Friday, November 7, 2014

A cop on every corner

The morning after the removal of Morsi from power, I was astounded to walk down from my flat and see a white-uniformed police officer. After about a year and a half in Egypt, I could not recall seeing one before. As I walked to the gym, I was taken aback by how many there were now—not just one but a handful. Also some APCs, but that was a different issue. Citizens were going up to the officers, shaking their hands, thanking them for their service, and celebrating the ousting of the erstwhile president.

Today, over a year later, the police are still on the street. In recent months, there has been an uptick in checkpoints in and around Cairo. From my house to a location about twenty minutes away, I was stopped at two checkpoints. These checkpoints are often in the middle of busy streets, in the middle of rush hour. Traffic, already jammed, stops. What are they checking for? Ostensibly, terrorists. Since Morsi was removed from office, Egypt has experienced a wave of bombings and armed attacks, mostly aimed against members of the uniformed services. But there’s a sense of unease whenever I have approached a checkpoint, whether I am with a foreigner or an Egyptian.

On the ground, it feels like these checkpoints are aimed at you. You drive up and you get scared. What do I have on my phone? What do I have in my purse? It’s a similar feeling whenever I go through any kind of airport security here. One guy a few months ago was arrested for possessing a drone—a motorized helicopter toy for his kid. There are many stories like this, and after hearing them over and over, you realize it only takes one guy who decides your two laptops mean you’re a spy and ma’salama, hope you enjoy Egyptian prison.

When I first arrived in the early summer of 2011, I was at a grocery store and a policeman tried to cut in line. All the people behind him said absolutely not, you go back in line. He did. Hard to think that would happen now. Because the checkpoints are a show of force, a sign that we’re back to business as usual.

A few months ago, there was a break in in one of the apartments in my building. The victim of the theft, a diplomat at the Russian Embassy, hired plainclothes police to find out what happened (because, of course, regular police can’t do it). For days, random men sat in the lobby. One day, some random guy came up to me and asked who I was, what I was doing here, am I registered to be here, and wanted to see my passport. Random Egyptian man with no uniform—absolutely not. I asked to see his badge, which he did not show to me. He told me he was police only. He followed me into the elevator and rode with me to my apartment. He kept on asking these questions—and only of me, not of my fellow elevator passenger, an Egyptian. Not wanting to get my roommates involved, I gave him a photocopy of the passport when we got to my door, hoping that would be enough. Twenty minutes later, he and four other large, plainclothes men came to my apartment and rang the doorbell. Absolutely did not answer it—never would I answer the door with five strange men standing outside. But they stayed for a long time, kept on knocking on the door. It was threatening, and in no way would it ever be acceptable for five strange Egyptian men to go into a girl’s apartment. My roommate said they were just doing it to scare me—and it damned well did. I messaged my journalist friend who I was supposed to meet for dinner that if I don’t show up, he should write a story about how these guys were sitting outside my apartment. Only half-joking.

During the Mubarak days, these checkpoints were rampant throughout Cairo. Police would detain random people, torture them, and get them to admit to unsolved crimes. Or just detain them, disappear them for no reason whatsoever. And slowly, that feeling of invincibility of the uniformed services is coming back.

All of this is taking place during a time where press freedom is nonexistent. Local newspaper editors agreed a few days ago to not publish anything critical of the government—we are in a war against terror, after all. All NGOs will have to register with the government under a new law that critics say will infringe on the organizations’ independence, give the government undue sway over what they do. To be honest, democracy and human rights NGOs will be nonexistent or token in Egypt in about a week. Bassem Youssef and other lesser-know open-minded media folks, such as Yousry Fouda, have resigned, silenced by pressure from the government. Egypt’s human rights practices are under fire in the UN, and local human rights NGOs refuse to cooperate with the international organization, saying the pressure and threats they have received from the government is too great. Because what is a better way to convince the world “Egypt is open for business,” Egypt is “moving forward,” Egypt respects human rights than to threaten human rights activists. They talk about—and most likely do—monitor social media, the Internet. To actually see these changes taking place, to feel the fist of the state clamp down on the press, on activists, on any form of dissent or even opinions, is suffocating. 

The government announced plans to create civilian, neighborhood watch-type organizations with the power to detain. They ask people to inform. My friend today posted a story mildly critical of the government, and I commented, “You only say that because you hate Egypt.” He responded, “Don’t report me to the police.” Haha, funny joke.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Erdogan, Erdogan all around: Turkey's campaign season

Campaign season is in full mode in Turkey, which is set to vote on its next president August 10. There is not much suspense over the result-- presently Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erodgan will be president. Erdogan, who has been prime minister for the last eight years, looks set to pull a Putin-Medvedev.

Does that logo look familiar to anyone? Yes, we can. 
Visiting Istanbul over eid, the city was covered in huge Erdogan posters. Erdogan's image loomed over ancient aqueducts, over Taxim, along highways. You could not escape him. His publicly financed campaign rallies made headlines, his voice screamed from television screens. He even played in a football (soccer) match at the opening of an Istanbul stadium. The crowds roared as he scored goal after goal.

There were smaller posters seen for his opponent whats-his-face. Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu's lack of a chance of winning is evident in the lack of airtime he his given. In the fact his image is unseen in Taxim. In the fact that he does not make crowds roar. His campaign rallies were poorly covered, with low public visibility.

The good "Profesor Doktor"

Ihsanoglu is a technocrat. He's had a successful career in diplomacy. He has little standing in domestic politics. He's got the hopes of a fragmented opposition resting on his distinguished, internationally-respected shoulders (remind you of anyone, Mohamed El Baradei?) I cringed when I saw one of his few campaign posters around--he called himself "Professor Doctor." Again similar to El Baradei's perceived elitism. Does the Turkish street care if someone is a "professor doctor?" Do they identify with "professor doctors?" Do they feel represented by "professor doctors?" My intuition is the answer to all these questions is a resounding "no."

Is Erdogan breaking the law? Campaign-wise, probably not. But that's not the point. You can follow the letter of the law and flagrantly ignore its spirit. You can have an unrigged election produce an undemocratic result when the cards are so obviously stacked against the opposition. Without breaking the law, without becoming a formal dictatorship, you can marginalize the opposition, squeeze them from the public sphere and secure your own position.

Before this year, I criticized my Egyptian friends for boycotting elections. This is why you guys aren't being represented, I said. You have to make change from within. You have to be in parliament, have to make yourself heard. You need an agenda and need to get into grassroots organizing.

But after this year... what's the point? Your voice will not be heard. There is no campaign rigging, but there does not need to be. There is no space for opposition. You're with us or against us. You're for a new Turkey or for a return to the past. Opposition figures are given less airtime. Their images and campaign materials are minimal or absent. The city is plastered by the image of the preferred candidate. Those who dare campaign for an opposite result face harassment and arrest. And perhaps most worringly, few see a problem with that.

I ask again, what's the point?

Is participating giving legitimacy to a sham? Or is it refusing to be marginalized? 

Friday, March 21, 2014

The day Twitter died

Last night, Twitter went offline here in Turkey shortly after Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan told supporters at an election rally, "We'll eradicate Twitter. I don't care what the international community says. Everyone will witness the power of the Turkish Republic!"

And so it happened. Apparently Erdoğan obtained a court order allowing him to take the website down. Twitter, Facebook, and other social media websites have been the target of his ire since the Gezi Park protests for not only allowing activists to air their grievances and coordinate, but the websites have also been used to circulate a bunch of incredibly embarrassing leaked audiotapes. The audiotapes implicate senior businessmen and government officials, including Erdoğan himself,  in corruption. One tape alleged to be between Erdoğan and his son and fellow SAISer, Bilal, has Erdoğan telling his son to hide an incredible amount of money as anti-corruption operations ensnared those in his inner circle. The anti-corruption drive is largely believed to be orchestrated by the shadowy Gülen Movement, which the government claims infiltrated state institutions (I have apparently lived in Egypt too long because I think its not an unlikely possibility this is true).

Erdoğan says the tapes are "fabricated" but also says the Gülenists illegally wiretapped him and his associates and has not refuted the veracity of the content of the tapes.

On a statement published on the website of pro-government Sabah newspaper and translated by Al Monitor, Erdoğan said, "In the ongoing situation, Twitter has remained indifferent to remove certain links despite court orders favoring the citizens of the Turkish Republic. We came to [the] conclusion that in order to relieve our citizens, there is no way left beyond blocking Twitter, which disregards court orders, does not obey the rule of law."

The EU called the ban "groundless, pointless, cowardly."

Turkish President Abdullah Gül, often at odds with the prime minister and considered the more democratically oriented, sent a Tweet the morning after the ban saying he did not approve of the ban and instructed officials to examine legal ways of reopening access.

Turks were certainly relieved. In fact, the Turkish Twitterati quickly took to the social media website to fight back, posting with hashtags such as #twitterisblockedinturkey and #dictatorerdogan. This morning, I could not access Twitter on my phone or normal Google Chrome but was able to get on via a VPN. I didn't necessarily need or want to use Twitter, but if I'm told I can't do something, I'll do it.

Erdoğan apparently failed to get the message that khalas, it happened. The internet was invented. You can't stop it or the spread of information. Information is now open, available--democratic, if you will. Ban Twitter, ban Facebook, ban them all, ban the internet. The world has changed and people will find a way to get to access information.

I've been here for about two months now. There is definitely the feeling Turkey is at a turning point. About a week or so ago, a 15-year-old boy who was hit in the head by a teargas canister during the Gezi Park protests died after being in a coma for 269 days. Turks took to the streets in thousands in a show of support for Berkin Elvan's family and against the system that killed him. He had become a symbol of the opposition and the excessive use of force used against protesters. The police fought back with tear gas and water cannons. Public transport was closed that day to try to keep people from reaching central Istanbul, making my trip home interesting and full of tear gas.

Instead of recognizing the tragedy of a life lost, Erdoğan said the dead child was a terrorist, at first claiming he had a bomb in his pocket (which the security forces apparently kept secret for 270 days and only decided to publicize after the kid died) and later said he had a slingshot.

"The kid with steel marbles in his pockets, with a slingshot in his hand, his face covered with a scarf, who had been taken up into terror organizations, was unfortunately subjected to pepper gas," said Erodğan.

He even got a crowd to boo the dead child's mother, who had said it was not God who killed her son, but the prime minister.

"His mother says, 'My son's killer is the prime minister.' I know love, fondness for one's child, but I could not understand why you threw steel marbles and carnations into your son's grave," Erdoğan told a campaign rally.

She had left marbles in the grave.

There is also a narrative being told by the government that the international community just does not understand what is going on in Turkey--very similar to the narrative perpetuated in Egypt following Rabaa. In both cases, "they" just don't understand. This is a fight against terror and a fight to the death.

Municipal elections are coming up on March 30 and many Turks are holding their breath. A power struggle is playing out between the AK Party under Erdoğan and the Gülenists, with most Turks hostage and democratic ideas be damned.

Opposition leaders have cautioned their supporters against taking to the streets after the Twitter ban and the words against Berkin's mother, saying the government is trying to provoke protesters to justify a heavy-handed response and alienate opposition and their cause from the wider Turkish public.

Many young Turks I talk to have no idea who they will vote for in the elections. They do not like Erdoğan, but the opposition leadership sucks as well and is equally out of touch with the younger generation.

So we wait.