjectives commonly associated with Donald Trump. Indeed, the pressure is on.

He will be on the road for nine days at a time when pressure is building over the sacking of the former FBI director James Comey and the ongoing investigation into former national security advisor Michael Flynn’s contacts with Russia.

It is already being reported that Trump is not entirely enthusiastic about such a long overseas programme, but he is committed now. As with almost everything concerning his presidency, this extra pressure adds a wild air of unpredictability to what could happen.

Away from the lucrative deals and glad-handing, this will be the real standard by which to measure the success of Trump’s visit. For a relationship principally defined by its pursuit of stability, whether Trump can deliver what the Gulf really wants remains to be seen.

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a senior research fellow at King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.

0800 7318496