Turks, EU: Never the twain shall meet?

IS TURKEY FINALLY waking up from its dream of joining the European Union?

During the past six weeks EU politicians excoriated President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on his victory in a Turkish constitutional referendum, which transforms the country’s parliamentary system into a presidential one, concentrating wide powers in the presidency. The constitutional changes go into effect after the 2019 Turkish general elections, and if Erdogan is re-elected, he’d become a powerful “executive president.” These Europeans, and many Turks, see that making him an “authoritarian” ruler. Some of them demanded and end to negotiations on Turkey’s accession to the EU.  Others argued that Turkey would be unable to adopt “European values,” which EU members are required to observe. Those values include democracy, the rule of law, human rights and minority rights.

In response, Erdogan threatened to hold a new “Brexit-like referendum,” asking the Turks if they wanted to join the European bloc at all. Over the years many Turks have been turned off by what they consider a discriminatory stance of a “Christian club” toward their Muslim nation. A poll taken in 2014 found that only 28 percent of Turks viewed EU membership as “a good thing,” compared to more than two-thirds of them who did so in the 1990s and early 2000s.

At any rate, tempers have cooled lately among politicians on both sides. Never mind, says the EU foreign policy chief.  Federica Mogherini has announced that the talks on the the 30-year-old Turkish membership application would continue. “It is not suspended,” she insisted. “It hasn’t ended.” And last week Omer Celik, Turkey’s EU affairs minister, confirmed her announcement.  He said “there is no question” of breaking off those talks.

I have been predicting, though, that Turkey would never join the European bloc, not as a full member, anyway. I came to this conclusion nearly two decades ago, and nothing has happened since to change my opinion. During 1998-1999 I was conducting fieldwork in Europe and Turkey on how a Turkish Islamic surge would affect Ankara’s bid to join the European bloc. I had a fellowship with the German Marshall Fund of the United States to do the project.

On August 2, 1998, at the end of a long interview with Erdogan, then disgraced mayor of Istanbul, he asked what I had learned about Europeans’ attitudes toward Turkey’s EU membership. I told him that “I’d be surprised” if his country would ever become a “full member” of the bloc. The mayor didn’t seem to be convinced. Four months before, he had been convicted by a State Security Court for reciting an Islamic poem at a public meeting, which the judges said had incited “hatred based on religious difference.”  Turkey was then a radically secular state and Erdogan had been known as a gung-ho activist of the Islamist Welfare Party. I interviewed him when he was packing to vacate the mayor’s office and await an anticipated jail sentence from the State Security Court. He told me that he would be working to have Turkey “join the [European] Union.”

Contrary to what I had heard about him, Erdogan disputed my characterization of him as an “Islamist” and asserted twice that he believed that the Turkish government should be “secular,” and that religion should be a “private matter.” He was no more an Islamist than Helmut Kohl was a Christian fundamentalist, he said. Kohl was then chancellor of Germany, belonging to the Christian Democratic Union (CDU). I’d learn later that Erdogan, Parliament members Abdullah Gul (later president) and Bulent Arinc (later speaker of Parliament) and a number of other former Welfare Party activists were about to leave the Islamist movement and form a conservative Muslim party. Polls had shown that two out of three Turkish Muslims, religious as they were, had been leery about Islamism.

Soon after his newly formed Justice and Development Party, or AKP, won the 2002 parliamentary elections, Erdogan set out for a whirlwind trip through Europe, pushing the Turkish accession case to EU governments and elites. The Turkish leader reiterated to them that he was a “secular” politician who had no intention of setting up an Islamist government.  And he began making continual visits to the United States (Yesterday was his 13th visit to the White House), meeting government officials and intellectuals, including some neoconservatives, and trying to dispel the notion that he or the AKP had an Islamist agenda. He also talked about his pursuit of Turkey’s EU membership.

ACCESSION TALKS

On December 10, 2002, the day before his first visit to the White House to meet then President George W. Bush, Erdogan told me in Washington that he would be asking the U.S. president to “say a good word” to EU leaders about the Turkish case.  Bush did just that, and in December 2005 the EU began Turkish accession talks. I read news reports about some Turkish politicians were optimistic about their finally joining the Europeans, which had been a consuming mission of the nation’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

I still didn’t expect to see Muslim Turks showing up in Brussels to join discussions about the policies and priorities of the bloc. I didn’t think “democratic deficit” and “poor human rights record” were the real sources of the EU’s angst about Turkish accession, even though these shortcoming were routinely mentioned as Turkey’s disqualification for bloc membership.

If you have European friends or observed Europeans’ attitudes toward the Turks closely, you’d know what dismays them most about having Turks in Europe. Julius Ray Behr, an architect in Berlin, was quite candid to me about it. During a 2000 trip I asked him about his take on the Turks’ efforts to join the EU. Were they trying achieve “in Brussels what they could not accomplish in Vienna”?  he replied, laughing. He was referring to the Ottoman army’s 1683 attack on Vienna, which was repulsed by the city’s Austrian and Polish defenders, putting an end to the Ottoman Empire’s thrust toward Western Europe. A burly, graying man in his late 50s or early 60s, Behr suggested that if the Turks, then about 60 million, were allowed to join the bloc, they would mess up Europe’s “social and cultural life,” infusing Islam into it.

I heard the argument before and since. Since the Dark Ages, Continental Europe has been a white racial monochrome, and Europeans violently resisted the presence of other racial and cultural strains in their midst. Beginning in the late 15th century, Jews and Muslims, who had lived in Europe for centuries, suffered waves after waves of slaughter, forced conversion to Christianity and expulsion from the Continent. Most of those Jewish and Muslim refugees were welcomed with open arms in Muslim Turkey and Levant. In pre-Enlightenment Europe, Jews were detested as “Christ killers” and Muslims as heathens. Post-Enlightenment, they were scorned as inferior races. The Holocaust was the final episode of whitening Europe’s social and cultural texture.

Erdogan, as I observed him, is a passionate, willful man, who isn’t quite acculturated to Western democratic institutions and practices. He’s not very tolerant of dissent as would be, for example, Angela Merkel or Emmanuel Macron.  Erdogan and his government say, however, that the current political and social turmoil has been spawned by the old ultra-secular Kemalists establishment. Kemalists are follower of Kemal Ataturk’s laicist, anti-Islamic ideology, who have been campaigning for the secularization and Europeanization of Turkish society and culture. Having been roundly defeated in successive elections, many of them have made common cause with Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen, who has been trying to topple the AKP government through undemocratic means. In 1999 Turkish intelligence found Gulen colluding with his associates to destabilize the then secular government in Ankara, and the cleric dashed into exile in the United States to evade arrest and prosecution.

Gulen has, or had, an extensive network of followers in Turkish police, judiciary and military. The military, the self-appointed “guardian” of Kemalism, continually overthrew democratically elected governments until the AKP came to power in 2002. The military brass, Kemalists and Gulenists have had a hard time accepting the AKP government, despite it being elected democratically.  In 2007 the army high command issued a threatening memorandum opposing the election of Abdullah Gul as president, arguing that the headscarf worn by his wife, Heyrunnisa, would violate the secularist tradition of the presidential palace. The Kemalist opposition in the parliament, which used to elect presidents, also decided to boycott the vote. The AKP responded with a snap election, which it won handily, neutralizing military-Kemalist resistance to Gul’s election as president.

CRACKDOWN ON DISSENT

The next year Kemalist prosecutors sued the AKP in the Constitutional Court, demanding the party be banned because it had become a “center of anti-secular activities.” The Constitutional Court had, at the bidding of the army and Kemalist elites, outlawed five political parties one after another. This time, though,  the AKP survived because only six judges, instead of the required seven, supported the motion to ban it. This was followed by other Kemalist and Gulenist court cases against Erdogan government. The abortive military coup last July, which the government says was masterminded by Gulen, was the latest attempt so far to overthrow the Erdogan government.

Reacting to these subversive actions, especially the failed coup, the AKP regime launched a widespread crackdown on Gulenist and Kemalist dissidents. It has jailed thousands of political dissidents and fired thousands of others from their jobs in the police, judiciary, bureaucracy and military. Several media outlets have been shut down, and scores of journalists thrown behind the bar. Many Kemalists and Gulenists obviously have supported or joined destabilizing activities or the abortive coup. But many innocent citizens appear also to have been caught up in the fray and lost their jobs or suffered detention or prison terms. Given the mounting opposition to Erdogan and his government, I won’t be surprised to see them defeated in the next or a subsequent election.

But Erdogan and the AKP will be remembered for ending the 90-year-long military and Kemalist pseudo-autocracy in Turkey and ushering in full-fledged, or nearly so, democracy. In one bold move after another the Erdogan government purged the military of many of its coup-mongering officers; reformed the military-dominated National Security Council, bringing it under civilian control; stripped the Constitutional Court of its power to ban political parties; disbanded the clandestine West Study Group (BGG), a cell within the army, which collected intelligence on politicians and planned coups; expanded freedom of the press and expression; introduced a new Penal Code, abolishing torture by police and security personnel; guaranteed individual rights, which was subordinated to the demand of whatever law-enforcement agencies decided was the “security of the state”; restored the use of the Kurdish language and celebration of Kurdish symbols cultural events, banned since the founding of the state; and so on.

The government has rolled back many of the democratic reforms it carried out. I expect these lapses to be remedied by this regime or its successors. I don’t believe that the Turks, having tasted the blessings of freedom and democracy, will revert to the Kemalist era again. They demonstrated their new, indomitable spirit of freedom during the coup attempt last July when everyday Turks, responding to Erdogan’s televised call, poured into the streets of Istanbul and Ankara, braved military bombs and bullets, chased and assaulted rebel troops and crushed the uprising in hours. That was the first time in history the Turks challenged and quashed a military putsch.

DEMOCRACY’S BIRTH PANGS

Formative phases of most democracies – including the United States, Britain, France and Germany –  have always been marked by similar and more dire mayhem: civil wars, ethnic and religious strife, and authoritarian governance. Some of the newer democracies within the EU are also going through their birth pangs. Look at the post-Communist democracies of Hungary and Poland.  Freedom House has lamented a “spectacular breakdown of democracy” in the two countries, and human rights watchdogs and media pundits have denounced their “autocratic” governments.  Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban has all but silenced political dissent through continual crackdowns, suppressed press freedom, persecuted his opponents, and proudly declared Hungary an “illiberal state.” He says Western European “liberal values today incorporate corruption, sex and violence.” Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the chairman of Poland’s ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS), has passed laws flouting parliamentary rules, weakened the country’s highest court, stifled the press, appointed loyalists to civil service and government-run media organizations. He has turned the public television broadcaster TVP into a PiS party station. (Critics call it TVPiS!). PiS has gerrymandered electoral districts to ensure the victory of its candidates. And so on.The problem is that both Orban and Kaczynski continue to win elections, the former has a two-thirds majority in the Hungarian parliament. European politicians and news media continue to criticize their autocratic rule.  Jean-Claude Juncker, the European Commission president, met Orban at the EU’s Riga summit and greeted him: “Hello dictator!”

Yet few Europeans are calling for Hungary’s or Poland’s expulsion from the EU, just as few would like to have the Turks in the bloc. Ask a Turk why, and he or she would tell you that Poles and Hungarians have the right faith and skin tone, and more of less blend in the cultural monochrome that Europe has been for the past two millennia. Turkey, with its Muslim population of 90 million, would rupture that cultural harmony. Echoing the German architect Behr, Remy Leveau, a political science professor at the Institut d’Etudes Politiques de Paris (Institute of Political Studies of Paris), told me the “real problem” hindering Turkish membership of  the EU. “We [Europeans] don’t have a history of cultural pluralism.”  I was chatting with him at his office on Rue Michel-Ange in Paris on the gloomy afternoon of November 2, 2000. Even though Europeans were secular, he said, “we observed All Saints Day yesterday,” and “Christian values” underpinned “our moral standards and worldviews.” Having Muslim Turks in European neighborhoods wouldn’t “help social cohesion,” he added.

All the same, Turkey remains an asset to Europe and America, having the second-largest armed forces in NATO and serving as a bulwark against anti-Western guerrilla and terrorist forces in the Middle East. Turkey, too, is the EU’s fourth-largest export market and fifth-largest supplier of imports.

Today, under an agreement with the EU, Turkey hosts 3 million refugees from the Middle East and South Asia, who would otherwise be flooding Western Europe, creating a demographic and security nightmare there.

Hence Mogherini wouldn’t suspend, let alone end, Turkey’s “accession” talks, even though she knows the Turks wouldn’t be joining the family of European nations. I can foresee the eventual outcome of the negotiations: The Turks won’t become Europeans, but would maintain special economic and security relations with Europe.

The Erdogan government knows this. As a result, it’s already cultivating strategic and trade relations with Russia, China, India, Pakistan and a host of  Middle Eastern countries.

  • Mustafa Malik, an international affairs analyst in Washington, has researched EU-Turkish relations and U.S. foreign policy options in the Middle West and South Asia. He hosts the blog ‘Muslim Journey’: http://muslimjourney.com.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Did CIA try to bump off Erdogan?

RECEP TAYYIP ERDOGAN has upped the ante in his row with the Obama administration, which has heated up since last month’s failed coup in Turkey. The Turkish president now has jumped onto the lap of America’s geopolitical rival, Vladimir Putin.

Erdogan’s meeting Tuesday with his Russian counterpart in a czarist palace outside St. Petersburg has opened what he called – correctly, I believe – “a new page” in Turkish-Russian relations. The two erstwhile foes agreed on a raft of trade, economic and strategic ties between their countries. Some Turks are calling it Erdogan’s “counter-coup” against the United States, which they believe masterminded the botched military coup to overthrow the democratically elected Turkish government.

The St. Petersburg meeting was a 180-degree turn for a man who used to admire America with a passion. The United States was a “model of democracy which Europe should follow,” Erdogan, then disgraced mayor of Istanbul, told me during an interview at his office on August 2, 1998. He was packing to leave the office as he had lost his mayoral job upon his conviction in a Turkish court for reciting a provocative “jihadi poem” at a public gathering.

Putin had fallen out, spitefully, with Erdogan last November when Turkish troops shot down a Russian fighter jet that had strayed into Turkish airspace. That’s all forgotten now. The Turkish guest addressed his Russian host as “dear friend” three times in 10 minutes during their meeting.

Erdogan’s trip to Russia, his first abroad since the failed coup, was meant, partly, to be his tribute to the man he believes had saved his life and government. On the night of July 15 Russian intelligence officers at the Khmeimin airbase in Syria intercepted coded radio signals about preparations for an uprising by military units in Turkey. At Putin’s behest, they called Erdogan at a seaside Turkish resort to alert him about it. A squad of rebel soldiers, they told the Turkish leader, was in flight with orders to “capture or kill” him. Less than 15 minutes after the Erdogan and his family had left the Marmaris resort by an aircraft, 25 renegade Turkish soldiers barged into the hotel where he was staying, looking for him. Erdogan must have thanked his stars for making up with the Russian president a month earlier.

The Turkish president and his associates have accused the CIA of organizing the attempted rebellion in collusion with Erdogan’s arch rival Fethullah Gulen, a multi-billionaire Turkish cleric, living in Pennsylvania. The unorthodox Muslim cleric has built a vast network of schools, businesses and charities in Turkey and dozens of other countries. Critics say the pro-American Gulen has been planning to use his support base in his native Turkey to rule that country as a political and spiritual leader, as a Turkish Ayatollah Khomeini, so to speak. Except that unlike the Islamic fundamentalist revolutionary of Iran, Gulen is a pragmatic, modernizing religious leader.

The belief that the United States engineered the attempted putsch is widely shared by the Turkish public, 69 percent, according to one poll, and by several Turkish media organizations. Some print and electronic news outlets have detailed the alleged American complicity. The Yeni Safak (New Dawn) newspaper, based in Istanbul, has named retired U.S. Army Gen. John F. Campbell as “the man behind” the rebellion. The pro-government paper wrote that Campbell had been recruiting Gulenists in the Turkish armed forces for the coup for eight months. The general, the paper said, had been working with some 80 CIA operatives and distributed $2 billion among Turkish military officers and others through the Nigerian branch of the United Bank of Africa. Yeni Safak obtained most of the information from testimonies of the putschists in Turkish custody.

Then while the uprising was being crushed by angry crowds who had poured into the streets of Ankara and Istanbul at the call of their president, someone spotted a groups of distinguished foreigners behaving suspiciously at a luxury hotel on Princes’ Island outside Istanbul. Henri J. Barkey, a well-known former CIA official and Gulen’s mentor, was watching the insurrection on TV, along with 17 others. Among them, according to one account, was Graham E. Fuller, another former top-ranking CIA officer and long-time Gulen patron. Barkey had instructed the management of the Splendid Palas hotel to set up gadgets for connection to American TV channels.

“I will make a live interview with CNN International,” Barkey had informed them, “and with Voice of America.”

Gulen’s relationship with the CIA began in the 1980s and thickened in 1999 when he defected to the United States to escape capture by the then Turkish government, which had obtained a taped speech by him, instructing his followers to infiltrate government agencies to eventually seize the government. “Move into the arteries of the system without anyone noticing your existence,” he told them, “until you reach all the power centers.”

In the United States, Fuller was among three CIA-linked Americans who pushed for Gulen’s permanent residency, despite opposition from the State and Homeland Security departments. The other two were George Fidas, a 31-year CIA veteran, and Morton Abramowitz, U.S. ambassador to Turkey during 1989-1991, who is suspected to have been collaborating with CIA projects.

Some of my Turkish interlocutors have been saying that the CIA is the main source of Gulen’s staggering wealth ($25-$50 billion) and his schools and charities in Central Asia. Among those who exposed his CIA connection was the former head of Turkey’s foreign intelligence service, known by its Turkish acronym MIT (the “Turkish CIA”). In 2011 Osman Nuri Gundes published a book, saying Gulen’s Central Asian schools were honeycombed with CIA agents operating as “native-speaking English teachers.”

Regime Change

The CIA reportedly tapped Gulen to use him in a broader U.S. program to get Islam and Muslims to fight communism. The collaboration allegedly continues as part of the CIA’s and neoconservatives’ fight against Islamist movements, one of the many pie-in-the-sky American programs to fight Muslim extremism and terrorism. In any case, they included Erdogan’s AKP in the program.

Unlike Turkey’s Islamic fundamentalist organizations of earlier times, the AKP is a moderate or conservative Muslim party. But American neocons, intelligence agencies and leading media operations continue to consider it a typical Islamist party. They have been as hostile to Erdogan and the AKP as they are to the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and its imprisoned leader Mohammed Mursi. One can see their animosity toward Erdogan in the writings and rhetoric of Fuller, Barkey, Abramowitz, Michael Rubin, Frank Gaffney, Daniel Pipes and others. They have been castigating Erdogan’s Islamic “agenda” and “authoritarian” rule and making no secret of their impatience for a regime change in Ankara.

Intriguingly, on March 21 Rubin wrote an article on the American Enterprise Institute website under the headline, “Could there be a coup in Turkey?” He wrote: “The Turkish military would suffer no significant consequence should it imitate [Egyptian coup leader and now president] Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s game plan in Egypt, no one should be surprised if Turkey’s rocky politics soon get rockier.”

Some of these neocons and intelligence operatives have also been defending Gulen against Ankara’s repeated calls, being made for years for his extradition to answer charges in courts for his alleged subversive activities (before the recent coup attempt). The Erdogan government has ratcheted up those calls since the July 15 mutiny. The Obama administration’s persistent refusal to hand over Gulen to Turkey has deepened many Turks’ suspicion about alleged U.S. collusion with Gulen to overthrow the Erdogan government.

President Obama and other American officials have strongly denied allegations of a U.S. role in the Turkish rebellion, and Secretary of State John Kerry is expected to visit Turkey later this month to underscore U.S. support for that country and Erdogan’s democratically elected government. Gulen, too, has flatly denied any complicity in the uprising, although he said some of the Turkish troops who participated in it could be among his supporters.

I don’t expect Turkish-America ties to snap overnight. Relations between the the two old allies have survived Turkey’s invasion of Northern Cyprus in 1974, which infuriated President Lyndon Johnson; the Turkish parliament’s rejection of Americans’ plans to use their airbase in southern Turkey during the 2003 Iraq invasion; and other glitches.

But the dissension between Ankara and Washington has been too real, and going on for too long, to ignore. If I were to pick a time when the feuds began, I would say it was Operation Desert Storm, the 1991 U.S.-led war against Iraq to roll back its invasion of Kuwait.

Iraq used to be Turkey’s No. 1 trading partner, and relations between the two Muslim neighbors were cordial. The Turks were opposed to the war, but were “bullied” into it “despite our misgivings about it,” then Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit complained to visitors. As a NATO member, then impoverished and dependent on U.S. military aid and trade, Ankara couldn’t afford to turn down the U.S. demand to join the conflict. The war and the devastating U.S.-sponsored trade embargo on Iraq that followed completely ruptured Turkey’s trade and commercial relations with Iraq. A decade later the Ankara-based newspaper Turkish Daily News reported that Turkish trade with Iraq had dropped to 8 percent of its 1990 volume, costing Turkey between $80 billion and $100 billion.

“We have become America’s serfs,” Faris Estarda, a college graduate and centrist political activist working at Alibaba rug store near Istanbul’s Sultanahmet square, lamented to me during my 1999 trip. “They [the Americans] would start a war with a country to enlarge their empire or take out a government they don’t like, and they would order us pick up the guns and march. Or let them use Incirlik [U.S. military base in southern Turkey]. We can’t say no. Whatever that does to our economy, our relationships, we can’t say no.”

Freedom, Dignity

By the time the George W. Bush administration decided to invade Iraq, however, Turkish society and politics had changed dramatically. The democratic upheaval spearheaded by Erdogan and his AKP had ushered in an unprecedented economic boom and buoyed the Turks with a spirit of freedom and dignity they hadn’t felt sine the early 1920s when they defeated the victors of World War l to liberate Turkey from their occupation. Before and during the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the Turks were denouncing it as “unjust,” “imperialist,” and so forth. Erdogan, still on good terms with the United States, planned to help with the American war plan. But the Turkish parliament overwhelmingly rejected Washington’s request to use its Incirlik airbase for bombing runs in Iraq.

American politicians and foreign policy community were enraged. Many of them blamed the Turkish rebuff on the AKP-led Islamic resurgence. Ever since, relations between the two NATO partners have been deteriorating, mainly because U.S. strategic and policy objectives are clashing with Turkey’s security and economic interests.

During the Iraq war, the United States depended heavily on Kurdish and Shiite militias to do most of the ground fighting against Saddam Hussein’s Sunni Arab forces. The Bush administration didn’t want to use U.S. ground forces on front lines, fearing American casualties would erode U.S. public support behind the war.

To compensate for their support in the war, Americans let Shiites monopolize political power in Baghdad, and what has had more far-reaching consequences, looked the other way as the Shiite government and militias began a massive purge of Sunni Arabs from the military, bureaucracy and security forces. Simultaneously, Shiite militants and public went on ethnically cleansing Sunni Arabs from Shiite-majority towns and cities. That led to the rise of ISIS as the only defender of Sunni Arab victims of the U.S. invasion and Shiite pogrom. The tragedy that befell Sunni Arabs in Iraq spawned anger and anguish among many Sunni Turks across the border.

But it was America’s coddling of the Kurds that took – and is still taking – the heaviest toll on Turkish-U.S. relations. Iraqi Kurds had been fighting for decades, often against American resistance but with Israeli support, to create an independent or autonomous “Kurdistan,” comprising the three Kurdish-majority provinces in northern Iraq. As a price of their help with the U.S. war effort, the United States endorsed their Kurdistan project. Turkey objected to the project strenuously as it feared that the autonomous Kurdish territory in Iraq would become a staging ground for attacks into Turkey by secessionist Turkish Kurds. And it did. Turkey’s Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) terrorists have been fighting since 1984 for an autonomous or independent territory in southeastern Turkey, just as their ethnic kin had been in northern Iraq. PKK guerrillas now infiltrated Iraqi Kurdistan and began attacking targets in Turkey from there. The Erdogan government urged Washington over and over to expel the PKK guerrillas from northern Iraq. Americans did little in response, except denounce the PKK and ask the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq to throw them out, which the KRG ignored.

Besides its dependence on the fighting muscle of Iraqi Kurds, the United States also saw Iraqi Kurdistan as a strategic asset. After the Iraqi government of Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki rejected, under Iranian pressure, U.S. plans to build military bases in southern or central Iraq, the Pentagon and the CIA saw Iraqi Kurdistan as an alternative host to U.S. bases. Last month the Pentagon signed an agreement with the KRG to build five bases in Iraqi Kurdistan, apparently to carry out surveillance and launch military missions in the Middle East.

PKK guerrillas not only were using northern Iraq for their terrorist campaign in Turkey. They also made common cause with fellow Kurds in northern Syria, whom the United States has been using in its fight against ISIS. In the fog of the Syrian civil war, the Kurdish militia in Syria, known by its Kurdish acronym YPG, has staked out an autonomous region of their own, known as Rojava. The YPG has been supportive of the PKK and its secessionist struggle in Turkey. The Kurdish terrorists from Turkey have getting arms, ammunition and other logistical support from their fellow Kurds in Syria.

The Obama administration practically has ignored Ankara’s pleas to expel PKK fighters from Rojava, as it did before in Iraqi Kurdistan. Erdogan’s aides say the Turkish president was first befuddled by Obama’s indifference to his pleas. For months now, he has reportedly been convinced that the availability of Iraqi Kurdish territory for U.S. military bases has downgraded Incirlik’s importance to Washington, and Turkey’s, for that matter. America’s need for the YPG to fight ISIS is cited as the main reason the United States has been indifferent to the Syrian guerrilla group’s support for and collaboration with the PKK.

A widely circulated exchange at a U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee hearing was taken by Ankara as evidence that the United States is ready to forget about the Turks to preserve its ties to PYG. In April

U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter told the Senate panel that he believed YPG was aiding the PKK in its terrorist activities in Turkey. Sen. Lindsey Graham, who had returned from an investigation of the Turkish-PKK conflict, concurred with Carter’s assessment. The Texas Republican criticized the administration for “arming people inside of Syria who are aligned with a terrorist group” that was destabilizing Turkey. Arming the PKK-aligned Kurdish guerrillas in Syria was “the dumbest idea in the world,” he added.

The State Department immediately got its spokesman to disown the defense secretary’s comments. John Kirby told the press that Carter’s remarks on YPG was “his views and the Pentagon’s views.” The YPG was “not a designated foreign terrorist organization” and hence the United States had no problem arming them, he added. Kirby ignored Carter’s and Graham’s concerns about the threat that the YPG’s support for the PKK has posed to Turkey.

The Obama administration has a decision to make. If it thinks security and strategic relations with Turkey would continue to serve U.S. strategic interests, it has to accommodate two crucial demands of the Turks. First, the Obama administration needs to get its Syrian and Iraqi allies to stop aiding and abetting the PKK. Secondly, it should extradite Gulen to Turkey to answer allegations in Turkish courts about his role in the July 15 armed insurrection and other subversive operations.

An unwillingness to meet the two crucial Turkish demands would signal to the Turks that their assumption is right: Turkish-U.S. security and strategic relations have outlived their usefulness. Who knows, they may have.

  • Mustafa Malik covered Turkey as a newspaper correspondent and conducted fieldwork there and in Europe on Ankara’s relations with the European Union. He hosts the blog ‘Muslim Journey’ (http://muslimjourney.com)

Erdogan’s hello to Egyptians

THAT WAS A second in Turkish history. Democratic forces, led by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, overwhelmed Turkish military units that had attempted to overthrow the country’s democratically elected government.

It was a spectacular triumph for Erdogan, and more to the point, the democratic fervor and aspirations of the Turkish masses.

The first time Erdogan and the Turks foiled a military plot to overthrow their civilian government was in 2012, when the government of then Prime Minister Erdogan roped up hundreds of coup mongering military officers and soldiers, 322 of whom were sent to prison after lengthy trials. Since 1960 the power hungry Turkish military had overthrown four democratically governments.

During and after yesterday’s abortive military uprising, the Erdogan government arrested more than 2,800 military personnel, suspected of participating in what the president termed “an act of treason.” He vowed that the plotters would “pay a heavy price.”

I have known Erdogan for a while and am familiar with his commitment to democracy. He’s a single-minded man. He can be impulsive, too. But don’t get worked up by “authoritarian” and “autocratic” labels put on him by his detractors in Turkey and abroad. Most of them have been raving about his Islamic political background right from the beginning. They abound in the American media and political circles. These Americans have forgotten about slavery, the disenfranchisement of women, Jim Crow, and the enduring racism – all of which coexisted with the democratic process. Erdogan may be an imperfect practitioner the democratic art, but he’s the father of full-fledged democracy in Turkey, founded by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, an autocrat.

Erdogan impressed me with his commitment to true democracy during my first interview with him nearly two decades ago. A journalism fellow of the German Marshall Fund of the United States, I had been on a research trip through Western Europe and Turkey to assess the spread of Islamism among Turks and its possible impact on Ankara’s bid for accession to the European Union.

Then mayor of Istanbul, Erdogan had been convicted by a secularist court for reciting a poem at a public meeting that the judges said could have incited religious hatred. Intriguingly, the poem had been composed by an agnostic sociologist who was also a protagonist of secular Turkish nationalism. Zia Gokalp’s poem, entitled “Soldier’s Prayer,” likened Turks to Islamic soldiers, mosques to their military barracks and minarets to their swords.

Following Erdogan’s conviction, the ultra-secularist government of the day sacked him from his job as mayor. On August 2, 1998, when I arrived to interview him in Istanbul, the disgraced mayor was packing to vacate the mayor’s office. Apparently because of his belief that his political career would survive the conviction and a subsequent prison term, he showed a keen interest in Turkey’s accession to the EU.

He was eager to know what my interlocutors in France, Germany and Belgium had said about Turkey’s EU membership.

“Do they want us in,” he asked.

“I don’t know,” I said. “Some of them said they were concerned about your military’s grip on your democratic process.”

“I share their concern. We, our party [the Islamist Virtue Party], have been the worst victims of military coups.”

The previous year the army, which considered itself the guardian of Turkish secularism, had thrown out the democratically elected government of the Islamist Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan, Erdogan’s mentor. The generals accused Erbakan of posing a threat to the country’s secular political system.

Most EU officials, I said, wanted to see Turkey “a real democracy before they take a serious look at your membership application.”

“We want Turkey to be a full democracy. That’s one of the reasons we want to join the European bloc. That would help us secure democracy.”

I have since watched him, as prime minister and president, replace Turkey’s military-supervised, elitist political system with a full-blown democracy, as it can be in the ethnic contexts of the Turks and Kurds and their Islamic tradition. I’ve watched him reiterate his commitment to democracy over and over.

Yesterday I remembered Erdogan’s democratization campaign as I watched crowds pouring into the streets and squares of Ankara and Istanbul, facing down the rebellious troops and their tanks and rolling back their short-lived rebellion. And I was wondering why Egyptians couldn’t do the same thing in July 2013, when a military junta overthrew the democratically elected Islamist government of President Mohammed Mursi. Why couldn’t Egyptian crowds chase Gen. Abdul Fattah al-Sisis’s forces back into the barracks? Al-Sisi and his troops probably were more brutal than Turkey’s rebel soldiers and officers. They have mowed down hundreds of protesters, imprisoned and hanged hundreds of others and unleashed a reign of terror in Egypt.

My take on it is that unlike in Turkey, democratic consciousness and aspirations in Egypt have yet to jell among the public. In their 7,000-year history, Egyptians had never known elections and democracy until 2012, when Mursi was elected president and his fellow Islamists won a parliamentary majority. The Turks, on the other hand, have been having elections and nurturing a multi-party democratic process, albeit with occasional military interruptions, for some six decades now.

Democracy never takes root in a society in one smooth push. It’s a messy and long-tern business. The British took seven turbulent centuries to become a pro in the art. The Americans have been practicing it through slavery, a Civil War, Jim Crow and racism, whose latest manifestation has been a spate of killings of African Americans by white policemen and the slaughter of five white police officers by an African American man.

As I see it, four years ago Egyptians had a trial run of democracy. I bet the barbarity to the Sisi dictatorship is fueling a second, more determined democratic uprising in Egypt. A more enduring Arab Spring.

  • Mustafa Malik, an international commentator in Washington, hosts the blog: Muslim Journey (http://muslimjourney.com).

 

Terror bred by grievances, not Islam

PRESIDENT OBAMA’S speech at this week’s terrorism conference in the White House sounded to me like a broken record from the George W. Bush administration. Bush and his advisers attributed Muslim terrorism to Islam.

“Islam is a religion in which God requires you to send your son to die for him,” said John Ashcroft, Bush’s attorney general. “Christianity is a faith where God sent his son to die for you.”

President Obama, too, believes that Islam is a major source of Muslim terrorism. His aides have lined up a group of Muslim clerics, activists and governments to present a “moderate” interpretation of Islam to their fellow Muslims. But unlike his Republican predecessor, Obama is more sensitive about the sentiments of mainstream Muslims, who resent linking their religion to heinous acts like terrorism. Hence he camouflaged his reference to Islam with the phrase “distorted ideology.”

The Muslim “religion,” in the sense religion is understood in the West, has little to do with terrorism. I tried to explain in my last segment that Islam, unlike Western Christianity, doesn’t segregate a Caesar’s domain from God’s. All Muslim domains, private and public, belong to God. In practical terms, the Muslim public sphere is suffused with Islamic values and social outlook.

Of late that the Muslim public sphere has all but submerged under waves of anti-American and anti-Western sentiments. Surveys after surveys have shown that between 72% and 94% of populations in Muslim countries are hostile or antipathetic to America. Their antipathy derives mainly from U.S. foreign and defense policies toward Muslim societies.

Muslim societies are modernizing fast, while becoming more and more attached to Islamic values and Islamic cultural patterns. They’re more concerned about Islamic causes and the global Muslim community.

Obama’s attribution of Muslim terrorism showed his gross misunderstanding of Islam as well as the motives that propel some Muslims into acts of violence. The president came into office with very little grounding in international affairs, and has stuffed his administration with holdovers from the Bush and Bill Clinton administrations. He is, unfortunately but unsurprisingly, getting the same kind of off-the-wall, jingoist advice that doomed both previous administrations’ Muslim world policies.

Islam, as I said, is a both a private- and public-sphere religion. These days most Muslims are channeling their grievances against America or their own governments in the public sphere through the democratic process. They’re engaged in democratic movements and, when permitted, pushing their agendas through the electoral process. It signals a dramatic and healthy evolution of these movements since the late 1960s and early 1970s, when their watchword was “Islamic revolution.” Those days some of my Islamist acquaintances in Pakistan and Bangladesh espoused armed struggle against the “enemies of Islam” at home and abroad.

Among them is Motiur Rahman Nizami, the head of the Islamist Jamaat-e-Islami party in Bangladesh, now on the death row for his alleged involvement in the killing of Bangladeshi independence activists in 1971. I met him in 2003 after the Jamaat had won the second-largest number of seats in a Bangladeshi parliamentary election, catapulting him to the post of industries minister.

His sparsely furnished office was tucked away in the Motijheel business district in Dhaka, the Bangladeshi capital.

Did the Jamaat “still believed in armed struggle?” I asked.

He smiled, and instead of answering my question directly, he said, “Democracy is the best tool for us to spread the message of Islam.”

Because Islamic spirit and values are spreading quite rapidly in most Muslim countries, mainstream Islamists everywhere have come to believe that they no longer need violent methods to pursue their Islamization agenda. They’re avidly participating in democratic activism.

A second group of Islamists, known as terrorists, continue armed struggle to achieve their goals. They’re generally focused on resisting occupation and aggression by armed opponents. They include Al Qaeda, the Islamic State, Lashkar-e-Toiba and Jaish-e-Muhammad in Kashmir, Riadus Salikin and the Islamic International Brigade in Chechnya, the ETIM in China’s Xinjiang province, the Taliban in Afghanistan, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria, Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine in the Levant, Boko Haram in Nigeria, Chad and Niger, and so on. All these terrorist groups see themselves fighting to liberate their peoples from foreign occupation or defend them against domestic persecution.

Obama was talking, specifically, about the Islamic State terrorism in Syria and Iraq. The IS emerged to defend Iraq’s Sunni Arabs, who suffered horrible persecution and ethnic cleansing from the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq, the Iraqi Shiite governments and Shiite militias and the Bashar al-Assad government in Syria. As many other terrorist groups do, the IS also has engaged in gruesome slaughter and brutal persecution of innocent civilians. The world shouldn’t tolerate such crimes.

The fact remains, however, that these terrorist groups have been fighting for political, not religious, causes. They’re inspired or instigated by political and social grievances, not by the Quran or some “distorted ideology” based on it. Whether their causes or methods of operation are justified (Nobody would justify the slaughter of innocent people), is another matter.

 

Struggle for Bangladesh’s cultural soul

SYLHET, Bangladesh: Is modernity finally putting brakes on the Islamization campaign in Bangladesh? Is it eroding the nation’s ethnic culture? These questions keep haunting me during trips to Bangladesh. A visit yesterday to  Shahjalal University of Science and Technology in Sylhet lent the two questions special poignancy.

The population of what is now Bangladesh is nearly 90 percent Muslim. They were in the vanguard of the Pakistan movement. By the 1940s they had been fed up with the economic and cultural suppression by the dominant Hindu elites. They pulsated with the pan-Islamic fervor and  joined other Muslim communities in the Indian subcontinent in a campaign to carve out the Muslim state of Pakistan. Ironically, a veteran of the Pakistan movement was  Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, who would later lead the struggle to dismember Pakistan to create independent Bangladesh.

In fact Muslims in Bangladesh, which used to be called East Bengal and later East Pakistan, began to feel their Bengali ethnic pull soon after they had helped create Pakistan. Beginning in 1952, just five years after the birth of Pakistan, a movement to make Bengali an official language in Pakistan dramatized that ethnic resurgence. It was fueled by the repression of Bengalis in East Pakistan by non-Bengali political and military elites of West Pakistan. In 1971 that struggle culminated in East Pakistan breaking away from Pakistan’s western provinces.

But then, almost immediately after Bangladeshis severed their ties with their fellow Muslims in (West) Pakistan, their Islamic spirit began to revive again, almost with a vengeance. During several visits to Bangladesh I almost dazed from the sights of mosques and Islamic schools proliferating and prayer congregations overflowing mosques buildings. More and more Bangladeshi Muslim women began covering up their heads in colleges, government offices and market places. More and more Bangladeshi men wore Islamic clothing.

“It’s incredible,” Hamidul Huq Chowdhury, publisher of the Bangladesh Observer newspaper (where I once worked), exclaimed during my 1991 visit to his home in Dhaka, the Bangladeshi capital. He said the Islamic upsurge in post-independence Bangladesh, “is stronger and more widespread” than it was during the Pakistan movement.

Today Bangladeshi society appears to be undergoing a third cultural twist. Islam and modernity seem to be squaring off for the domination of Bangladeshi culture. Jannatul Ferdous Shikha, a demographic researcher I met yesterday at Shahjalal University, said Bangladesh was “Islamizing and modernizing” simultaneously. She didn’t wear a headscarf and expressed strong secularist views. She predicted that “secularism will overcome the backwardness and bigotry” of Bangladeshi Islamists. Shikha praised a “growing secular movement,” which she said was widening and deepening in Bangladesh.

“But it’s true,” said the political scientist, “that people [Bangladeshi Muslims] are acquiring religious habits. They follow whatever the “huzurs” [Muslim clerics] say. I don’t know why.” She said the Muslims showing enthusiasm for Islam don’t read Islamic scripture. “Many of them don’t pray, but are crazy about Islam, whatever they think it is.”

Some of the other professors and students I met on Shahjalal University campus pointed out that Bangladesh had been making notable progress economically and educationally.

During the last four decades the country’s capita GDP increased 10-fold to $2,000, and literacy rate tripled to 66 percent. Significantly, the modernizing trend has defied the equally dramatic increase in political and bureaucratic corruption and the endemic political violence and instability.

A Transparency International survey for a four-year period has found Bangladesh to be the world’s most corrupt country. My refusal to bribe Bangladeshi officials has made me face difficulties in reclaiming some of my farmlands and shares in fisheries from usurpers. I have learned from several reliable sources that magistrates in this Bangladeshi town take bribes for favorable judgments in criminal cases.

Yet I have been impressed by sights of the rapid improvements in Bangladesh’s roads and highways, and the mushrooming of schools, colleges, businesses and industries. Shaheena Sultana, assistant registrar at the university, said the economic progress and modernization was a “bigger story” than Islamization.

The physical and social spectacles in Bangladesh are sparkling with symbols of modernity and globalization. Roads and streets – once shared by bicycles, bullock carts, goats and cows and occasional passenger buses – are now often clogged by cars, trucks, and streams of buses. Cell phones, including smartphones, are used almost universally throughout the country. An ever-growing number of Bangladeshis wear blue jeans and slacks, dropping the native male skirt called “lungi.” Most urban dwellers can speak English or  understand necessary English terms.

In fact English is replacing Bengali in the business and industrial culture of Bangladesh. On my way to Shahjalal University, I could hardly see an all-Bengali store sign. Those signs bore wholly or partly English names, usually written in the Bengali script: Holy City Grammar School and College, Modern Hair Dressers, Shourobh [Bengali word for fragrance] Stationery Store, Shopto Dinga [seven-canoe] Foreign Furniture, Derai [name of a place] Bedding House, Baraka [Arabic word for blessing] Arabic Learning Center, Messrs Ilyas [man’s name] and Sons, and so on.

On some of those signs, the English script is appended to the Bengali one.

What a paradigm shift! Who could have imagined during the Bengali language movement in East Pakistan in the 1950s that Bengali Muslims would one day trade their cherished native language and concepts for foreign ones?

The twin movements of Islamization and modernization, which are at loggerheads themselves, are clearly corroding Bengali ethnic values and cultural idiom in Bangladesh. I’m wondering whether Islam or modernity is going to be the final winner.

Or modernized Islam?

  • Mustafa Malik, who hosts the blog ‘Beyond Freedom,’ is traveling in Bangladesh and India.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Liberal counterrevolution

SYLHET, Bangladesh – Reazul Karim was poring over the list of the newly elected members of the Bangladesh parliament, published in the Bengali-language newspaper Jugantar. A majority of them – 153 in the 300-member legislature – was elected unopposed. Most of the opposition parties had boycotted the elections.

Bangladesh is going through an anti-democratic secularist wave that’s sweeping many other Muslim countries, where democracy turned up Islam-oriented governments or movements.

“This is our kind of democracy,” said Karim, my fellow alumnus of the local Murarichand College.  We were having tea and sticky-rice pudding at my home in this Bangladeshi town of Sylhet. “Very few of these touts would have been elected if the BNP had put up candidates.”

The BNP, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, is a pro-Islamic political party allied with the now-banned Islamist party, Jamaat-i-Islami.  The BNP is the largest of the 18 opposition parties that had sat out the Jan. 5 vote.  They were protesting the secularist government’s refusal to hold the elections under a neutral caretaker government, which had been in practice in Bangladesh.  The ruling Awami League party, as also some of the others, has a record of rigging elections when in power.

Since 2010 the Awami League government of Sheikh Hasina Wajed, the prime minister, has become increasingly unpopular. And it got the parliament to rescind the caretaker law, apparently fearing losing this year’s elections, if held under the supervision of a caretaker government.

A week after Hasina put together her new, undemocratic Bangladeshi Cabinet, the military-appointed secular Egyptian government announced that its undemocratic constitution had been endorsed in a referendum by 98 percent of the votes. Just six months before, in Egypt’s first-ever free and fair elections, the Islamist Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) had routed the liberals and other secularists. The FJP is rooted in the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood movement and Mohammed Mursi, a leader of both organizations, became the country’s first democratically elected president.

The defeated liberals turned to the traditionally power-hungry Egyptian army to overthrow the Mursi government through a coup d’état, which it did enthusiastically. The military junta was, however, bitterly criticized by the international community for its murder of democracy and more than 1,000 Egyptians who protested it. So it got its subservient civilian Cabinet to produce a new constitution, allowing the military a central role in the country’s governance.

The Egyptian regime’s announcement that its constitution had won 98 percent of the votes reminded me of a similar Bangladeshi vote. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the founder of Bangladesh and father of Hasina, the current prime minister, was reputed to have received 98.5 percent of the votes cast in the last election of his life.

Yet when Mujib was assassinated in a 1975 military coup, not a single soul in Bangladesh mourned the father of the nation (not publicly, at least) and the country celebrated its freedom from the tyranny under his one-party rule.

The anti-democratic secularist movements such as have flared up in Bangladesh and Egypt have also been stalking Turkey, Tunisia, Mali and other Muslim countries where democracy turned up Islam-oriented governments, or promised to do so. I’m not surprised by it. Just about all revolutions – the French, the American, the Lutheran, and so forth – have been followed by a violent reactionary phase.  Post-Revolutionary France had its Girondin-Jacobin Reign of Terror. Post-Reformation Switzerland its often-violent Calvin-Zwingli pogroms.  In post-Emancipation America, the Jim Crow-era persecution of African Americans and white progressives was as reactionary and brutal. But they all fizzled, often contributing to the revolutions the healthier aspects their agendas.

The Islamic revivalist and reformist movements that have been smoldering in much of the Muslim world since the late 1970s are  a revolution in progress.  We’re in the eye of that tsunami, and hence often fail to see its epic proportions.  Today’s anti-democratic irruptions of liberals and other anti-Islamic elements in the Muslim world are a transient episode. It eventually will give way to the widening and deepening Islam-based movements for social renewal. Most other counterrevolutionary movements have throughout history.

Anup Kumar Datta, a philosopher in the Bangladeshi capital of Dhaka, said to me last week that Bangladeshi society has, in Hegelian parlance, entered upon its antithetical phase.  Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel had said that a social paradigm, or “thesis,” spurs forces resisting it. He called it “anti-thesis.”  Eventually, said the German philosopher, the clash between the two trends leads to the evolution of a healthier social “synthesis.”

To me, today’s liberal reactions to Islam-oriented democratic governments and movements are a precursor to the evolution and renewal of many Muslim societies. The process of that evolution will synthesize Islam’s key principles of justice, charity and fraternity with the liberal values of freedom, tolerance and pluralism.

  • Mustafa Malik is a columnist and writer in Washington. He hosts the blog Just Freedoms (http://beyond-freedom.com).

 

Let EU rein in Egypt’s military junta

I’M RELIEVED to see that Egypt’s military junta has blinked first in its bloody confrontation with the Muslim Brotherhood. The regime apparently has dropped its interior minister’s threat to stamp out the Brotherhood sit-ins. Tens of thousands of supporters of Mohammad Mursi have since been allowed to stage rallies, demanding his reinstatement as president. Mursi was elected president on the ticket of the Freedom and Justice Party, the Brotherhood’s political arm.

The generals who staged the June 30 putsch against his government are in a pickle now! So it seems is the Obama administration, which had befuddled or amused many by its persistent refusal to call their coup as a coup. The government of Egypt’s interim President Adly Mansour, appointed by the military chief Gen. Abdul Fattah el-Sisi, can’t dismantle the Islamist sit-ins without a catastrophic bloodbath. That would make the junta an international pariah.

The Mansour regime is already becoming paralyzed, as it can’t make headway with its planned overhaul of the constitution without a settlement with the Brotherhood, Egypt’s largest and best-organized political organization. The Islamist group is fast regaining its strength, eroded during last months of the Mursi presidency, as it has paid a high price in blood to resist the military-backed autocracy. The Brotherhood’s campaign against bureaucratic meddling with the country’s constitution could block the project.

I see a silver lining, however, in the European Union’s diplomatic effort to defuse the Egyptian crisis. Catherine Ashton, the EU foreign policy chief, is working with the generals and Brotherhood sources to help Egypt resume its democratic process. The United States’ failure to oppose the overthrow of Mursi’s democratic government has alienated it, at least for now, to the Brotherhood. This leaves Ashton mission the best tool to untangle the Egyptian imbroglio.

The Obama administration has become the butt of jokes around the world for playing with words to avoid describing Mursi’s ouster by the military as a coup. It’s doing so to circumvent the American law that demands the cut off of aid to any country in which the military has overthrown a democratic government. The administrations thinks that Israel’s security interests requires it to continue the aid flow to Egypt, no matter what.

Ever since the 1978 Camp David Accords, brokered by President Jimmy Carter, the United States has been giving Egypt more than $1 billion annually, mostly in military aid, which essentially is the price for Egypt’s continued adherence to the treaty. That treaty neutralizes Egypt, the most populous Arab country, in the ongoing Arab-Israeli belligerency. President Obama and his advisers obviously fear that stopping U.S. aid could jeopardize the Egyptian military’s commitment to that peace accord.

During his brief, one-year presidency, Mursi had disillusioned large numbers of Egyptians. They held huge public rallies, demanding his abdication. Many of them eventually supported the military as it toppled him from power.

It has happened in many other post-colonial countries. Initially, democratic governments fail to fulfill people’s aspirations, generated by democratization campaigns. Many of them give military adventurists a chance to do a better job of giving them the goodies. But their trust in power-hungry generals doesn’t take long to evaporate.

Egyptians’ frustration with Mursi was partly manufactured by the military, judicial and bureaucratic establishments. They resented their accountability to his democratic government and sabotaged many of his economic, infrastructure and constitutional programs.

But the mobs mobilized against Mursi don’t have viable political organizations. And the feckless Mansour government’s rubber-stamping military decisions, including the massacres of Brotherhood supporters, already has begun to antagonize many of Egyptians who opposed Mursi.

I expect the Freedom and Justice Party to win Egypt’s next democratic elections as well, or form a powerful constitutional opposition. The United States needs to mend fences with the Brotherhood. It should backtrack from its tacit acceptance of military coup and throw its full weight behind the EU mission in Egypt.

Egypt’s return to the democratic track would extricate the administration from its embarrassing amnesia about the murder of a newborn democracy.

Mustafa Malik is an international affairs commentator in Washington. He covered Egypt and the Middle East as reporter and conducted fieldwork there as a researcher for the University of Chicago Middle East Center.

Pulling US chestnuts out of Egypt fire

EGYPT’S MILITARY junta is in a pickle! It can’t dismantle the Muslim Brotherhood sit-in camp, as it has vowed to do, without a catastrophic bloodbath. That would make the military junta an international pariah, especially after it overthrew the democratically elected government of President Mohammed Mursi. More ominously, a large-scale army massacre would rally more and more Egyptians behind the Brotherhood, paralyzing the military administration. On the other hand, if the administration of Gen. Abdul Fattah al-Sisi fails to carry out its threat to remove the anti-coup crowd from Cairo’s Rabaa al-Adawiya Square, the outcome would be the same, and more dramatic. A victory over the military regime would rejuvenate the Islamist organization and expand its support base, probably to an unprecedented level. That, too, would paralyze military rule. Either scenario could also dissuade the Sisi regime from proceeding with its so-called democratic reforms. A strengthened Brotherhood party – the Freedom and Justice Party – would return to power with a vengeance through any democratic process in which it would participate. The Egyptian military’s power grab, though still not considered a coup in Washington, has also put the Obama administration in an embarrassing pickle. The administration isn’t willing to jettison the Egyptian military, whose adherence to the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty has been pivotal to Israeli security. Yet its tacit support for Egypt’s murderous military dictatorship has got the administration stuck in an unseemly foreign policy fiasco. I have a suggestion that could help the Obama administration pull its chestnut, along with that of the Sisi cabal, out of the Egyptian fire. President Obama may want to call on his Turkish friend, Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, to begin mediation between the the Egypt’s military government and Muslim Brotherhood. Erdogan would be trusted by the Brotherhood and acceptable to the military brass. He is uniquely placed to broker an arrangement to de-escalate the dangerous confrontation, and help usher in a process to restore democracy in Egypt. Mustafa Malik is an international affairs commentator in Washington. He hosts the blog Beyond Freedom.

Don’t write Brotherhood off too soon

(Published in The Daily Star, Lebanon, July 16, 2013)

Alejandro Jodorowsy said, “Birds born in a cage think flying is an illness.” The French filmmaker’s remark was resoundingly vindicated by Egypt’s liberal elites. They led massive crowds against President Muhammad Mursi and succeeded in getting the all-too-willing army to overthrow his year-old democratically elected government. The army-appointed interim president, Adly Mansour, has announced a shotgun process to overhaul the constitution, created by a democratically elected legislature, and produce a pliant “elected” government.

The Egyptian activists and masses who had agitated for the overthrow of the Mursi government should have realized by now that the army has taken them for a ride. Its has used the anti-Mursi rallies as a cover for dumping the democratic process and reimposing its stranglehold on the government and the economy. So far the liberal elites are either cooperating with the army or looking the other way.

This is because most of today’s Egyptian liberals and others were born during the six decades the country languished under uninterrupted military dictatorships. They had never known democracy until the 2012 elections that ushered in the government of Mursi, a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood.

The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood is a moderate, fast-evolving Islamist organization, the oldest in the Middle East. Throughout its 85-year history, the Brotherhood has been subjected to brutal repression by successive dictatorial regimes. Through it all, its membership and support grew steadily among all sectors of Egyptian society.

Saad Eddin Ibrahim, one of Egypt’s best-known secularist intellectuals, lamented to me in Cairo in 1995 that “foolish mishandling” of the Brotherhood by dictators had made it popular. Otherwise, the movement would have “fizzled” long before.

During several reporting and research stints, I found, however, that while brutal persecution by dictators and the hostility of secularist groups had endeared the Brotherhood among Egypt’s many devout Muslims, the organizations’s strategy of moderation and its members’ adaptation to modernity have been the main sources of its stamina and public appeal.

Muslim Brothers are among the best-educated in Egypt. Mursi has a Ph.D. in engineering from the University of South Carolina. Essam el-Erian, the head of his political party, Freedom and Justice, is a physician.
To most Egyptian secularists, however, the Brotherhood has been anathema.

Ever since Egypt slipped under the military dictatorship of Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1952, most of the country’s upper class secularists collaborated with successive military dictators and benefited from their patronage. If you tried to talk with them about their government, most of them would change the subject. During the Mubarak era, the only educated people who would talk freely about Egyptian politics were members and supporters of the Brotherhood and the youth – not the older and wiser ones – among progressives and liberals.

Many of the secularists were hurt professionally and financially when the Mubarak dictatorship was thrown out of power by the 2011 revolution. Many of them have now jumped on the military bandwagon.

It’s a familiar drama, played out in many Muslim (and non-Muslim) post-colonial societies. Among them Indonesia, Turkey, Algeria, Nigeria, Sudan, Mali, Pakistan and Bangladesh. In many of those countries the democratic process encountered military intervention, in some more than once, but eventually growing political consciousness succeeded in taming power-hungry generals.

My native town is Sylhet in what used to be Pakistan’s eastern province and is now Bangladesh. In the summer of 1946 the leader of the Pakistan movement, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, paid a brief visit there. The town was paralyzed by an unprecedented human avalanche.

Many of the visitors, I was told later, had walked 20 or 30 miles, to have a glimpse of the leader of their struggle for independence from British colonial rule. Some shed tears of joy when Jinnah stepped up to the podium to give his speech in Urdu, which most of the Sylheti-speaking audience didn’t understand.

In a few years East Pakistanis became disillusioned with Pakistan’s central government, based in what was West Pakistan. The old West Pakistan is what is left of Pakistan since East Pakistan’s secession. East Pakistanis’ main grievance against the Pakistani government was its failure to alleviate their grinding poverty. Their frustration deepened when Pakistani army generals, supported by a Western-oriented bureaucracy, established a decade-long dictatorship, interrupting the nascent democratic process. In 1971 East Pakistan broke away from Pakistan to become independent Bangladesh.

Two years later the founder of Bangladesh, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, visited Sylhet, and was also greeted by huge crowds. But while Bangladeshis had taken 22 years to rise up against Pakistani rule, they staged the first a anti-Mujib rally in Dhaka, the capital, 23 days after Mujib became the country’s president. Public frustration with the Mujib regime reached its peak two years later, when Mujib was assassinated in a military coup.

Not a soul in all Bangladesh came out to the street, or held a meeting or issued a statement to condole the murder of the father of the nation. Bangladeshis’ disillusionment with the Mujib government was spawned mostly by a devastating famine, shortages of necessities and widespread government corruption, which followed the birth of Bangladesh. Today democracy, though more chaotic than in many other countries in the region, has taken root in Bangladesh. Few Bangladeshis expect the return of an extended military dictatorship.

In Egypt, as we know by now, crippling power shortages, the near-collapse of the security apparatus and other administrative and economic problems were artificially created by Mubarak-era employees and anti-democratic activists. Their purpose was to discredit Mursi’s democratic government. I believe that few Egyptians would enjoy very long the sights of corrupt anti-democratic politicians, judges and pundits back in power or on the air waves. Fewer still would like to see the army, which they struggled hard to dislodge from political power, pulling the levers of government once again.

A democratic process in Egypt wouldn’t have legitimacy without the participation of the Brotherhood, the country’s largest political organization with deep roots in society. Most Egyptians are devout Muslims. Despite their frustration with Mursi, the Brotherhood’s Islam-oriented political agenda will continue to resonate among large numbers of them.

I don’t know how long it will take, but democracy will eventually prevail in Egypt, as it has in many other post-colonial countries. While the upper crust of the liberal establishment may continue to collaborate with an army-led government, post-revolutionary Egyptians in general are much too politicized and rights conscious to accept any system other than full-fledged democracy. And if the democratic process has to work in Egypt, the Brotherhood would need to be its integral part.

Mustafa Malik is an international affairs commentator in Washington. He hosts the blog ‘Islam and the West.’

Abbas to U.S.: Go fly a kite!

The Independent echoed the common Western views of  Salam Fayyad’s resignation. The Palestinian prime minister’s exit had “thro[wn] into doubt the future of the Palestinian Authority and the peace process with Israel,” observed the liberal British newspaper.

Has Fayyad’s parting really caused  – or rather reflected – the crisis facing the Palestinian government and the futility of its peace overtures o Israel?

A former International Monetary Fund economist, Fayyad had never got involved in the Palestinian movement or become a member of Fatah, the ruling faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization. In 2007 Mahmoud Abbas, the P.A. president, brought him into his administration at the behest of Washington, which has kept his government afloat with considerable financial assistance.  With American support behind him, Fayyad had been throwing his weight around, occasionally in disregard to Abbas’s agenda or wishes. Abbas and the  Fatah old guard had been tolerating his hubris to keep Western aid flowing in and hoping for U.S. support in their quest for statehood.

Things have since changed dramatically.  The peace process, which was meant to create a Palestinian state, is practically dead. President Obama apparently drove the last nail into its coffin during his recent visit to Israel. He abandoned his demand of Israel to stop building Jewish settlements in the West Bank and all but identified with Israel’s positions in its disputes with the Palestinians. Nobody thinks much of Secretary of State John Kerry’s noise about reviving the peace process.

The P.A. was created tin 1994, following up on the Oslo Accords, to establish a Palestinian state through peaceful negotiations with the Israelis. Its utter failure to make progress toward statehood or stop the proliferation of Jewish settlements in  the West Bank has made it almost irrelevant to the Palestinian cause.

On top of it, the P.A. faces a serious financial crisis, about which America and the West have been indifferent. Unemployment in the West Bank has risen to 25 percent and real GDP growth is projected to fall from 11 percent to 5 percent. The simmering feuds between Abbas and Fayyad burst out last month when the prime minister forced Nabil Qassis, an Abbas protege, to quit his finance minister post. An infuriated Abbas overruled Fayyad’s decision, precipitating the premier’s resignation.  I’m told that Kerry and European diplomats were shocked by the Palestinian president’s defiance of their pressure to keep Fayyad aboard his government.

Abbas knew, of course, that America and the West could retaliate by cutting off economic aid, which could cause the collapse of the PA.

Why, then, did he do it?

Palestinian sources had been telling me for some time that Abbas and some other PA leaders were increasingly feeling the sting of accusations that they had been hanging on to power as American “puppets” who had outlived their usefulness for Palestinians.  The PA lost its legal legitimacy three years ago when its term of office as an elected government expired.  The Abbas government has thrice put off presidential and parliamentary elections since they were first scheduled July 17, 2010. The P.A. had disagreements with the Islamist Hamas movement over the electoral process, but it also fears losing the vote to Hamas, which soundly defeated Fatah in the 2006 Palestinian parliamentary elections.

Hamas’s popularity among the Palestinians has grown dramatically since last year’s Gaza war, in which it faced down the Israeli military behemoth. The Fatah can’t expect to regain its preeminence as a Palestinian independence movement without making tangible progress toward Palestinian statehood. Only American pressure on Israel, unlikely as it seems, can yield such progress.

By defying Washington’s pressure to keep its man on as prime minister, Abbas is in effect telling  telling America: “Here I stand, I can do no other,” a la Martin Luther.

◆ Mustafa Malik, an international affairs commentator in Washington, hosts the blog Beyond Freedom.