5 June 2013
Paris 1968, Istanbul 2013
By Gwynne Dyer
It’s certainly not another version of the “Arab Spring”; Turkey is a fully democratic country. It’s not just a Middle Eastern variant of the Occupy movement, either, although the demands of the huge crowds who have occupied the centre of Istanbul and other Turkish big cties are equally diffuse and contradictory.
It’s more like the student uprising in Paris in May, 1968, although most of the demonstrators in Turkey are neither Marxists nor students. Like the Paris demos, it began over local issues and has rapidly grown into a popular revolt against an elected government that is deeply conservative, increasingly autocratic, and deaf to all protests.
The original issue was Prime Minister Recep Tayyib Erdogan’s plan to destroy Istanbul’s Gezi Park in order to build a new shopping mall in a city that already has far too many. The park is the only green space in the newer part of downtown, north of the Golden Horn, and covering it over with yet more shops was bound to meet with some resistance.
Erdogan, in cahoots with the developers as usual, assumed that the plan to include a mosque in the new mall would placate his own supporters, while the plan to make the exterior of the mall a replica of an old Ottoman barracks that had once stood on the site would assuage everybody else’s unhappiness at the loss of the park. He was wrong.
At the start of the protest, on 27 May, only a few hundred people occupied the park. It might all have petered out if the police had not attacked them with clubs and tear gas last Friday night, burning their tents after they fled. The protesters came back in far larger number the next day, and the same thing happened again. By the third night, city centres were being occupied all over Turkey, and it wasn’t just about Gezi Park any more.
Prime Minister Erdogan, leaving for a tour of several Arab countries on Monday, dismissed the protests as the work of “a few looters” and “extremist elements”, and said he’d sort it out after he got back on Friday. Unruffled, you might call him – just as you would have described French President Charles De Gaulle in the first days of the 1968 revolt in France.
It’s been a week, and the protesters have not quit. Meanwhile, in Erdogan’s absence, his closest colleagues have been conciliatory. President Abdullah Gul said “the messages sent in good faith have been received,” and Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc said “The use of excessive force against the people who initially started this protest…was wrong.”
But what is it really about? After all, Prime Minister Erdogan has led his moderate Islamist party, the Justice and Development Party (AK), to three successive wins in national elections, each time with a bigger share of the vote. He has presided over a decade of high-speed economic growth that has lifted millions out of poverty, and he has finally forced the army out of politics. Why don’t they love him?
Some do, but many people think he has got too big for his boots. Erdogan retains the support of the pious and deeply conservative peasants and recent immigrants to the cities who make up the bulk of his supporters, but he wouldn’t have won without the backing of secular, urban voters who saw him as the best chance to expel the army from politics and put Turkish democracy on a firm footing. He has now lost their trust.
He won it by promising that his government would not shove conservative Islamic values down everybody else’s throats, and until recently he kept his promise. But his last election victory, in which he got 50 percent of the vote in a multi-party race, has emboldened him to believe that he can ignore his erstwhile secular supporters.
He has pushed through new laws restricting the sale and consumption of alcohol. Despite the misgivings of most Turks, he enthusiastically supports the Sunni Muslim rebels in Syria, as part of a broader strategy of re-establishing the political and economic dominance that the Ottoman Empire once enjoyed in the Sunni Arab world.
He even insists on naming the proposed third bridge across the Bosphorus after the 16th century Ottoman ruler, Yavuz Sultan Selim, who is notorious for massacring tens of thousands of Turkey’s Alevi religious minority. Around a quarter of Turkey’s population are Alevis, and they have not forgotten. Once Erdogan could play public opinion like a violin; now he is arrogant and tone-deaf.
So where does this end up? Not with the overthrow of Turkey’s elected government, and probably not in a military coup either. Most likely there will be apologies, and some government concessions, and the turbulence will subside. Erdogan will not even be removed as AK party leader right away, though some of his senior colleagues now clearly see him as a liability.
The protesters in Paris in May, 1968 didn’t get what they wanted right away either. Indeed, like the protesters in Gezi Park today, they weren’t even sure exactly what they wanted. But 11 months later Charles De Gaulle resigned, and France has never since had to cope with the problem of a Strong Man in power.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4, 7 and 12. (“Erdogan…wrong”; “It’s been…wrong”; and “He even…deaf”)
14 January 2013
By Gwynne Dyer
“Those days are over,” said Frances President Francois Hollande last month, when asked if French forces would intervene in the war between Islamist insurgents who have seized the northern half of Mali and the government in Bamako. But the days in question weren’t over for very long. Last Friday France sent a squadron of fighter-bombers to the West African country to stop the Islamist fighters from taking the capital.
“We are making air raids the whole time,” said French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian. “They are going on now. They will go on tonight. They will go on tomorrow.” Some 550 French combat troops are on the ground already, with up to 2,500 more to follow. Contingents of soldiers from the neighbouring countries of Nigeria, Benin, Burkina Faso, Niger and Togo are scheduled to arrive as early as next week. It has turned into a real war.
It has also turned into a Western-run war in a Muslim country, despite the discouraging precedents of Afghanistan and Iraq. The government of Mali has asked for French help, and on Monday the United Nations Security Council unanimously supported France’s military intervention. The army of Mali, such as it is, will theoretically be in charge of the war – but everybody knows that the Malian army is useless.
In fact, the presence of Mali’s army at the front is usually counter-productive, as it is brutal, militarily incompetent, and prone to panic flight. The other African armies are of variable quality, but it is obviously French troops, and especially French air power, that will decide the outcome of the war. So has France bitten off more than it can chew? Is this going to end up like Afghanistan and Iraq?
The supporters of the war prefer to compare it with last year’s Western military intervention in Libya, another French initiative that was decided over one weekend. They like that analogy better because the Libyan intervention ended tolerably well, with the overthrow of the dictator, a democratically elected government, and no Western casualties. But the differences between Libya and Mali are greater than the similarities.
In Libya the rebels were trying to rid the country of Muammar Gaddafi, a loony, friendless dictator, and create a democratic future. The decision to intervene was made in Paris in only two hectic days, when it appeared that Gaddafi’s mercenary troops were about to overrun Benghazi and massacre the rebels. NATO served as the rebel air force, but no Western troops fought on the ground. And it worked.
With Mali, once again it was decided in a couple of days, and once again France has taken the lead. Once again Britain is sending some help as well (transport aircraft, but no troops or combat aircraft), and the United States is providing discreet logistical support. (US Air Force tankers refuelled the French fighters on their way to Mali.) But that’s where the similarities end.
The West is supporting the government, not the rebels, in Mali. That government, behind a flimsy civilian facade, is controlled by the same thugs in uniform whose military coup last March, just one month before the scheduled democratic election, created the chaos that let the Islamist rebels conquer the northern half of the country. The young officers who now run the country are ignorant and violent, and having them on your side is not an asset.
The Islamist rebels are fanatical, intolerant, and violent, but they are well armed (a lot of advanced infantry weapons came on the market when Gaddafi’s regime collapsed) and they appear to be well trained. They have almost no popular support in 90-percent-Muslim Mali, whose version of Islam is much more moderate, but they have terrified the population of the north into submission or flight.
The insurgents are not short of money, either, as they receive secret subsidies from several Arab monarchies in the Gulf that have persuaded themselves, strangely, that subsidising radical Islamist movements in the far-flung fringes of the Muslim world is a good way to avoid being overthrown by radical Islamists at home. They are formidable opponents, and the war to free northern Mali may be long and hard.
Until recently the rebels seemed to be confined to Mali’s desert north, but last week they began to advance into southern Mali, where nine-tenths of the country’s 14 million people live. The Malian army collapsed, and Western intelligence sources estimated that the Islamists would capture the capital, Bamako, within two days. That would effectively give them control of the entire country.
Mali has long, unguarded borders with seven other African countries, and it is only 3,000 km. (2,000 mi.) from France. So President Hollande ordered immediate military intervention to stop the Islamist advance, and we’ll all worry about the long-term consequences later. The next Western war against Islamist extremists has already started, and the question is whether it will end up like Afghanistan.
Nobody would like to know the answer to that more than the French. Except, of course, the Malians.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 10. (“With…end”; and “The insurgents…hard”)
6 January 2013
The Russian Solution
By Gwynne Dyer
It’s as if Paul Newman and Jane Fonda had fled the US in protest at something or other – they were always protesting – and sought Russian citizenship instead. Americans would be surprised, but would they really care? It’s a free country, as they say.
Whereas the French are quite cross about the decision of Oscar-winning actor Gerard Depardieu, who received Russian citizenship at the hands of President Vladimir Putin personally last Saturday. A taxi driver in Paris went on at me about it for the whole ride yesterday. (Talking to taxi drivers is how we journalists keep our fingers on the pulse of the nation.)
After 42 years of starring in French films, Depardieu had acquired the status of “national treasure” in the eyes of the public, but he clearly does not reciprocate their loyalty and pride. And hard on the heels of Depardieu’s defection comes the news that actress Brigitte Bardot, France’s leading sex symbol for the generation who are now drawing their pensions, is also threatening to give up her French citizenship and go Russian.
Depardieu, who was described by director Marguerite Duras as “a big, beautiful runaway truck of a man,” is much larger than life – about the size of a baby whale, in fact. He is over the top in every sense: 180 films and TV credits, 17 motorbike accidents, five or six bottles of wine a day by his own reckoning.
He reckons he has paid 145 million euros ($190 million) in taxes since he started work at fourteen, and he doesn’t want to pay any more. France’s Socialist government is bringing in a new 75 percent tax rate for people earning more than one million euros ($1.3 million) per year, and so Depardieu is leaving.
Initially he was just moving to Belgium, to a village 800 metres from the French border that already hosts a number of other super-rich tax exiles, but then French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said that his decision was “shabby and unpatriotic.” At this point, the truck ran away again. Belgium was no longer far enough.
When the outraged actor declared that he would ask for Russian citizenship, Putin (who knows how to play to the gallery) announced that he could have it at once. By the weekend it was a done deal. “I adore your country, Russia, your people, your history, your writers,” the actor burbled. “…Russia is a country of great democracy.”
It is also a country with a 13 percent flat tax rate, and Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin crowed on Twitter: “In the West, they are not well acquainted with our tax system. When they find out, we can expect a mass migration of rich Europeans into Russia.” He had barely finished tweeting when another French celebrity said she was also thinking of moving to Russia.
It wasn’t high taxes that obsessed Brigitte Bardot, however; it was animal rights. She was protesting a court order Friday in Lyon ordering that two circus elephants that have been suffering from tuberculosis since 2010 be put down. “If those in power are cowardly and impudent enough to kill the elephants,” she raged, “then I will ask for Russian nationality to get out of this country which has become nothing more than an animal cemetery.”
It’s always wise, when threatening to flounce out, to make sure first that they really want you to stay, and in BB’s case that may not actually be the case. She is better known to the present generation not as a sex symbol but as a crazy old lady who believes Muslims are “destroying our country” and has been convicted five times for incitement to racial hatred. Some people (including my cab driver) think the Russians would be welcome to her.
But elephants aside, going Russian opens up a huge new opportunity for avoiding burdensome taxation. All those American millionaires who have been condemned by recent events to live under the rule of that foreign-born Muslim Communist, Barack Obama, and pay an appalling 39.6 percent tax on the portion of their annual earnings that exceeds $400,000, have an alternative at last.
They can do exactly what they have been telling anybody who complains about the gulf between the rich and the poor in America to do for decades: they can go to Russia. The only problem is that they will actually have to live there for six months of the year to qualify for the 13 percent Russian tax rate.
Well, actually, there is another problem. Some Russians may not welcome them with open arms. Even the arrival of Depardieu, who is world-famous in Russia as a result of acting in several high-profile Franco-Russian co-productions and appearing in television ads for credit cards from the Sovietski Bank, is being greeted with mixed feelings.
Fellow celebrity Tina Kandelaki, the celebrated host of the celebrity talk show “Details” for the past eleven years, has no reservations about him at all: he can stay in her apartment. “Let’s not divide up Depardieu,” she tweeted. “Simply give him to me.” But a less starry-eyed observer replied: “Haven’t we got enough alcoholics?”
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 10. (“Initially…enough”; and “It’s always…her”)
27 May 2012
Mali: The Dreams of Capt. Amadou Sanogo
By Gwynne Dyer
Imagine that you are a junior officer in a West African army. You joined the army at 18, you worked hard, you managed to get sent to the United States four times for various training courses, but somehow the promotions never came. You have just turned forty, and in ten or fifteen years you will have to retire on a captain’s pension. What to do?
That is Capt. Amadou Sanogo, and in March he finally figured out what to do. He launched a military coup and declared himself president of Mali. Nice work, if you can get it – but then the roof fell in on his empty head.
A military coup against an elected government rarely lasts long if the general population is willing to defend it: the soldiers can usually be driven from power by a general strike. However, Sanogo had some grievances to work with. Mali was extolled elsewhere as a beacon of democracy, but the government was actually both corrupt and incompetent.
The main thing you need for a junior officers’ coup is the support of the ordinary soldiers. There’s not really much it for the men in the ranks, apart from the opportunity to loot: they’re never going to sit in the president’s chair, so they have to be deeply unhappy about the civilian government before they’ll back a coup. Happily for Capt. Sanogo, they were quite cross at President Amadou Toure.
Yet another revolt among the Tuareg ethnic group in Mali’s desert north broke out last January, the fourth since 1960. President Toure’s government was not giving the army adequate weapons and supplies to deal with it (or at least that was the army’s excuse). The rebels had only seized a couple of small towns on the far-distant Algerian border, but Malian soldiers were feeling humiliated and neglected.
But while the soldiers were very angry at Toure’s government by this March, there was no need for a military coup to change it. National elections were already scheduled for April, and Toure, having completed two terms in office, could not run again. How can you justify using military force to remove a president who is leaving office next month anyway?
You can’t, but then nothing’s perfect. At least the ordinary soldiers at the base Capt. Sanogo commanded just outside the capital, Bamako, were ready to follow his lead. So on 22 March he moved his troops into Bamako and declared that he was taking power because the elected government was not doing enough to halt the rebellion in the north.
President Toure went into hiding, and suddenly Capt. Sanogo was the most powerful man in Mali – but within a week two things went badly wrong for him.
Sanogo seems not to have realised that ECOWAS, the Economic Community of West African States, strongly disapproves of military coups in its members (since each member government fears such a fate itself). He was therefore surprised when ECOWAS banned all trade across landlocked Mali’s borders and froze Mali’s accounts at BCEAO, the central bank for all the West African countries that use the CFA franc.
He was even more surprised when the Tuareg rebels took advantage of the turmoil in Bamako to overrun the entire north of Mali, an area bigger than France, in only one week. There was little fighting: the Malian army units just fled, as did tens of thousands of black African refugees. Pale-skinned Tuaregs living in the south also became targets for violence. Sanogo’s coup brought about exactly what it was meant to prevent.
These events, plus the growing shortage of fuel for transport and electricity (Mali imports all its oil), forced Sanogo to talk to ECOWAS. On 12 April, after only three weeks in power, Sanogo agreed that the speaker of parliament, Dioncounda Traore, would become the country’s interim leader until new elections could be held. Sanogo was paid off with a mansion and a pension suitable for “a former head of state.”
Only a week later, however, Traore was severely injured by a mob that invaded his residence while Sanogo’s troops stood by and did nothing. Sanogo is still running things from behind the scenes, while Traore is now in France undergoing medical treatment. And last Saturday the two rival Tuareg rebel groups that now control the north managed to settle their differences and declared the independence of the Islamic Republic of Azawad.
For a man whose ambition outran his understanding, Sanogo has accomplished a lot. In just a month he has ruined an imperfect but serviceable democracy and divided it into two hostile states: it will take years for Mali to recapture the north, if it ever can. And in “Azawad” the fighting will continue, because the black Africans living along the big bend of the Niger river in the south of that territory do not accept Tuareg rule.
Those who doubt the ability of mere individuals to change the course of history should contemplate Captain Amadou Sanogo.
To shorten to 750 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 8. (“A military…incompetent”; and “President…him”)