The Middle East Channel

The might of the pen(guin) in Turkey’s protests

It is somewhat ironic that of all the images shown on Turkish television channels during the violent police crackdown in Istanbul's Gezi Park -- from cooking shows to soap opera reruns -- penguins should become the symbol of media censorship in Turkey's ongoing protests. After all, it is a magazine called Penguen that constitutes a bastion of social and political satire in Turkish media, using impressive wit to critique that which mainstream media most often does not -- or, more accurately, cannot. Now infamous for being the country with the most jailed journalists, Turkey's restrictions on press freedoms stem from an obstreperous prime minister who does not take criticism lightly and the complex business links between his ruling Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi -- AKP) and the media barons controlling the industry. Despite this highly contracted space for expression, Penguen continues to publish wickedly humorous and searingly critical caricatures of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. For now, at least. 

The Turkish media's general reluctance to portray Erdogan's government in a negative light was brought into stark perspective by protesters flooding the internet with penguins of a different sort last week. CNN Turk's airing of a nature documentary featuring penguins while CNN International provided live footage of the brutal means used to disperse demonstrators sparked outrage that, within hours, transformed efforts to preserve a park from destruction into a countrywide protest against police violence and media silence. Creatively turning a democratic deficit of traditional media into a tool of protest, AKP dissenters took to social media to share satirical penguin-themed cartoons. In one poignant depiction, a penguin on a melting iceberg watches Istanbul fill with tear gas on CNN International while a Turk at home watches penguins on CNN Turk, neither viewer aware of his own imminent demise. Actor Sermiyan Midyat surprised a CNN Turk anchor during a live broadcast by taking off his shirt to reveal a penguin T-shirt underneath, while a man prank-called CNN Turk to request on his mother's behalf that the penguin documentary be shown again -- but that next time could the penguins be younger and of a different size, please?

While the penguin image has since become a comical but familiar symbol among those protesting media censorship in the form of penguin masks, balloons, and inflatable toys, another iconic image has been co-opted in creative ways to protest unprovoked violence by police against peaceful demonstrators. The unforgettable series of photos depicting a girl in a red dress standing in front of police and then being sprayed in the face at close range with tear gas has been transformed into T-shirts worn both at demonstrations and on television. On the last episode of comedy talk show 3+1, all three hosts proudly display their T-shirts. One host relates his own experience at the Gezi Park protest in which, after being blinded by tear gas, he believes someone is trying to help him when in fact the presumed do-gooder just wanted a photo with him. With the audience laughing hysterically at the comic delivery of the anecdote, it is clear that humor is being used as an effective vehicle for conveying opposition to the government's heavy-handed tactics.

This ability to find humor in dire and dangerous circumstances and to use it as a weapon against the increasing authoritarianism of the AKP government is perhaps what stands out most from Turkey's ongoing protests. While the clever transformation of Erdogan's dismissal of protesters as "capulcular" (looters or hooligans) into a word that now means one who fights for rights and freedoms has gone viral as Andy Carvin notes, thousands of witty riffs on other themes of autocratic rule can be found amongst dissenters on the web and on the ground. Absent a free press and subject to violence when assembling in protest, Turks -- like James Scott's subjects of study in Weapons of the Weak -- use humor to bolster their own morale and to incrementally erode the legitimacy and power of their leader in (relatively) costless ways. The alteration of the Apple symbol into that of a quince with a bite taken from it -- to eat quince (ayvayi yemek) means to be in hot water or in trouble in Turkish -- seeks to undermine Erdogan's credibility as a leader through wit rather than through force.

In the boldest display of creative dissent in a restricted environment, the host of popular game show Kelime Oyunu (Word Game) Ihsan Varol wrote all the answers that contestants had to guess during its live June 3 broadcast around the Gezi Park protest theme. Including answers such as tear gas, dictator, and Twitter (which Erdogan referred to as a lie-spreading menace), arguably the most hard-hitting critique was the answer to the clue "the lungs of democracy:" gas mask. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the game show has since been removed from live airing and is showing pre-recorded episodes. 

While the fate of both the protests and the protesters themselves remains uncertain, the inspirational and mobilizational power Turks continue to generate through humor under threatening conditions is unquestionable. The might of the pen, the power of words and images is being put to the test against a formidable opponent wielding more deadly weapons in Turkey's protests. With thousands of people injured and two dead from violence during police crackdowns on protests thus far, the great majority of demonstrators continue to urge peaceful means; a commonly chanted slogan at Thursday's Occupy Kugulu Park protest in Ankara was "No stone, no stick; our goal is liberty." With sticks and stones off the table and with words on their side in the form of satire and humor, Turkey's protesters are waging a fight the government seems ill-disposed to win: a battle of wits.

Lisel Hintz is a Ph.D. candidate in political science at The 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

Lisel Hintz

The Middle East Channel

Libyan army chief of staff resigns after weekend violence

Libyan Army Chief of Staff Major General Yousef al-Mangoush has resigned after deadly clashes in Benghazi Saturday killed at least 31 people and wounded dozens of others. Clashes broke out when protesters stormed a base belonging to Libya Shield, a pro-government militia organization. The protesters were demanding the disbanding of the militias and that forces submit to the full authority of the Libyan military. In some reports, the protesters were said to be unarmed, but other witnesses said some of the protesters had weapons. It is unclear who fired the first shots, but mainly protesters were killed. Militias have taken on a significant role in efforts to maintain security in Libya since the fall of former President Muammar al-Qaddafi. Mangoush was the militia brigades' chief advocate, and had increasingly come under criticism for failing to exert control over the militias. Before his resignation, he ordered the militia units to vacate their four bases in Benghazi. The militia leaders now appear to be in hiding and by Sunday night several militias had announced their dissolution.


After taking the last opposition-held village near the strategic town of Qusayr, near the Lebanese border, the Syrian army is reportedly planning a major offensive on rebel strongholds in the northern city of Aleppo. Pro-regime newspaper al-Watan said troops were "deploying heavily in the countryside near Aleppo in preparation for a battle that will be fought inside the city and on its outskirts." A Syrian security source said the advance would start "in the coming hours or days." According to opposition activists, there has not yet been significant troop buildup outside Aleppo, however heavy clashes were reported Sunday in the nearby villages of Nubbul and Zahra. Activists also reported rebel advances at the Mannagh air base, near the border with Turkey. Meanwhile, a roadside bomb struck a van traveling in Lebanon's eastern Bekaa Valley to Syria Monday. On Sunday, a Lebanese man was shot and killed outside the Iranian Embassy, in Lebanon's capital Beirut, protesting Hezbollah's role in the Syrian conflict. Clashes broke out between the anti-Hezbollah Lebanese Option Party, a Shiite led group, and Hezbollah supporters.


  • Three seemingly simultaneous car bombs hit an Iraqi market Monday in the mainly Shiite town of Jidaidat al-Shatt, about 25 miles north of the capital Baghdad, killing an estimated 15 people.
  • Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri has ruled against the merger of the militant groups the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria's Jabhat al-Nursra in efforts to end infighting.
  • Conservative candidate and former parliament speaker Gholam-Ali Haddad Adel dropped out of Iran's presidential race but called for a hardline conservative victory.
  • Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki visited the Kurdish region Sunday for first time in two years in efforts to bridge a long-running oil and land dispute. 

Arguments and Analysis

Is Qatar guilty of sectarianism in Syria? (Michael Stephens, OpenDemocracy)

"Much has been made of the increasing sectarian dynamic in the Syrian conflict. The entry of Hezbollah to defend Shia in Syria and the use of Shia fighters to aid the Army of Bashar al Assad in taking the town of Qusair has brought this particular angle under the spotlight. Increasingly we are beginning to think of this conflict as an all-out sectarian death match in which Islam's two sects fight a zero sum game.

Whilst the extent of sectarian motivations held by Syrians themselves is still reasonably up for question, there can be no doubt that external fighters lack the nuance of the vast majority of their coreligionists inside Syria. Hezbollah and Shia fight to defend Shia shrines and villages from being destroyed by Sunni extremists: Sunnis fight to prevent Sunni civilians and towns from being destroyed by an Allawi Iran-backed Army.

Behind these Sunni fighters stand Saudi Arabia, Turkey and of course Qatar. Qatar especially has become increasingly associated as promoters of Sunni interests in the region directly at the expense of Shia, which has caused a rift between itself and its once strong ally, Hezbollah."

Syria's Strategic Balance at a Tipping Point (Yezid Sayigh, Carnegie)

"The fall of Qusair has serious strategic implications for the ongoing conflict in Syria. Most immediately, it closes off a major route that opposition fighters use to infiltrate and send weapons to the province of Homs-a strategic gateway to the rest of Syria-from nearby northern Lebanon. It additionally helps the regime secure the main roads connecting Homs and Damascus to the coastal region around Tartus and Latakia, which are principal transit corridors for military matériel, fuel, and basic goods being shipped by sea. The rebels will face an uphill struggle to dislodge pro-regime garrisons left in the region around Qusair and rebuild a secure supply and staging area there. The town's fall moreover frees up experienced combat units to fight elsewhere.

But the real takeaway is that the regime is increasingly well positioned to capitalize on its strengths and secure itself for the long term. Its ability to survive has been grossly underestimated from the outset.

The battle for Qusair was just one part of an ongoing strategic campaign in which the Syrian army has made significant gains. Since early April the army has encircled rebel-held areas to the east and southwest of Damascus, pushed the rebels further away from the heart of the capital itself, and broken through rebel lines to reinforce and resupply besieged garrisons in Wadi Deif near Idlib and around Aleppo. It has also retaken much of the ground recently lost to the rebels in southern Syria around the city of Deraa, in the Golan area, and along the border with Jordan and is fighting for full control of the international highway to Jordan. The army is trying to encircle the northern and southern sides of Aleppo, its strategic prize, in a bid to cut off rebel strongholds prior to taking full control of the city."

--By Jennifer T. Parker and Mary Casey

AFP/Getty Images