Winter of our Discontent

BEIRUT — Anyone paying any attention to al-wada (the situation) in Lebanon knows things ain’t good. The weather is affecting everything, from food deliveries to electricity. Skiing’s good up in Faraya, I hear, though.
Last weekend’s unrest was extremely unsettling. Seven people were killed and now Hezbollah and Amal are calling for revenge against the Army. March 8 — the Hezbollah-led opposition — is looking more and more intransigent, and unwilling to come to any solution other than a complete caving of the government to their demands: veto power in the cabinet, picking the president and a lock-in to the Syrian orbit.

Of course, the pro-Western government of Fuad Siniora is unwilling to do that, creating a situation that is ripe for explosion. The atmosphere is tense, and Lebanese are jumpy. Already there are small daily clashes and assaults on Army positions. Lebanese media are rife with reports that Syria now opposes Army Chief Michel Sleiman for president (not sure why, really; perhaps he’s not so in their camp as they thought he was?) and prefers former Foreign Minister Fares Boueiz for the post.

Mrs. Back to Iraq, a better observer of Lebanese politics than I am, doesn’t think last week’s protest-turned-street-battle was spontaneous. The dahiyeh, she said, is like Syria. Not much happens there without Hezbollah’s notice and approval. They’re trying to discredit the proto-presidency of Sleiman before it even happens. I agree with her, but I wonder if the protests really did start spontaneously and Hezbollah, recognizing an opportunity, allowed them to balloon into a confrontation with the state. At any rate, “Black Sunday” has led to a predictable amount of finger-pointing and blame-shifting.

My friend, Mitch Prothero, has a good piece in Slate on last weekend’s violence.

Most people I talk to think the al-wada will go on until 2009, when there are parliamentary elections. Then Hezbollah and the rest of the March 8 folks will likely win these and that will be the end of the so-called Cedar Revolution. Lebanon will return to the Syrian fold and politicians like Walid Jumblatt and Saad Hariri will be spending a lot of time in Paris and Riyadh.

That’s Hezbollah’s real goals, I think. Not to take over the country and install an Islamic state. Hezbollah is at heart a revolutionary movement and they’re smart enough to know that their popularity comes from that mystique as well as their social services that operate separately from the woefully inefficient Lebanese services.

If they “took over” and became the government, they would lose the revolutionary aura. From Hezbollah’s point of view, It’s much better to be a network of guerilla commanders in southern Lebanon fighting Zionist occupiers than to be in charge of fixing potholes and making sure the electricity is on. Because they don’t get blamed for the screw-ups then. (And Lebanon is nothing but one big screw-up when it comes to basic infrastructure.)

It works like this: If Hezbollah gives up its weapons — as every other militia in Lebanon did at the end of the 1975-1990 Civil War — they lose their value to Iran and Syria as a force on the northern flank of Israel. They would be just another political party in Lebanon. Without that firepower, what reason is there for Syria and Iran to continue funneling money and matériel to the group? And without the money, those much-admired social services will come to an end. Lebanese are easily bought, frankly, and their loyalties are not usually so ideological. They follow leaders who deliver on patronage, jobs and services. Without the loyalty of the Shi’ites, primarily bought and paid for with those services — not, as is claimed, because of an inborn revolutionary mindset — Hezbollah would quickly fall apart.

That’s what’s at stake here. That’s why Hezbollah must have veto power and control the presidency — to prevent any decision regarding its weapons; to remove UNIFIL as an irritant in the south; to prevent the Lebanese government from extending authority to south Beirut and other areas of Hezbollahstan.

Samir Geagea, a March 14 leader, said the goal is to so paralyze Lebanon that Syria will be asked to intervene again, as it did in 1975, but he inflates the issue, I think. I think Syria very much wants a return to preeminence in its tiny neighbor, but troops are not in the cards. The plan is to return to the 2004 status quo ante, as Condoleezza Rice intoned so often during the Israel-Hezbollah war. They want to get back to a protected status in the south, being a free-range guerilla movement. They want to preserve their weapons, which is their real constituency.

Hezbollah’s plan, when it comes to Syria and its weapons, is to paralyze and protect.

From Atatürk to Allah?

It’s election day in Turkey tomorrow and the big question is will the government turn from Atat�rk to Allah?

Tomorrow is election day in Turkey and it’s coming down to the home stretch! The Justice and Development Party (AKP) is likely to win about 30 percent of the vote, which would make them the senior partner in any coalition government, assuming they don’t win outright. The Republican People’s Party (CHP), founded by Turkey’s founder Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, is polling at 15 to 20 percent. However, Atatürk’s party is avowedly secular, so it’s unlikely the two would partner up.
The situation is making the military and other secular Turks very, very nervous. In 1997, the AKP’s predecessor, the Welfare Party, was eased out by the military in what many have called a “soft coup.” But that option isn’t available now. With the European Union still dangling the carrot of membership, the Turkish military can’t risk stepping in and mucking about with elections and democracy. But the powers that be in Turkey also worry that a government headed by an Islamist party wouldn’t be attractive to Europe either, so Turkey is kind of caught in a bind.
Further complicating the situation, Milliyet reported last week that Turkey’s top state prosecutor, Sabih Kanadoglu, has filed for the closure of the AKP, citing defiance by the party’s leader, former Istanbul mayor Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to give up his party post. Erdogan was banned from participating in politics after he read a poem “inciting religious hatred” in a mosque in 1997 and served four months in jail. Though the case won’t be decided for months, if the party eventually is shut down its supporters would see their votes wasted. All this legal maneuvering has been an attempt by the military and secular leadership to depress the vote on AKP, and as I was told when I was in Ankara, “Turkey is the graveyard of political parties.”
(For what it’s worth Sabah reported that U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the United States is opposed to banning political parties. “The US supports democracy and broad political participation in Turkey and elsewhere,” he is quoted as saying. “We oppose the banning of political parties that are expressing their views in a peaceful and democratic manner.”)
Though Erdogan is banned by law from serving in a governmental post — such as, oh, prime minister for example — the suspicion is that he will work behind the scenes running the country, probably through a weak prime minister. There is also concern that his commitment to moderation and democracy is only skin deep. He was elected mayor of Istanbul in 1994 and promptly banned alcohol in the city’s restaurants. He has close ties with former Welfare Party prime minister Erbakan, who dined with terrorists and talked of pulling out of NATO. Perhaps most ominously, “You cannot be secular and a Muslim at the same time,” Erdogan said in 1995.
But he’s been crafty in how he has answered questions on how he would liberalize laws concerning the public expression of religion. For example, it is currently illegal for women to wear headscarves in universities, schools and government buildings or at government functions. This is a highly emotional issue in Turkey, with headscarves being a potent symbol of political Islam. Erdogan has been careful to not identify the AKP with this kind of controversy. Would his wife, an observant Muslim, wear a headscarf at government functions? “I wouldn’t bring her,” he has said, neatly not answering the question or assuaging Turkish women’s fears.
So what are the scenarios? Near as I can tell, they are as follows:

  • The AKP wins decisively with enough seats in Parliament to form a government without resorting to a partner. The military might intervene or it might not. If it doesn’t, look for the AKP to be kept on a short leash.
  • The AKP wins a majority, but cannot form a government, in which case they will partner up with — possibly — Deniz Baykal’s Devlet Bahceli’s Nationalist Action Party (MHP). I think a coalition between the nationalists and Islamists could be one of the worst combinations. “The result will definitely be another coalition, an anomaly of very contradictory views,” said Prof. Deniz Ilgaz of Bogazi�i University when I emailed her about all of this.
  • The myriad secular parties in Parliament band together in a broad-based coalition together to keep the AKP out of power. The resulting government would be weak and ineffectual, and would pretty much cement the status quo. None of the problems of Turkey would be addressed, and the military would remain the de facto ruler of the country.

So what will happen and how might this affect the United States’ determination to open up some precision guided whoop-ass on Iraq, a fellow Muslim country and formerly a major trading partner to Turkey? We’ll have the outlines in a day. But one thing is certain is that the political landscape is about to change in unpredictable ways.

HADEP Deputy Chairman: “This is democracy in Turkey”

In which the Deputy Chairman of HADEP, the Kurdish party in Turkey, talks about the state of affairs in the southeast part of the country.

While in Ankara, Aykut and I spent a day trying to find the local offices of various Iraqi and Kurdish opposition groups including the KDP and PUK. We were looking for various officials who might be able to help me when I went to Diyarbakir in the southeast and on to Iraq, but we weren’t having much luck, and kept driving through twisty neighborhoods hoping the cops weren’t following us.

At one point, the comedy descended into farce, as we drove into a military residence area looking for the embassies. We found the embassies, but the PUK still eluded us. We drove past the Jordanian, Syrian and Saudi Embassies, but finally stopped outside the the United Arab Emirates while Aykut jumped out of the car and asked a bored-looking security guard for directions.

“Excuse me, where are the offices for the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan?” Akyut asked while I shrunk into my seat and tried to look invisible.

The guard, a Turk and apparently no friend of Iraqi Kurds, looked him up and down, looked me up and down, and then motioned off down the road.

Aykut dropped his bulk into the drivers’ seat and smiled at me.

“Don’t do that again,” I said.

He apologized, but at least the guard’s directions were good. We finally found the rather sad looking house that was the office for the PUK. No one was around except for a plainclothes guy who watched us closely and smoked a cigarette like a fugitive. He made me nervous, so we left to go meet A. Turan Demir, the deputy chairman of HADEP, the Kurdish party in Turkey. The transcript — from Aykut’s translation — follows:

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