The Middle East Channel

Morsi gives the Egyptian army the authority to make arrests

Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi has authorized the military to make arrests after the revocation of a constitutional decree on Saturday failed to quell protests. Morsi participated in a national dialogue on Saturday and rescinded the decree issued on November 22, which extended executive powers, and has since sparked unrest. Morsi issued a new decree Saturday night and said that a referendum on the Islamist backed draft constitution will proceed on December 15. Opposition leaders have rejected the move and are calling for fresh protests on Tuesday. They have opposed the constitution, saying it does not represent the Egyptian people. On Sunday, Morsi ordered the Egyptian Armed Forces to maintain security and protect state institutions until the results from the constitutional referendum are announced, allowing them to use force. The army is wary of the authority saying it wants to stay out of the political struggle.

Syria

Clashes have continued in the Syrian capital of Damascus and its suburbs, with fighting breaking out less than a mile from President Bashar al-Assad's office. For over a week, the Syrian opposition and government forces have battled over the road to Damascus's international airport, with the opposition trying to close off the capital. The radical Islamist group Jabhat al-Nusra, which the United States has been considering declaring a terrorist group, seized a regimental command center in the northern Aleppo province. Meanwhile, nine Syrian judges and prosecutors have defected, announced in a video posted on YouTube Sunday. According to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the judges came from the northern city of Adlib. Meanwhile, after meetings last week, the United States and Russia have committed to a political solution for Syria, according to U.N. and Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi. However, Russia maintained that it is not aiming for the replacement of Assad, despite speculations it is softening. Amid escalating concerns that the Syrian regime is planning to use chemical weapons, the United States and some European allies have been funding training for Syrian opposition forces on how to secure chemical weapons stockpiles.

Headlines  

  • Up to 17 people have died in days of clashes in Lebanon's northern city of Tripoli between the Sunni Bab al-Tabbaneh and the Alawite Jabal Mohsen neighborhoods. The fighting was sparked by the Syrian conflict.
  • Egyptian authorities have arrested Muhammad Jamal Abu Ahmad, the suspected leader of the group allegedly behind the September attack on the U.S. consulate in Libya.  

Arguments & Analysis

Women's Rights at Odds in Egypt's Constitution Wars (Vivienne Walt, Time)

"Yet although women want equal rights, Murabit says Islam will certainly occupy a key role - especially since Islamists, who were jailed through decades of Muammar Gaddafi's dictatorship, have finally won political freedom. "Islam is not going anywhere, and the West needs to come to terms with the fact," Murabit says. "If everybody keeps labeling the use of Islam as wrong, people will shut down and not have a dialog." Instead, she says that Libyan women are pushing to have both an Islamic country and women's equality when the country's new constitution is finally debated. Until then, they will sit transfixed at the political protests just across the border, in Egypt."


Why Obama Will Ignore Israel (Peter Beinart, The Daily Beast)

"So instead of confronting Netanyahu directly, Team Obama has hit upon a different strategy: stand back and let the rest of the world do the confronting. Once America stops trying to save Israel from the consequences of its actions, the logic goes, and once Israel feels the full brunt of its mounting international isolation, its leaders will be scared into changing course. "The tide of global opinion is moving [against Israel]," notes one senior administration official. And in that environment, America's "standing back" is actually "doing something." What America won't do, however, unless events on the ground dramatically change, is appoint a big-name envoy (some have suggested Bill Clinton) to relaunch direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. The reason: such negotiations would let Netanyahu off the hook. Senior administration officials believe the Israeli leader has no interest in the wrenching compromises necessary to birth a viable Palestinian state. Instead, they believe, he wants the façade of a peace process because it insulates him from international pressure. By refusing to make that charade possible, Obama officials believe, they are forcing Netanyahu to own his rejectionism, and letting an angry world take it from there."

-- By Mary Casey and Jennifer Parker

GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/AFP/Getty Images

The Middle East Channel

Reading Turkish politics from a soap opera

Amidst intense public controversy, Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) is moving to ban the widely popular television series Muhtesem Yuzyil (The Magnificent Century). Critics of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's AKP government have been expecting, with a fair dose of cynicism, such a move ever since he denounced the series as an inappropriate characterization of Turkey's ancestry. The series has already been removed from the inflight entertainment system of Turkey's national air carrier; yesterday a Turkish Airlines official cited Erdogan's remarks as the reason for this removal.

Muhtesem Yuzyil, now in its third season and watched by nearly 150 million viewers in Turkey and its neighbors, takes inspiration from the life and adventures of Sulieman the Magnificent, the Ottoman Empire's longest ruling sultan (1520-1566). While Sulieman is lauded in history textbooks for his many battlefield conquests that led to the great expansion of Ottoman-controlled territory and for being the architect of the empire's "Golden Age" of military, legal, and cultural development, the majority of the dramatic content of the series consists of palace intrigues involving assassination plots and competition among women in the palace harem. 

Erdogan took issue with precisely this creative choice of content in a November 25 speech, spiritedly reminding his audience that Sulieman spent his rule not embroiled in palace affairs but on horseback in battle, and condemning the makers of the series for distorting the nation's forbearers. Following a flurry of responses both countering and supporting the prime minister's comments, including a criminal complaint filed against the series' directors by a tourism agent in the traditionally conservative city of Konya for "mocking our historical values," on Tuesday AKP Istanbul MP Oktay Saral prepared an initiative that would ban the series on the grounds that it demeans personalities and events considered intrinsic to Turkish national values. Saral's move represents the first step at the parliamentary level to realize in concrete political terms Erdogan's expressed preferences on this issue of media representation.

This legislative move might easily be dismissed as political grand-standing on an of-the-moment topic that will quickly fade from memory without lasting effect. However, this initiative can be regarded as indicative of a broader trend in delimiting the boundaries of what is acceptable in public creative expression according to the prime minister's socially conservative tastes. After Erdogan deemed a statue in northeast Turkey a "monstrosity," for example, the AKP-dominant local municipal council voted to demolish the supposedly offending sculpture in February 2011. Earlier this year Erdogan also supported Istanbul AKP Mayor Kadir Topbas's move to take control in selecting which plays would be staged by the Istanbul City Theaters troupe after conservative critics expressed outrage at the content of a play dealing with themes of sexual deviance.

In considering the potential political ramifications of a debate sparked by a soap opera, it is also well worth noting Mehmet Ali Birand's recent point that moves to institutionalize the prime minister's personal preferences have traditionally followed the public articulation of those preferences. Birand cites the Camlica mosque case -- in which Erdogan's public defense of a nearly 50,000 square foot mosque to be constructed on Istanbul's Camlica Hill pushed the project through despite significant protest against the mosque's scale and design -- as one example. Initiatives to restrict abortion rights and reintroduce capital punishment -- following Erdogan's heated remarks on the subjects at the AKP Women's Branch Congress in May and the Bali Democracy Forum in November, respectively -- are two others that spring instantly to mind.

For many objecting to Erdogan's position toward the television series it is the word fictional, as used above, that is the main sticking point in this debate. As Kursat Basar has noted, television series, novels, and other fictional works are not documentaries. It is not the aim -- nor, more importantly, the responsibility -- of such works to chronicle history. These works aim to provide sources of entertainment for those who choose to watch or read them. As an entertainment product designed to target and maximize viewership, the fact that palace intrigues and romances constitute a large portion of the series' content speaks more to the interests and preferences of the viewing audience than it does to the directors' particular interpretation of history.

Perhaps the most interesting take-away from this debate, and one that is significantly more relevant to the current constitutional reform process and the future of politics in Turkey than the proportion of time a sultan may have spent in battle to that in bed, is found in the framing of opposition parties' responses to the prime minister's comments. Reflecting the main opposition party's concern with Erdogan's consolidation of power in the executive branch -- particularly given his likely successful candidacy in an even more powerful position as president in the soon-to-be-redesigned system -- Republican People's Party (CHP) Deputy Chairman Umut Oran targeted his criticism toward the scope of Erdogan's political reach. Speaking in parliament, Oran posed the rhetorical question of whether the supervision of television serials falls within the description of the duties of the prime minister as outlined in the constitution, following up by asking whether Erdogan's statements didn't infringe on the principle of separation of powers.

The Kurdish-comprised Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), long advocates of the rights to education and to legal defense in one's native language as well as subjects of inquiry into suspected links with the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK -- outlawed by Turkey and classified as a terrorist group by the United States), framed its criticism of the prime minister's position within a narrative of cultural suppression. BDP Group Deputy Chairman Idris Baluken characterized Erdogan's comments as indicative of the AKP's approach that strives to establish tyranny over art, an approach that Baluken argued claims to find terrorist sympathies reflected in Kurdish poetry and on canvas.

Finally, the far-right Nationalist Action Party (MHP) adhered to its tradition of rebutting positions articulated by parties in power with more rhetoric than substance. Finding the prime minister's critique of the television series a disingenuous attempt to change the political agenda, and emphasizing that the series has been on-air for more than a year, MHP General Secretary Ismet Buyukataman quipped: "This only occurred to him now?"

The questions of media freedom, artistic expression, ideological contestation, and political power happened to be raised in the current Turkish debate over a soap opera. They are also questions fundamental to democratic institutions and discourse. The Magnificent Century, as it did in history, will inevitably conclude -- with or without the influence of the Turkish prime minister. What it leaves behind will be meaningful, if perhaps not magnificent, for the future of Turkish democracy.

Lisel Hintz is a Ph.D. candidate in Political Science at George Washington University and is currently a Visiting Research Fellow at Bilkent University in Ankara. Her research investigates the relationship between Turkish domestic politics and foreign policy, with a focus on contestation of national identity understandings. She can be reached at Lhintz@gwmail.gwu.edu.

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