musings on travel, international living, development aid, politics, turkey (the country more than the meat) and anything else that comes to mind...

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Afghan Students Debate. I Judge.

Efhamullah started softly. He methodically made eye contact with everyone in the room while he praised Allah and welcomed his adversaries. Then he looked at me.

"I admit that Afghanistan is one of the most corrupt countries in the world" he said before pausing, I'm assuming for effect. "But this corruption is not caused by Afghans. This corruption is caused by foreigners implementing projects."

He was still staring right at me. Almost smiling. Smug. Confident.

Fridays in Kabul are usually dull. After looking forward to sleeping late all week, the prospect of waking up with nothing to do is usually daunting.

Not yesterday.

That's because the Afghanistan National Debate Tournament started yesterday. By some random coincidence I became a judge, despite the fact that I have only cursory knowledge of and experience with formal debates.

The topic (or 'motion' in debate-speak) dealt with an imaginary issue that, in Afghanistan, has at least some basis in reality: should international donor projects be awarded only to Afghan NGOs, companies and universities?

The two sides (government vs. opposition) were to be represented by 8 university students representing 4 different institutions from around the country. (In all, 20 universities participated in this year's national tournament.)

Efhamullah represented the government. Acknowledging that corruption indeed plagued his country, he rhetorically and convincingly presented arguments (including the assertion that people like me are responsible for the corruption in his country) in favor of Afghan-izing development projects. He handled opposition questions with ease. He spoke clearly and confidently. At one point during his 7 minutes I stopped taking notes just so I could watch the spectacle.

Although I agreed with practically nothing he said, Efhamullah handily won the session with the highest individual score. Although I was impressed with all 8 (especially the brave young woman who acted as the Deputy Prime Minister), his delivery, style, and command of the issues was unmatched by his fellow debaters.

Pretending to know what I was talking about, I gave feedback to the group after the session. Slow down. Try not to read your points verbatim. Don't be combative. Yelling does not make your arguments stronger.

Much to my surprise/delight, Efhamullah was smiling at me during my mini-speech. Gone was the smugness of before, replaced by a respectful and genuine-looking grin. Leaning forward in his chair, his brain seemed to zero in on my words. Maybe he didn't really believe what he had said... maybe he was just a really convincing debater (politician?)... maybe the strong handshake he gave me on his way out was actually his most sincere action of the day.

On the way home, I couldn't help but think that I had just met the future President of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Turkey: Possible Outcomes & What Protesters Want

As protests continue on the streets of Turkey's cities large and small, one can't help but wonder: what will come of all this? What are the possible outcomes? What do the protesters actually want?

On Saturday I wrote that, unless a viable challenger to Erdoğan miraculously appeared, all this protesting may fade into history with little fundamental change. After almost a full week of protests, I'm starting to think I was (at least partially) wrong. I still think that Erdoğan will continue to lead the country (i.e. not resign before completing his term) and the well-organized AKP will likely stay in power even through the next election unless a viable opposition arises. But when the tear gas clears the air and the makeshift barricades are finally removed from Taksim Square, some things will have changed.

Firstly, although the mainstream Turkish press has been woefully absent from reporting on the protests, the international press should get kudos for being in the thick of it. One can literally read dozens of analyses in English and other languages (@OccupyTaksim has a good round-up and I regularly update my twitter feed with good articles) on the events of the past week. And for once (my dissatisfaction with foreign reporting on Turkey is well-documented), many show a level of true understanding of the underlying reasons why people have taken to the streets. Perceptive enough to see that the protests are more than over a few trees in Taksim, journalists, facebookers, tweeters, inquisitive friends-of-Turks and practically anyone using the internet now knows about the Prime Minister's troubling blend of paternalistic, authoritarian Islamism.

One outcome of the protests is thus the termination of the honeymoon between Erdoğan and the international press who regularly touted his brand of 'mildly Islamic' 'democracy' as an example for the region. They now see that an Erdoğan-led Turkey is "fast turning from democratic haven in the Middle East to unblemished authoritarianism", perhaps leading to more external scrutiny directed at him from foreign media and, ultimately, governments.

Undoubtedly there will be other outcomes. Many protesters call for the resignation of the PM (#TayyipISTIFA) and police leaders in some cities. I'm not so sure that this will (or even should) happen. Police leaders? Probably. Erdoğan? Unlikely. Better to search for a viable challenger in the next election, thus derailing his aspirations to be President after increasing the power of that largely ceremonial office (i.e. 'pulling a Putin').

What outcomes would the protesters actually like to see? As with the initial 'Occupy' movements on Wall St. and elsewhere around the world, you'd probably get 50 different answers if you asked 50 different protesters. However, an anonymous group of Turks will publish a full-page ad in tomorrow's New York Times (paid for entirely by crowdfunding from 'concerned individuals around the world') outlining the best, most realistic set of demands I've seen yet (click here for the full text of the ad):
We demand an end to police brutality.
We demand a free media.
We demand open democratic dialogue between citizens and those elected to public service, not the dictates of special interests.
We demand an investigation of the government’s recent abuse of power, which has led to the loss of innocent lives.
That's not too much to ask, is it Mr. PM?

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Is Gezi Park Turkey's Breaking Point?

Hours before I returned to Afghanistan for a second time on Wednesday's 3am flight from Istanbul, my cousin and I had a conversation that, just a few days later, seems somewhat surreal. We spoke about the approaching breaking point in Turkey; the point at which a seemingly innocuous event could cause people to take to the streets.

Turks, especially those of the secular persuasion, have long resented Prime Minister Erdogan and his ruling AK Party (though they have been unable to produce a viable alternative). Simultaneously autocratic and fundamentalist, Erdogan has undoubtedly reached the point of believing that he can do no wrong. Everything he says is done immediately, no questions asked. It doesn't matter what 'the people' think; he wants it done so it shall be done. He knows what is best for Turkey.

It's a cunning form of dictatorship that manipulates Turkey's unique style of 'democracy' and is protected by the comedy that is the EU accession process. Erdogan is undoubtedly a deft politician. But has his arrogance may have finally gotten the better of him.

Today's Turks (at least those family and friends with whom I chatted over the past two weeks) are fed up with Erdogan doing as he pleases with no repercussions. His cronies in Parliament pass religion-soaked bills and the level of corruption surrounding government contracts has skyrocketed in recent years alongside increasing taxes. Yes, Istanbul is more beautiful than I've ever seen it and public transportation (among other government-supported services) functions well. But at what cost?

I've thought for a while that it would be a comparatively small, unrelated incident that enticed people into the streets. The 'kissing protest' in a subway broken up by police and religious zealots. The passing of a law that restricts the sale of alcohol after 10pm.

The attempt by (literally) tree huggers to protect Gezi Park, one of Istanbul's last remaining public green spaces, from Erdogan's people turning it into a shopping mall. 

What started as a few hundred environmentalists on Monday has morphed into millions on the streets (and bridges) of Istanbul and cities across Turkey after police used tear gas to disperse the protestors. This is now much bigger than trees. A seemingly innocuous environmental protest balloons into a full scale popular revolt unseen to Erdogan in his decade in power.

This may be the breaking point many of us have anticipated; the moment where Erdogan's arrogance meets the wrath of a disgruntled populous. Or it may not be. Either way, an opposition challenger to the Populist/Islamist in Chief is yet to emerge. Until he or she does, this may be just another protest that ends with Erdogan continuing to do as he pleases.

Here's to hoping this is not the case.