Can something worthy emerge from the trash in Lebanon?

“You stink”… It’s a civil society campaign that perfectly describes popular frustration over the rotten nature of politics. For over a week, street demonstrations have been taking place in Lebanon. What drove over 20,000 people to take to the streets was the failure of the government to effect a solution to Beirut’s garbage disposal problem.

Since 1997, solid waste has been collected in the Naameh landfill to the south of Beirut. The facility, which was filled beyond capacity, was set to be closed in July. However, the government not only failed to open a new landfill for garbage disposal, but also terminated the contract with Sukleen – an outsourced private company in charge of collecting the waste. Consequently, the Lebanese have been dealt the misfortune of watching the trash pile up on their doorstep, rotting in the summer heat. As a stop-gap solution, municipal authorities sought to burn some of the trash, but this only served to create a toxic smoke that added a bit of extra spice to the already unbearable smell and associated pests.

In the end, anger and frustration arising from the incompetence of the government to deliver even the most basic services sent people pouring onto the streets. The movement of #YouStink, which was initiated as a social media campaign, largely by young middle class Lebanese, succeeded in making the garbage crisis a front-page story.

In fact, it was the first time since the Cedar Revolution in 2005 that Lebanese people managed to cross sectarian divides and unite against a corrupt government. However, peaceful demonstrations soon turned violent as a number of provocateurs infiltrated the crowd and clashed with police. Security forces responded with tear gas, water cannon and rubber bullets. Dozens were injured while over 80 people were arrested. The heavy crackdown on protestors further strengthened the resistance until Hezbollah waded into the battle last Tuesday in an attempt to hijack the political discourse.

Mark Daou, a spokesman of the #YouStink campaign, says that that the movement is fighting for decent living standards and a functioning government. Indeed, Lebanese people have many problems aside from the garbage issue, such as electricity cuts, a malfunctioning internet, water scarcity and so on. However, the deadlock in the decision-making process prevents the government from dealing with the issues. What lies beneath the discord is in fact a systemic crisis.

Lebanon is governed by a confessional system based on the representation of various religious and sects (such as Sunnis, Shiites, Maronites, Greek Orthodox, Druze and more) in parliament according to quotas. Based on a power-sharing formula spelled out in the Taif Agreement of 1989 to end the country’s civil war, the presidential post is reserved for a Christian, the prime minister is elected from among the Sunnicommunity and the head of parliament has to be a Shiite. In addition, government decisions require a two-thirds majority in parliament, which enables rival political camps to easily block the system without endangering their privileged positions.

As for the paralyzed domestic political context, parliament has failed to elect a president for over a year. The post has been vacant since Michel Suleiman stepped down on May 25 last year. Parliament’s term had been extended twice because lawmakers could not agree on a new electoral law. Some argue that they should elect the president before the elections. Worse, cabinet cannot convene due to boycotts by competing parties.

“There is neither a functioning system nor a government in Lebanon,” says Joseph Bahout, a Lebanese expert from the Carnegie Endowment for Peace. “People are calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Tammam Salam. OK, but who is going to replace this government? A military regime just like in Egypt? Or will Hezbollah take over?”

According to Bahout, Hezbollah is responsible for the violent tone of the demonstrations. In fact, a month ago, Hezbollah leader Hasan Nasrallah renewed his support for Michel Aoun, the leader of the Free Patriotic Movement, for the Lebanese presidency. Last Tuesday, Hezbollah issued a statement, supporting peaceful protests against “endemic corruption,” even calling it a legitimate right. Hezbollah’s move, in conjunction with claims that the infiltrators among the protestors appeared to be Shiites, is perceived as an attempt to derive political profit from popular discontent against the government. Many Lebanese are said to be pulling out of the rallies following the group’s statement.

Derailing the demonstrations by attempting to redirect its goals poses a serious risk for Lebanese people, who still vividly remember the civil war that lasted for 15 years. Considering domestic structural constraints, as well as the regional dynamics surrounding Lebanon, it is not realistic to expect the #YouStink movement to lead to a revolution. However, the way legitimate demands are expressed through civil protests point at a growing consciousness taking root in the society. If the politicians want to remain their seats, they will have to find a way to achieve political reconciliation.

If they manage to overcome their self-interests at least this time, it would be an accomplishment by Middle Eastern standards.

Conquering Aleppo?

After weeks of intense negotiations, Ankara and Washington have finally finalized a deal to open the İncirlik Airbase to planes in the war against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Following the agreement reached last month, Turkey and the United States – for the first time – launched manned airstrikes against ISIL in Syria last Wednesday. However, on the issue of a “safe zone,” which Turkey has been insistently seeking since the outbreak of the civil war in Syria, the allies still seem to be far from agreeing to a clear framework.

Contradictory statements from both sides with respect to details indicate that despite Turkey’s decision to join the anti-ISIL coalition, the U.S. and Turkey are still pursuing conflicting goals and strategies in Syria. The U.S. administration’s consistent refusal to establish a safe zone contradicts the recent mobilization of rebel groups in the area. Turkish authorities either seem to have negotiated a deal behind the scenes or appear to be going it alone on the plan. Either way, the establishment of a buffer zone along its border – whether defined as a demilitarized safe zone or framed as an ISIL-free zone – presents the real risk that Turkey may also get sucked into the Syrian mire.

According to recent remarks by Undersecretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Feridun Sinirlioğlu, Ankara has demanded that the ISIL-free zone be barred to Democratic Union Party (PYD) forces as well, which obviously puts the U.S. administration in a very difficult position, since the PYD is prominent as the only credible land force in Syria and has been cooperating with the U.S. in combating ISIL.

However, Turkey continues to see the PYD as just as dangerous as – or even more dangerous than – ISIL. This threat perception is unlikely to change due to Turkey’s unpleasant memories from the first Gulf War. The U.S. military support for the PYD (an offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party – PKK) in Kobane, as well as in its takeover of Tal Abyad, awakened past traumas for Turkey pertaining to the establishment of Kurdistan in Northern Iraq with the U.S.-led enforcement of no-fly zones in the early 1990s. The reason why Turkey has tenaciously pushed for this safe zone plan today is not only to relieve itself of the burden of some of the 1.9 million Syrian refugees now calling Turkey home but also to prevent the establishment of a Syrian Kurdistan along its border with the PYD’s further expansion to the west of the Euphrates River, a move that would unite the three cantons of Rojava.

Whether or not the U.S. and Turkey have agreed on the establishment of a safe zone, there has been a considerable increase in the activities of opposition forces on the ground, pointing to the emergence of a de facto safe zone. Al-Nusra pulled back to the north of Aleppo following a dramatic declaration which stated that it opposed the idea of fighting on the same side as imperial powers, even though they were all fighting against the same enemy. Meanwhile, Ahrar al-Sham and Turkmen brigades have also marched into the area that is slated to become part of the safe zone.

The crucial point regarding the enforcement of the safe zone is how security in the area, designated as a humanitarian corridor, will be maintained after ISIL is entirely removed from the region. It is a conundrum as to whether refugees will agree to move to the safe zone in the first place unless they feel safe enough – to say nothing about issues related to the area’s administration or the coordination of policing. By definition, a safe zone must maintain its neutrality in a military conflict, but the positioning of armed opposition groups in the safe zone is likely to turn the area into a prime target.

Claims that Turkish military forces on Aug. 10 entered the planned zone in Syria via the Öncüpınar/Bab al-Salameh border crossing along with the Sultan Murat Brigade, which is composed of Turkmens, presents a worrying picture, especially when taken in conjunction with pro-government media headlines that cheerfully proclaimed Aleppo as the 82nd province of Turkey. The Turkmen card, which Turkey saves for rainy days as a foreign policy option, is on the table once again – something that is not surprising when nationalist sentiments are also on the rise. The perils of this political gamble loom large: Any attack against our Turkmen brothers in the safe zone could easily spark a military clash and drag Turkey into war.

Turkey has long been the target of criticism for failing to protect its borders against ISIL. Therefore, Turkey’s decision to actively join the anti-ISIL coalition was welcomed as a move that would mend and strengthen relations with the West. However, the fact that Turkey’s air campaign – initiated after the July 20 terrorist attack in Suruç that killed 33 activists – concentrated largely on the PKK instead of ISIL created disappointment on the U.S. side, undermining mutual trust. Critics argue that the Turkish government is now using ISIL as a pretext to fight the Kurds.

For Syria, there is no hope of maintaining its unitary status. As the diplomatic bargaining over dividing what is left of Syria among the parties continues at full speed, Turkey is understandably seeking to carve out a buffer zone to protect its interests. However, this buffer zone runs the risk of inviting violence to spread to Turkish soil instead.

In the end, do we really want to fight for an 82nd province?

After Gezi

Two years later, Gezi protests continue to shape Turkish politics. Not unlike other political movements, the Gezi protests created competing narratives in an effort to give a meaning to what happened that fateful May.
For some, the protests signified a civil resistance against state oppression, while, for others, it was an international plot with local collaborators, a failed attempt to topple the government. In retrospect, the socio-political foundations of the project of “New Turkey” were laid during the Gezi movement as the then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan put forward his ideal of building a conservative society, which would stand on the shoulders of “pious youth.” Gezi, in this respect, signifies a point of divergence between alternative visions for the future of Turkey.

Following the protests, the government responded with a series of policies to consolidate its power, regardless of criticisms against an increasingly authoritarian rule. Various measures were taken in order to prevent the outbreak of similar demonstrations in the future such as upgrading the police force and the passing of security laws, which nearly abolished the right to demonstrate. Besides, mounting pressure on the media served to create loyalty by tightening the government’s grip over civil society.

Considering vivid memories of military interventions, e-coups, and party banning cases of the past, the spectacle of the protests caused the Justice and Development Party (AKP) to relieve its past traumas. The government saw the movement as a threat right from the start and therefore, acted upon statist impulses and tried to crush it without questioning its underlying causes. Looking back in time, had the AKP government taken environmental demands seriously and held out an olive branch to protestors, we wouldn’t have had young people killed or wounded; instead, we could have had a democracy park in Taksim today. Gezi was, in a way, a missed opportunity to embrace differences and thereby strengthen the basis of democratic rule.

Yet, compromise was mistaken for weakness and power was equated with force. The more the government held onto a divisive rhetoric in the form of us (loyalists) vs. them (traitors), the more political tensions escalated, which was clear evidence that the diagnosis was wrong, as was the cure.

The movement started as an environmental protest and turned into a revolt against the authoritarian leadership, particularly against the state’s meddling with private affairs of individuals. Gezi manifested in many ways that the tools of conventional governance were inadequate in terms of meeting liberal democratic demands of the society. The opposition, which the government defied as “marginal,” was new in the sense that it rejected tutelage originating from any political party. Mocking the hypocrisy of politics itself, this new opposition derived its power from humor instead. Interestingly enough, about 60 percent of the protestors were between the ages of 20 and 30, representing the so-called de-politicized generation, who were born after the 1980 coup and brought up in an environment where political activism was severely discouraged. However, the disproportionate use of force against the unarmed protestors led people to overcome fear and take to the streets. Defending the park constituted a common cause and therefore, established solidarity among people holding different political views.

The Gezi protests, which spread all across Turkey, were above all, a manifestation of public demands for a pluralist and inclusive democratic system. There was obviously a need for a new social contract. However, the government’s idea of “new” was far from compatible with what the supporters of Gezi promoted. As publicized towards the presidential elections of 2014, the project of “New Turkey” offered to bridge the gap between the state and the society, making up for 200 years of the cultural alienation of the pious masses. Yet, the definition of society did not include the opposition that had emerged with Gezi. The project of New Turkey seemed more of a design to transform non-conformers in the society to fit in the images of that ideal citizen.

As the elections near, Turkey is coming to a crossroads. The outcome of the elections is likely to determine which of the alternative versions of the New Turkey will win. The critics, who often argue that Gezi led to a dead end, fail to see the sea change in society, reflected onto the messages delivered by the opposition. Perhaps the key to emancipation is hidden in old graffiti written on the walls of the Gezi Park, which said: “Neither revolution, nor the rule of Sharia, but only respect.”

Jewish people in Turkey eyeing move to Spain: NYT

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Many Sephardic Jews in Turkey are now applying for Spanish citizenship in anticipation of a parliamentary bill expected to pass this month in Madrid, which would grant nationality to Jewish people who were expelled in 1492, during the Inquisition, according to a report by the New York Times on May 27.

“There are many reasons to leave, a lack of work opportunities, growing polarization within society and oppressive leadership. But the hatred toward our community has been the tipping point for me,” the U.S. newspaper quoted Rafi, 25, a graphic designer based in Istanbul, as saying.Rafi provided only his first name out of fear of harassment by Turkish nationalists, the NYT said. “There is no future here,” he was quoted as saying.

“Most are seeking visa-free travel within Europe and an opportunity to escape what they see as rising anti-Semitism in Turkey,” the newspaper said.

The NYT also quoted Selin Nasi, a columnist for Jewish weekly Salom, who said Turkey had taken some positive symbolic steps to improve relations with Jews.

“If anything, our community has been embraced and respected,” said Leon Ennekave, 70, the president of the Bursa Jewish Foundation in the northwestern province, as quoted by the NYT.

Renovated synagogue empty after reopening as it lacks community

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Members of Turkey’s Jewish community attend the reopening ceremony of the Great Synagogue in Edirne on March 26 after a five-year government restoration project. REUTERS Photo

Just a week before Passover, Turkish Jews woke up to a morning full of excitement and hope. They got on the buses waiting to take them to Edirne, to the city that their families once had to leave following the Thrace pogroms in 1934. It was the reopening day of the Great Synagogue, which had been left in ruins for decades.

“I was the last rabbi that had served in the synagogue,” said David Azuz. “The last time I opened the doors was back in 1969.”

Now, after decades, the first sermon was going to take place. Yet, sadly enough, the next day silence would fall all over the temple again since there was no longer a Jewish community living in Edirne to gather for prayers.

As the largest Jewish temple in the Balkans and the third largest in Europe, the Great Synagogue looked like it did in its glory days with sublime domes, painted in sunshades of yellow, after five years of restoration. The cost of the project undertaken by the Directorate General of Foundations was an estimated 3.7 million dollars. Devamı…