Tag Archives: constitution

A quick update on Egypt

TW: 2013 Egyptian Coup

There’s a lot happening in Egypt at the moment, and I don’t think I have the wherewithal to untangle the whole mess in just one post, especially at the moment. That said, there’s one particular part of it that seems particularly interesting: the role of Al-Jazeera in covering the current coup.


(A threatening message dropped at an Al Jazeera studio in Cairo which reads, “A lying camera kills a nation reads a flyer thrown outside Al Jazeera office in Cairo.” From here.)

To provide some background, while it seems absolutely necessary to discuss the recent ousting of the Morsi government as a coup, many Egyptians have articulated why they viewed the consequential harm to the democratic norms in the post-Mubarak era as worth it. This has frequently focused on how Morsi government was influencing the on-going drafting of a new Egyptian constitution, which would have had long term ramifications for their country. That calculation should be for Egyptians to make, not for US media commentators who take a dim view on Egyptians as a whole.

That concept of these events needing to be evaluated and judged by Egyptians unfortunately doesn’t seem lacking among those that view the coup as the correct course. The Qatari-owned Al-Jazeera news channel has come under allegations of attempting to coerce Egyptian journalists into painting a rosier picture of the Morsi government and a more negative depiction of the coup than they perceived to be truthful. One critic even complained-

Sadly, this seems to somewhat track previous questionable behavior by Al-Jazeera. In both coverage of the Malian and recent Egyptian government, Al Jazeera has appeared unwilling to challenge the government’s legitimacy because of some appearance of democratic support. In contradiction with David Brooks’ screed, they seem invested in the success of those somewhat democratic governments that they will avoid embodying one of the greatest democratic forces: a critical media. I hope there are better ways of reminding them of that, however, than with threats.

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And you’ll like it!

TW: anti-Roma violence

So a few people have been abuzz over the recent Hungarian constitutional changes. There’s pretty clearly a precarious political situation developing in that country, as the inability to use existing hate crimes laws to prosecute anti-Roma hate crimes shows (sorry it’s only available in pdf format). I have significant qualms about the agendas pushed at times by Der Spiegel (which has supported the politicized aid stipulations put upon Greece) and by Human Rights Watch (which had many high-ranking members lobby for the Iraq War), but their reporting puts together a rather worrisome picture of Hungary’s current trajectory. Ignoring their prescriptions to the problem (since both organizations have proven all too fallible in terms of determining the correct course of action), their descriptions (which are corroborated elsewhere) tackle very different dimensions of the developing problems.


(A 2012 vigil for a 2009 killing of a Roma man and his son in Tatárszentgyörgy, Hungary, from here.)

Der Spiegel’s coverage is quite clear: one issue is how Hungary is effectively creating an incentive for those educated there to stay and work there for at least a few years following their post-university entrance into the labor force. As Der Spiegel puts it, it’s a “measure meant to curb the emigration of highly-educated workers and academics”. That seems imminently reasonable for a comparatively small country with highly liberalized immigration laws that allow workers to be easily poached by other EU nations. The article briefly lays out a few other changes in the same section of new laws that the parliament has now effectively written into the constitution, but it doesn’t exactly dwell on their purpose or function.

That’s where the Human Rights Watch’s piece comes into play. It doesn’t actually examine the impacts on immigration much at all, and instead cuts straight to the heart of how life within Hungary will be impacted by the assorted other changes. In short, the results don’t sound very good. A few Fidesz (the currently governing party) officials have put out English language explanations which I won’t link to provide them any more coverage, but suffice it to say, they’re claiming that new language defining families with explicit references to sexual reproduction are no cause of concern for queer Hungarian families. They’re claiming that the Hungarian state’s preservation of a vague commitment to provide housing makes up for the de facto criminalization of homelessness. They’re pretending that preferential support of certain religious groups over others is something other than religious establishment. They’ve passed over the fact that among the new changes also allow the National Judicial Office to transfer cases (particularly political corruption cases) to inexperienced rural courts that are rarely reported on.

Many politically-active Hungarians have been raising the alarm for some time now that a tide of antisemitic and anti-Roma sentiment was rising, but that seems to have been part of a larger vision among conservative Hungarians of a better Hungary with “proper” families, no undesirable homeless, and no corruption (within eyesight or earshot). An apparent lack of Jews or Roma was merely one facet of how society needed to be reformed in their view. But what’s more, that vision comes along with laws designed to keep many younger Hungarians stuck there with them. You’ll partake in their utopia, and supposedly, you’ll like it too.

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The means and ends in Turkey

TW: 1980 Turkish coup

Turkish prosecutors pushed yesterday for extensive sentences for a significant number of the former military and security forces members, who are alleged members of the shadowy ultranationalist network known as Ergenekon, the name of which alone explicitly taps into an almost fascistic ideas of a Turkish national rebirth. International press has been quick to characterize public reaction in Turkey as having been largely negative – with protests in Silivri, where the trial is being conducted.

Türklerin ergenekon'dan çıkışları
(It’s hard to view an organization named for a mythic, exclusively Turkish place as anything but ridiculously ultranationalist. From here, this picture depicts “the Turkish emigrants of Ergenekon,” who were ostensibly the ancestors of modern Turks.)

It’s difficult to not see this as fitting into a broader discussion about legal rights and expectations in contrast with the political culture that surrounds and interacts with those rights. As I mentioned a few months back, Turkey’s recent democratization has largely been focused on challenging norms, not questioning laws or revising the constitution. The current trial is more of the same with its focus on rooting out the Ergenekon organizers and their intents without substantively challenging the power and practices of many of the same individuals, but while actively serving in the military or security forces. There is an obvious point to that – discouraging a murky underworld from trying to fill the roles of official representatives of the state. In some sense, this trial could be seen as a defensive measure against even more untethered actors entering the political fray.

But is what Turkey really needs right now more work on its broader political culture? As the Johannesburg Times suggested – this case is understood by many as a strike against the more secular and undemocratic military and surrounding political power. To what extent is this an effort to maintain law and order on the current Turkish government’s part? And to what extent is this an expansive effort to assert a more religious and civilian soft power where military soft power once ruled?

It seems in some ways that this current trial is an attempt to reinvent the political context surrounding the trial against the leaders of the 1980 coup last year. The case against them was much stronger, however, and was situated differently. A demand for justice for the thousands of Turks tortured or even killed to a large extent forced the trial to occur, with the aim of in some sense altering the political reality that both of those Turkish leaders had lived with impunity for decades following their crimes. Out of recalling and joining in the accompanying national discussion of how many lives were impacted by the coup, a bit of skepticism against the military seemed to become quite nakedly popular at the time.

It seems as though Erdoğan’s government is trying to rebuild or further that indirect outcome of the 2012 trial. The means are hoped to be the same (although the different public responses seem to suggest gross miscalculation on the government’s part), but the ends are ultimately different. Instead of seeking justice, it’s hard not to see this as either a defensive effort to contain the political situation if not a claim of political power over the military. Perhaps there’s a need for that, but it’s worth remembering that that’s what Turkey’s former President, Kenan Evren, allegedly hoped to similarly restore or preserve political order.

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Constitution and Culture

TW: military occupation and political coercion of Afghanistan, Kurdish-Turkish conflicts and violence

Turkey’s recent party elections (which allowed Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to remain the head of the ruling party) and upcoming Presidential Elections (in which Erdoğan seems likely to run) are an interesting and unexamined contrast to the US-led “nation-building” and democratization of Afghanistan. Both nations experienced massive political upheaval throughout the end of the twentieth century. Turkey survived three military coups, and Afghanistan saw its local monarchy succumb to Soviet occupation which in turn degraded into civil war and effective theocratic rule. In the first few years of the twentieth century, however, the US invaded and began occupying Afghanistan while pushing the development of a democratic and constitutional government. In Turkey, Erdoğan, then the mayor of İstanbul, formed the now-governing AK Party and led a comparatively peaceful and mostly electoral democratic transition. In his potential bid for the presidency, a major issue will be the lack of a replacement to the current constitution which was designed under military dictatorship.

While there are clear similarities in the overall political arch of the two countries for the past few decades, there’s a number of clear differences: most obviously, Turkey’s comparative wealth to Afghanistan’s undeniable poverty and Turkey’s endogenous democratization to Afghanistan’s part in Bush’s plan for the Islamic world. Less commonly addressed, I think, is the catch-22 that both nation’s have struggled with in different ways – for Afghanistan to create a constitution with minimal change in the broader culture and for Turkey to repair major problems in the larger political context without substantively challenging the flaws in the existing constitution.

The modern constitution of Afghanistan was adopted by consensus at a large delegate meeting of representatives of various ethnic groups and tribes and political factions, essentially organized by the US government. The political process was primarily shaped by foreign political pressure and domestic elites. Unsurprisingly, it failed to substantively address the underlying causes of terrorism and other violence against the succeeding government. As Sakena Yacoobi, Afghani literacy and women’s rights activist, explained in 2009-

“Many people tell me that Afghanistan should have democracy, but how can a society, a nation, have democracy when the people of that nation don’t know how to read and write? How can you implement a democracy if people don’t know their rights? We have a constitution, but it needs to be implemented. We cannot just talk about democracy. We have to prepare people for democracy.”

The constitution developed in 2003 remained little more than a piece of paper to millions of poor and effectively disenfranchised civilians in Afghanistan. Yacoobi also identifies the major issues that then newly-elected President Obama would need to focus on to actually substantively democratize Afghanistan:

“Peacekeeping is one way to negotiate with [civilians sympathetic to militants], but right now, for maintaining security, I think that troops are needed — but our own troops, not American. If the United States really wants to help stabilize our country, I would tell President Obama that the United States should direct its resources to planning, developing the infrastructure, and providing jobs for the people of Afghanistan and region. If people have enough to eat, a job, money to support their family, then they would not resort to suicide bombing, blowing themselves up and innocent people. Countries need some sort of national security — but most foreign troops are not primarily focused on protecting women and children. Their focus is on beating the enemy, which is very different, and ordinary citizens become collateral damage in the process.”

With stability in Afghanistan increasingly seeming unglued in spite of significant US support and cooperation with local security forces, it seems as though her warning for the course of action the US would need to take should have been heard years earlier under Bush. By the time Obama began implementing such solutions, the country had already politically disintegrated,  not from lack of a constitution but from the lack of a political context that could give such political items actual power.

Guards outside of the Loya Jirga, Afghanistan 2004.Turkish youth federation protesters who would be accused of terrorism

(Left, armed guards outside of the delegate meeting on Afghanistan’s constitution, 2004 – from here. Right, Turkish student protesters holding up a sign saying, “The Youth Federation wants and will get free education” who were charged with membership in a terrorist organization and given months or years in prison – from here.)

The current political problems in Turkey, however, are a sign that democratization that’s locally-arising and focuses on larger political issues and values isn’t necessarily enough to create lasting and effective change, especially when the constitution and legal system remain more or less unchanged. It’s hard to deny the ways the AK Party and Prime Minister Erdoğan specifically have changed political discussion in Turkey – as an even-handed analysis has to admit he’s shut-out a military which historically served as a check against democratic demands. He’s become a human incarnation of the idea that moderate Islam, representative government, and explosive economic development can be effectively combined, changing political discussions throughout the Islamic world.

But while the right to vote is not so precariously dependent on being tolerated by the military, the government has retained confusing and sometimes arbitrary limitations on freedom of speech, some of which were even used against the reformer party that now controls the government. Likewise, freedom from military violence and coercion seems exclusively a benefit that’s been gained by ethnic Turks, as violence between Kurdish separatists and the Turkish military has now reached a fever pitch. Erdoğan has helped significantly change the political culture of Turkey – but only for some and in certain circumstances, and increasingly to personal rather than national benefit. The constitution has been left unchanged since a coup decades ago and consequently gives these failures legal cover. The new system proposed by his government contains a poison pill of sorts, with it giving the presidency that Erdoğan is vying for more executive power. The larger political context of Turkey could only change so much, and the inattention to the problems with its constitution are exacerbating that problem.

The inevitable problem seems to be that constitutional and legal reform is necessary to effective democratization, but that contemporaneous changes to the broader political context and discourse in the country have to be significant. Simultaneously, the development of a substantively democratic culture requires to some degree legal and constitutional protections. We’re dealing with the chicken and the egg here – to focus very hard on only one as in Afghanistan and Turkey destroys the feedback cycle between the two, which might be the only way towards authentically democratic governance.

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