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

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Qatar is determined to stand up to its Gulf neighbours – but at what price?

The tensions date back to the maverick rule of Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani.

For much of the two decades plus since Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani deposed his father to become emir of Qatar, the tiny gas-rich emirate’s foreign policy has been built around two guiding principles: differentiating itself from its Gulf neighbours, particularly the regional Arab hegemon Saudi Arabia, and insulating itself from Saudi influence. Over the past two months, Hamad’s strategy has been put to the test. From a Qatari perspective it has paid off. But at what cost?

When Hamad became emir in 1995, he instantly ruffled feathers. He walked out of a meeting of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) because, he believed, Saudi Arabia had jumped the queue to take on the council’s rotating presidency. Hamad also spurned the offer of mediation from the then-President of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan. This further angered his neighbours, who began making public overtures towards Khalifa, the deposed emir, who was soon in Abu Dhabi and promising a swift return to power in Doha. In 1996, Hamad accused Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE of sponsoring a coup attempt against Hamad, bringing GCC relations to a then-all-time low.

Read more: How to end the stand off in the Gulf

The spat was ultimately resolved, as were a series of border and territory disputes between Qatar, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, but mistrust of Hamad - and vice versa - has lingered ever since. As crown prince, Hamad and his key ally Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani had pushed for Qatar to throw off what they saw as the yoke of Saudi dominance in the Gulf, in part by developing the country’s huge gas reserves and exporting liquefied gas on ships, rather than through pipelines that ran through neighbouring states. Doing so freed Qatar from the influence of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries, the Saudi-dominated oil cartel which sets oil output levels and tries to set oil market prices, but does not have a say on gas production. It also helped the country avoid entering into a mooted GCC-wide gas network that would have seen its neighbours control transport links or dictate the – likely low - price for its main natural resource.

Qatar has since become the richest per-capita country in the world. Hamad invested the windfall in soft power, building the Al Jazeera media network and spending freely in developing and conflict-afflicted countries. By developing its gas resources in joint venture with Western firms including the US’s Exxon Mobil and France’s Total, it has created important relationships with senior officials in those countries. Its decision to house a major US military base – the Al Udeid facility is the largest American base in the Middle East, and is crucial to US military efforts in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan – Qatar has made itself an important partner to a major Western power. Turkey, a regional ally, has also built a military base in Qatar.

Hamad and Hamad bin Jassem also worked to place themselves as mediators in a range of conflicts in Sudan, Somalia and Yemen and beyond, and as a base for exiled dissidents. They sold Qatar as a promoter of dialogue and tolerance, although there is an open question as to whether this attitude extends to Qatar itself. The country, much like its neighbours, is still an absolute monarchy in which there is little in the way of real free speech or space for dissent. Qatar’s critics, meanwhile, argue that its claims to promote human rights and free speech really boil down to an attempt to empower the Muslim Brotherhood. Doha funded Muslim Brotherhood-linked groups during and after the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011, while Al Jazeera cheerleaded protest movements, much to the chagrin of Qatar's neighbours. They see the group as a powerful threat to their dynastic rule and argue that the Brotherhood is a “gateway drug” to jihadism. In 2013,  after Western allies became concerned that Qatar had inadvertently funded jihadist groups in Libya and Syria, Hamad was forced to step down in favour of his son Tamim. Soon, Tamim came under pressure from Qatar’s neighbours to rein in his father’s maverick policies.

Today, Qatar has a high degree of economic independence from its neighbours and powerful friends abroad. Officials in Doha reckon that this should be enough to stave off the advances of the “Quad” of countries – Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE - that have been trying to isolate the emirate since June. They have been doing this by cutting off diplomatic and trade ties, and labelling Qatar a state sponsor of terror groups. For the Quad, the aim is to end what it sees as Qatar’s disruptive presence in the region. For officials in Doha, it is an attempt to impinge on the country’s sovereignty and turn Qatar into a vassal state. So far, the strategies put in place by Hamad to insure Qatar from regional pressure have paid off. But how long can this last?

Qatar’s Western allies are also Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s. Thus far, they have been paralysed by indecision over the standoff, and after failed mediation attempts have decided to leave the task of resolving what they see as a “family affair” to the Emir of Kuwait, Sabah al-Sabah. As long as the Quad limits itself to economic and diplomatic attacks, they are unlikely to pick a side. It is by no means clear they would side with Doha in a pinch (President Trump, in defiance of the US foreign policy establishment, has made his feelings clear on the issue). Although accusations that Qatar sponsors extremists are no more true than similar charges made against Saudi Arabia or Kuwait – sympathetic local populations and lax banking regulations tend to be the major issue – few Western politicians want to be seen backing an ally, that in turn many diplomats see as backing multiple horses.

Meanwhile, although Qatar is a rich country, the standoff is hurting its economy. Reuters reports that there are concerns that the country’s massive $300bn in foreign assets might not be as liquid as many assume. This means that although it has plenty of money abroad, it could face a cash crunch if the crisis rolls on.

Qatar might not like its neighbours, but it can’t simply cut itself off from the Gulf and float on to a new location. At some point, there will need to be a resolution. But with the Quad seemingly happy with the current status quo, and Hamad’s insurance policies paying off, a solution looks some way off.