Monday, January 6, 2014

Istanbul and the Trouble with Opposition

What will future historians make of our age of mass protests? Since the stolen Iranian elections of 2009 the masses have revolted repeatedly in radically different countries with radically different results. Some governments have collapsed; others have been shaken; while still others have carried on regardless. It’s a bewildering time, akin to the era of revolutions that briefly turned Europe upside down in the mid-19th century.

Seeking to explain what’s going on in faraway places, journalists, analysts and politicians usually opt for simplistic narratives. We thus lump Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Syria together as they are (mainly) Muslim Arab nations where (some of) the people rose up against corrupt dictators.

But how do we compare those uprisings to the almost contemporaneous Occupy movement that seized the imagination of the Western media for a few months in 2011? In the liberal democracies of the United States and Europe, middle class youth declared themselves the 99 percent and protested against vague generalizations such as “greed” and “capitalism.” In America it was especially confusing as many of the protestors were Obama fans who supported the ruling party. 

And do those protests have anything in common with the Russian unrest at Putin’s reelection for a third term as president in 2012? And what about the recent protests in Turkey, originally ecological in nature, but which swiftly morphed into an expression of anger at Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s authoritarian style and stealth Islamization of the nation?  

Future historians will surely debate how much these protest movements have in common. Even without the benefit of hindsight my suspicion is: not that much. In Turkey for instance, the protesters want less religion; in Egypt they evidently wanted more. However, I do see one common factor that is at once curious and distressing: The opposition is everywhere disunited, shambolic, and absolutely unable to produce any decent leaders. And so protests that begin with good intentions invariably end in disappointment or catastrophe.

Thus in Egypt, as soon as Mubarak fell, the Twittering urbanites on Tahrir Square were swept aside by the much better organized and infinitely more popular Muslim Brotherhood, which promptly broke most of its promises and started to introduce its own forms of oppression. The fractious, disunited secular opposition bleated from the sidelines.

A similar process is unfolding in Tunisia today, albeit more slowly due to the country’s different political and economic conditions. In Libya a weak leadership cowers before strong jihadis, and chaos is the result. In Syria a horrible dictator faces off against an assortment of ultra-violent fanatics, like that human-heart-chomping fellow on YouTube. Meanwhile, delusional Western politicians hunt in vain for the magical unicorn known as the “moderate opposition,” whom they would very much like to supply with lethal weapons.

In Russia the opposition is hopeless, and has always been hopeless, populated by hard left nostalgics, nationalist fantasists, a chess player, a radical author, and a handful of rotten politicians from the Yeltsin era. They agree on nothing, and have achieved nothing.

And that leads me to the Turkish protests. I spent a couple of weeks working in Istanbul last year and fell in love with the city and its people. At the same time, I had a suspicion that Erdogan was an authoritarian creep. Yes, he was popular and, yes, his policies had brought Turkey economic prosperity. But he also liked to toss journalists in jail; many of his foes were likewise sitting in prison on what looked like trumped up charges of conspiracy; and he obviously wanted to foist a lot more religion on his people.

The apprehension secular Turks felt about Erdogan’s long-term goals was palpable. Last week, it boiled over. But the opposition is once again leaderless, fragmented and pretty chaotic; no wonder Erdogan looks so confident. Yesterday he confirmed that he not only is an authoritarian bully but also a brutal thug, as he sent in riot cops to beat and gas protestors, also detaining around 50 opposition lawyers. Meanwhile, since the protests broke out, Erdogan has been muttering darkly about “terrorists” and “foreign agents” – convenient fictions that I suspect he will use as an excuse to crack down further on his enemies.

Faced with a cunning and violent foe, an opposition needs unity, courage and inspirational leaders – men like Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, Lech Walesa or Vaclav Havel. I just cited a bunch of positive examples, but consider also the case of Lenin: He was a rotten chap, and his ideas were disastrous, but he was a revolutionary genius who led his followers to victory.

Thus, if the protesting Turks want to give Erdogan the kicking he so richly deserves at the ballot box in seven months’ time, they will have to unite and find a credible leader. Otherwise, fractured and squabbling among themselves, they will go the way of so many well-intentioned popular liberation movements throughout history. The revolutions of 1848 ended in renewed repression, as any historian will tell you.