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Showing posts with label Turkey. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Turkey. Show all posts

Thursday, June 19, 2014

U.S. pays price for misguided Iraq policies (JMD on Dow Jones MarketPlace)

U.S. pays price for misguided Iraq policies

Insight: Iraq’s Middle East neighbors are key to ending crisis

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    By James M. Dorsey

    Iraqi Army volunteers in eastern Baghdad.

    SINGAPORE (MarketWatch) — Short-sighted policies of the United States and its Middle East allies are taking their toll with costly, dangerous results: a growing number of nations in the region on the brink of disintegration or becoming failed states.

    To be sure, national governments are responsible for their actions. The autocratic, sectarian policies of Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad and Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki have pitted their ethnic and religious communities against one another in civil wars that could foment militant Islamist, jihadist statelets.

    Unlikely allies aid militants in Iraq

    Radical Sunni fighters, who seized another northern Iraqi city on Monday, are being aided by local tribes who reject the Islamists' extreme ideology but sympathize with their goal to oust Baghdad's Shiite-led government. WSJ's Matt Bradley joins Michael Casey on the News Hub to discuss. Photo: Getty

    Poorly devised policies by the U.S. and its allies, chiefly Saudi Arabia and Turkey, have helped shape an environment in which the likes of Assad and Maliki believe they can get away with murder or feel that their options have been cut off. It has also encouraged policies that often have more to do with settling scores than with rebuilding and reshaping nations.

    The U.S. failed to realize that the 2003 toppling of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein would pave the way for rule by a Shiite majority that had been suppressed for decades and whose return to power would rewrite the region’s geopolitical map.

    Hopes that Iraq’s post-Saddam Shiite rulers would reach out to their Sunni counterparts were quickly dashed. A misguided decision by Iraq’s post-Saddam American administrators to ban Baathists from serving in the military or public office put thousands out of work and sent the message that Sunnis were not truly welcome in the new Iraq. That message was reinforced when Turkey and deeply anti-Shiite Saudi Arabia refused to cooperate with the new government in Iraq.

    As a result, Iraq’s Sunnis as well as Kurds proved more interested in ensuring that Shiites were seen to be incapable of ruling the country than in attempting to forge a common future.

    Sunnis were smarting from the fact that after monopolizing power since the days of the Ottoman empire, they were cast in the role of a minority seeking to ensure their communal rights. Their resentment of Shiite majority rule was fuelled by a Saudi and Turkish refusal to reach out to Maliki, the politician whom the U.S. initially viewed as least likely to cozy up to Shiite-led Iran.

    The Saudis and the Turks wrongly feared that any Iraqi Shiite leader would tip the region’s geopolitical balance of power toward Iran. Yet stymied by significant domestic players as well as his neighbors, Maliki had no choice but to move closer to Iran even while trying to maintain distance.

    In concert with his Turkish backers, Iraqi Kurdish leader Masood Barzani consistently limited the scope of Shiite rule by laying the groundwork for future Kurdish independence and shielding Iraqi Kurdish areas from the bloody sectarian struggles engulfing the country. Barzani has been carving out an independent Kurdish state by expanding the autonomous zone that Kurds created for themselves in the early 1990s.

    U.S. national security as well as the security of the energy-rich Gulf states faces its most serious and imminent threat in more than a decade.

    Similarly, much to the frustration of Turkey and the Gulf states, the Obama administration shied away from enabling Syrian rebels to topple Assad. The U.S. cited seemingly logical reasons: the lack of unity among anti-Assad groups; fear that militant Islamist jihadist groups would fill the vacuum, and concern that conflict in Syria would destabilize the region.

    Three years later, the very things the U.S. was keen to avoid have become a nightmarish reality: jihadists are the backbone of the resistance in Syria, and are advancing in Iraq against a crumbling Iraqi army that was clearly unprepared or unwilling to take over from U.S. troops. Turkey and the Gulf states have abetted and enabled the militant Islamist and jihadist advances with financial and other aid, helping create a monster they are unable to control.

    And while the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is focused currently on Shiite rule in Iraq and the Alawite dominance in Syria, a continuously successful ISIS will turn its attention to rulers in the Gulf whom it views as feudal usurpers of power.

    The Iraq crisis has left U.S. national security as well as the security of the energy-rich Gulf states facing its most serious and imminent threat in more than a decade. A step towards a resolution would be for the Gulf states and Turkey to support U.S. pressure on Maliki by dropping their bigoted approach to Shiites and persuading Iraqi Sunnis to forge a consensus in which everybody feels they have an equitable place in a new Iraq.

    James M. Dorsey is a Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University. He is also co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog and a forthcoming book with the same title.

    Sunday, May 18, 2014

    Protest and human rights shape debate on awarding of mega events

    By James M. Dorsey

    Mass protests against Brazil's hosting of the World Cup, Turkey's loss of opportunities to host sports events and controversy over 2022 World Cup host Qatar's labour system are impacting the global sports world's thinking about the requirements future hosts will have to meet. The impact is likely to go far beyond sporting and infrastructure concerns and raise the stakes for future hosts.

    Qatar is under increasing pressure to overhaul its kafala or labour sponsorship system denounced by the United Nations and labour and human rights activists as violations of international human rights standards. 

    The Gulf state potentially risks losing its hosting rights if it fails to demonstrate rigorous enforcement of existing rules and regulations and enact radical reforms.

    The Qatar controversy illustrates the risk both potential hosts groups such as world soccer governing body FIFA and the International Olympic Committee shoulder with the awarding of tournaments to nondemocratic or authoritarian-run nations. FIFA has been heavily criticized for its awarding of the tournament to Qatar.

    FIFA president Sepp Blatter this week described the awarding to Qatar as a “mistake.” FIFA later tried to soften the impact of Mr. Blatter’s statement by saying he was referring to the fact that the awarding disregarded a negative FIFA technical assessment that warned about the country’s bruising summer temperatures.

    "Of course it was a mistake. You know, one makes a lot of mistakes in life. The technical report indicated clearly that it was too hot in summer, but despite that the executive committee decided, with quite a big majority, that the tournament would be in Qatar," Mr. Blatter said, sparking a soccer diplomacy spat, by charging that pressure by the governments of France and Germany as a result of commercial interests had contributed to the success of the Qatari bid.

    In doing so, Mr. Blatter perhaps unwittingly raised the question what the drivers for the awarding of sports mega events should be. "We know perfectly well that big French companies and big German companies have interests in Qatar. But they are not only involved in the World Cup," Mr. Blatter said. France and Germany have denied his allegation.

    Qatar, meanwhile, is caught in a Catch-22: its international image and the achievement of its soft power policy goals demand swift and decisive action; its domestic politics necessitate a more gradual approach.

    The risks in hosting mega events are for Qatar and other Middle Eastern and North African nations particularly high given that their significant investment is designed to achieve more than country branding and international projection and the creation of commercial and other opportunities.

    Mega events serve them as a tool to build soft power either as part of a defence and security strategy designed to compensate for the inability to acquire the hard power necessary to defend themselves or as a way of increasing international willingness to provide economic and political support in difficult geopolitical circumstances.

    Mass protests in Brazil against the World Cup, the first time a sporting association, FIFA, and an event, became the target of the protest rather than its vehicle, have further pinpointed the need to obtain public buy-in as part of the awarding process to prevent mega events from being mired in controversy and social protest. Brazil hosts this year’s World Cup and the 2016 Olympic Games.

    Finally, brutal police response to protests and a series of authoritarian measures to control the media, the Internet and the judiciary have cost Turkey the chance to host the 2020 Olympics as well as EURO 2020, reinforcing that fact that mega sports events cannot be viewed independently of a country’s domestic policies.

    Qatar however, provides the foremost case study to date of what potential future hosts of mega events may expect. Qatar has garnered significant credibility by becoming since the awarding of the World Cup the first Gulf state to engage with its critics and work with them to address issues.

    Yet, at the same time its credibility is being called into question by a history of promises on which it has yet to make good. Qatari institutions have in the past three years adopted lofty principles in response to criticism of its labour system, pledged to incorporate these into World Cup-related contracts and stepped up enforcement of existing rules and regulations. Those promises and principles have yet to be incorporated into law.

    At the same time, promises pre-dating the awarding of the World Cup such as a pledge in 2008 to introduce a low governing the rights of domestic workers have yet to be fulfilled. Human rights and trade unionists have charged that the promise this week to overhaul the kafala system, while easing some restrictions on workers’ rights appear to be more of a relabeling exercise than a radical reform, much like Formula-1 host Bahrain did several years ago.

    Qatar’s lesson for future host is that putting a country’s warts on public display is risky if it is unwilling or unable to proactively tackle sensitive domestic issues.

    The Jordanian hosts of last week’s Asian Forum of Soccerex, a major sports business conference that expanded into Asia for the first time, appear to have recognized which way the wind is blowing. Recognizing that global soccer governance and business is focused on the top end of professional soccer, they introduced debates on issues such as grassroots and women’s soccer into the debate.

    The Jordanians are also looking at including preparations for future World Cups in forthcoming Soccerex gatherings.

    Hosting the conference is part of a Jordanian effort to project itself as a significant and progressive player in international sports. Jordan is scheduled to host the 2016 Under-17 Women’s World Cup.
    Said Jordanian Prince Ali Al Hussein, the Soccerex conference’s host and a vice-president of FIFA: “Football is not just a sport but a tool to improve society.”

    James M. Dorsey is a Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University. He is also co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog and a forthcoming book with the same title.  

    Sunday, May 11, 2014

    Lax FIFA policing of political interference in soccer focuses on Egypt

    By James M. Dorsey

    World soccer body FIFA has dispatched investigators to Egypt to probe allegations of government interference as the country prepares for potentially risky bids to host two international tournaments, the 2017 Beach Soccer World Cup and the 2018 FIFA Under-17 Women’s World Cup.

    The FIFA investigation and the bids come against the background of a military coup that last year toppled Egypt’s first and only democratically elected president and a presidential election this month likely to effectively cement the military’s grip on the country, which is marred by a brutal crackdown on regime opponents and political freedoms in which more than 3,000 people have been killed, some 17,000 wounded and 19,000 detained.

    The investigation focuses on the government’s forcing of elections in March of presidents of Egypt’s two foremost clubs, storied Cairo arch rivals Al Ahli SC and Al Zamalek SC, whose militant supporters played a key role in the toppling three years ago of President Hosni Mubarak and subsequent anti-military protests.

    The elections were designed to ensure that the clubs were led by regime loyalists and to block the prospects of candidates close to Gamal Mubarak, the imprisoned, neo-liberal son of the ousted president, whom the military sees as a threat to its sprawling economic and commercial interests.

    Al Ahli and Zamalek had resisted holding elections prior to the expected promulgation of a new sports law. FIFA decided to investigate after the Egyptian Football Association failed to satisfactorily reply to a demand by the soccer body for an explanation of the government’s interference.

    Egypt’s bids for the two soccer tournaments constitute an effort to repair the country’s image badly tarnished by its abysmal human rights record. The bids could well backfire like in the case of 2022 World Cup host Qatar that is under pressure to reform restrictive labour conditions and put Egypt’s repressive regime even more under the spotlight.

    Egyptian government interference goes however beyond club elections. Fans have been banned from attending matches for more than two years, initially to prevent further violence in the wake of a politically loaded brawl in Port Said in February 2012 in which 74 Al Ahli fans were killed. Few doubt that the security forces and the military which was in government at the time allowed the incident to happen in an effort to cut highly-politicized, street battle-hardened soccer fans down to size.

    The ban has since last year’s coup against Mohammed Morsi, who is standing trial on multiple charges, including treason, and whose Muslim Brotherhood has been banned as a terrorist organization, increasingly been maintained to prevent the soccer pitch from re-emerging as an opposition rallying point.

    The interior ministry hopes to reduce the threat by next season allowing fans to return to stadia that are policed by private security firms rather than the security forces, widely viewed as the hated, repressive arm of an autocratic regime and a lightning rod for soccer activism.

    FIFA has remained silent on the ban that has everything to do with survival of the Egyptian regime and curtailing expressions of dissent. FIFA has similarly allowed its board and that of regional associations, certainly those in the Middle East and North Africa, to be populated by autocratic pawns and members of ruling families more interested in maintaining the status quo than the interests of the sport and the ideals they at best pay lip service to.

    The struggle for who represents Asia in the FIFA executive committee is a case in point. Asian Football Confederation (AFC) president Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa, who also heads the Bahrain Football Association, was last year elected to clean up the scandal-ridden group after its former president, Mohammed Bin Hammam, was banned for life from involvement in soccer on grounds of alleged corruption.

    Instead, Sheikh Salman, a member of Bahrain’s ruling family, has spent his first year in office seeking to expand his power base at the expense of soccer governance’s few reformers, among whom first and foremost Jordan’s Prince Ali Bin Al Hussein, whom Sheikh Salman in an undemocratic manoeuvre rather than a free and fair election, is seeking to replace as FIFA vice president. Prince Ali is one of the few international soccer executives who has used his position for the greater good of the game.

    Sheikh Salman’s ascendancy is telling in and of itself. Few international organizations would have elected as president a man who has refused to say a word about the public denunciation, detention and torture on his watch of national team players because of their participation in mass anti-government protests and the politically motivated incarceration of two soccer teams. Sheikh Salman’s silence is particularly telling at a time that controversy over labour conditions in Qatar and anti-FIFA protests in Brazil have put human and social rights on world soccer’s agenda.

    Hakan Sukur, an all-time Turkish soccer star-turned-controversial Islamist politician, recently highlighted the pervasiveness, even in the Middle East and North Africa’s few pluralistic, democratic societies, of the inextricable intertwining of politics in soccer and the laxity of policing by FIFA and its regional associations of their insistence in upholding the fiction that sports and politics are separate.

    In a recent interview, Mr. Sukur, a supporter of Mr. Erdogan’s Islamist rival, Fethullalh Gulen, a self-exiled cleric and leader of one of the world’s largest Islamist movements, disclosed that he had consulted Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on his plans to run for the presidency of Turkish Football Federation (TFF). 
    “It was normal to receive instructions behind the curtain from Erdogan about every decision. Unfortunately, at the time we did not perceive it as a result of authoritarianism, but simply Erdogan's interest in sports,” he told pro-Gulen Zaman newspaper.

    James M. Dorsey is a Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University. He is also co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog and a forthcoming book with the same title.  

    Friday, May 2, 2014

    The battle for Taksim, a battle for Turkey’s soul

    Carsi demonstrates in Besikats

    By James M. Dorsey

    Militant supporters of Istanbul’s top three soccer clubs added muscle to thousands of trade unionists, leftists and government opponents in May Day clashes with Turkish police in what has become a battle for control of the city’s iconic Taksim Square.

    With 40,000 men on duty, 20,000 of which were stationed on and around Taksim, police fired tear gas and rubber bullets to prevent protesters from reaching the square. Clashes erupted in various parts of the city, including Besiktas, home to Carsi, the widely popular militant support group of Besiktas JK. Turkish media reports said 51 people were injured and 138 arrested.

    The significance of Taksim to both the government and its critics was highlighted by the fact that the government banned May Day celebrations on the square on alleged national security grounds but assigned an area on the outskirts of the city where the unions and others would be allowed to mark Labour Day.

    Taksim, Istanbul’s historic venue for May Day demonstrations and other gatherings, has been contested territory since the eruption last June of the largest mass anti-government protests against Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan since he was first elected in 2002. Militant soccer fans played a key role in those protests. The government has since banned all demonstrations from the square.

    Underlying the protests in what has become a deeply polarized country is a widespread sense among Mr. Erdogan’s opponents that power has gone to his head and that he since the brutal use of the police during last year’s protests has become increasingly authoritarian, using a power struggle with Fethullalh Gulen, a self-exiled Muslim preacher who heads one of the world’s largest Islamist movement to muzzle the media, give Turkey’s intelligence service powers similar to those of the secret services in Arab autocracies and subject the judiciary to government control.

    Few deny that Mr. Erdogan deserves credit for significantly growing Turkey’s economy, positioning it as a regional power at the crossroads of Europe and Asia and bridging the gap that long segregated secularists from religious segments of society.  

    In fact, the very nature of the debate underlying the battle for Taksim highlights significant changes Mr. Erdogan, an Islamist politician who served prison time for citing what authorities at the time viewed as a subversive poem, has brought to Turkey

    Criticism of Mr. Erdogan’s focuses on his haughty style of government, his more recent refusal to constructively engage with his opponents, his refusal to allow due process in what is the most serious corruption scandal since he came to office, and authoritarian moves that threaten to curtail Turkish democracy. It does not focus on Mr. Erdogan’s Islamist credentials.

    That is a far cry from the ‘us and them’ discussion of almost 20 years ago when the country’s economic elite moved vast sums of money out of Turkey for fear that then newly elected Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan would turn it into an Islamic republic. The elites at the time cheered Mr. Erbakan’s removal in a silent military coup and the banning of his Refah Party from which Mr. Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) emerged.

    The battle for Taksim reflects that change. It is a battle for the soul of a Turkey in which all Turks have an equal interest. It is a battle that is as much about sheer power as it is about the nature of Turkish democracy. It is a battle that is in part being fought on the soccer pitch evidenced by the participation of soccer fans as well as the banners they carried and the slogans they chanted during the May 1 demonstrations.

    The stakes are high for fans and go to the heart of the struggle for Turkey’s soul. In Istanbul and other Turkish cities fans denounced the government’s e-ticket system that would give it access to their personal details against the background of an effort in the past year to portray protest as a precursor for terrorism and an attempt to criminalize militant soccer groups. Twenty members of Carsi were last year charged with belonging to an illegal organization.

    Several Turkish clubs have said they would refuse to implement the e-ticket system. Executives of Fenerbahce SK, Turkey’s foremost club, said they would implement their own e-ticket system that would legally free them from the obligation to provide the government with fans’ personal data. In an indication of resistance to the system and Mr. Erdogan’s policies, fans of Galatasary sang during the May 1 demonstrations in Besiktas, the territory of one of their arch rivals, a song of Fenerbahce, another arch rival, commemorating Ali İsmail Korkmaz, who was killed in last June’s protests.


    The stakes are particularly high for Fenerbahce whose president, Aziz Yildirim, has been sentenced to prison on match fixing charges. Mr. Yildirim, who has consistently denied wrongdoing, was expecting to be detained after May 1 because the government feared that an earlier arrest might fuel the May 1 protests.

    The Fenerbahce case is at the centre of a political battle between Mr, Erdogan and Hasim Kilic, the head of Turkey’s Constitutional Court. Mr Yildirim’s last hope to avoid serving further time in prison is a pending appeal to the court on procedural ground. In a highly unusual twist of events, Mr. Kilic recently met privately with Ali Koc, one of Turkey’s foremost businessmen and one of Mr. Erdogan’s bete noirs, who is closely affiliated to Fenerbahce. In a public speech several days later, Mr. Kilic frontally denounced the government’s efforts to undermine the judiciary’s independence, sparking a public row between the court and the prime minister’s ruling AKP party.

    James M. Dorsey is a Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University. He is also co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog and a forthcoming book with the same title.  

    Wednesday, April 16, 2014

    EURO 2020 set to polish Turkey’s tarnished image

    By James M. Dorsey

    Turkey, eager to polish its image tarnished by a politicized match-fixing scandal, a massive corruption scandal, hard-handed police tactics against anti-government demonstrators and a bruising domestic power struggle, has emerged as a favourite to host  the Euro 2020 semi-finals and final.

    "We think we will be awarded the two semi-finals and finals and we deserve it after bidding for the last three tournaments. It's high time we were successful and UEFA president Michel Platini has given that hint to us," Turkish Football Federation (TFF) vice-president Servet Yardimci told Inside World Football.

    Brutal police tactics last June against anti-government demonstrators on Istanbul’s iconic Taksim Square protesting against plans to replace the square’s historic Gezi Park with a shopping mall cost Turkey the hosting of the 2020 Olympic Games that were awarded to Tokyo instead. Militant soccer fans played a key role in the protests, the largest in Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s more than a decade in power.

    Turkey’s soccer image had already been tarnished by the time the protests erupted by a massive match-fixing scandal that escalated into a struggle between Mr. Erdogan and Fethullalh Gulen, a self-exiled 73-year old imam, for the favour of fans in a soccer-crazy country and control of Istanbul’s Fenerbahce SK, the crown jewel in Turkish soccer with the country’s largest fan base.

    Turkey’s image was further sullied by a massive corruption scandal in December to which Mr. Erdogan responded by moving thousands of suspected followers of Mr. Gulen in the police and the judiciary to other jobs in a bid to control the graft enquiry. Mr. Erdogan’s further moves to control the Internet where leaks of potentially damaging evidence of corruption appeared regularly and make the judiciary subservient to the government have partially been reversed by the courts.

    To top it all off, an article by investigative journalist Seymour M. Hersh in the London Review of Books earlier this month asserted that last August’s chemical weapons attack on the outskirts of Damascus that brought the United States within inches of military intervention in Syria was the work of Syrian rebels aided by Turkey in a bid to force the US to take military action.

    Long a proponent of US military action, Turkey had hoped that US intervention would salvage its failed Syria policy that together with the toppling of the elected Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt has cost it loss of influence and prestige across the Middle East and North Africa. Mr. Hersh argued that Turkish–US relations have been strained as a result of the last minute US doubts about Syrian government responsibility, reinforced by Syria’s agreement to surrender its chemical weapons.

    Winning the hosting of the EURO 2020 semi-finals and finals would project Turkey in a very different light and distract from the widely criticised authoritarian turn Mr. Erdogan has taken in recent years. It would also reinforce a resounding victory for Mr. Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) in last month’s municipal elections that has left his opponents licking their wounds.

    The hosting would further boost Turkey in its unspoken rivalry with Qatar for regional influence. Both nations employ sports alongside a global airline and the arts as tools of their projection in a friendly competition in which Turkey unlike Qatar brings to bear a sizeable country with one of the world’s 20 largest economies, a history of empire and historic ties to the Middle East, Africa, Europe and Asia.

    While the electoral victory likely strengthens Turkey’s hand against its competitors for the EURO 2020, soccer fans who regularly stage protests in stadia and denounce Mr. Erdogan as a thief because of his alleged involvement in the corruption scandal could cast a shadow over the Turkish bid. So could the fact that last year’s Under-20 FIFA World Cup attracted disappointing spectator numbers.

    Similarly, Mr. Erdogan’s retaliation against legendary former soccer player Hakan Sukur, a supporter of Mr. Gulen, is unlikely to help the Turkish bid. Municipal officials this month removed Mr. Sukur’s nameplate from Istanbul’s Sancaktepe Hakan Sukur Stadium and the prime minister demanded that he resign his seat as a member of parliament.

    Mr. Sukur was recruited by Mr. Erdogan and elected on the AKP ticket in 2011 but resigned in December from the party in protest against the prime minister’s efforts to close down prep schools operated by Mr. Gulen’s Hizmet movement. Mr. Sukur, viewed as the best soccer player of his generation if not in Turkish football history, remains an independent member of parliament.

    Similarly, alleged political interference in soccer could damage the Turkish bid. Critics of Mr. Erdogan charge that the AKP last September engineered the storming of the pitch by rival fans during a derby between Istanbul rivals Besiktas and Galatasary in an effort to further curtail Carsi, the militant and widely popular Besiktas support group that played a key role in last year’s anti-government protests. They point to the fact security was lax at the match and that a youth leader of the AKP boasted on Facebook how he had obtained a free ticket to the derby and was one of the first to invade the pitch.

    Turkish journalist Mehmet Baransu moreover documented links between the AKP and 1453 Kartallari (1453 Eagles), a rival conservative Besiktas support group named in commemoration of the year that Ottoman Sultan Fatih the Conqueror drove the Byzantines out of Constantinople,. 1453 members reportedly shouted ‘God is Great’ and attacked Carsi supporters during the pitch invasion.

    James M. Dorsey is a Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University. He is also co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog and a forthcoming book with the same title.

    Saturday, April 12, 2014

    Erdogan chooses soccer for first-post election strike against Islamist opponents

    Hakan Sukur Stadium no more

    By James M. Dorsey

    Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Recep Erdogan, fresh from a resounding victory in municipal elections has chosen the soccer pitch to make good on his promise to “enter the lair” of his Islamist rival, self-exiled preacher Fethullalh Gulen, and ensure that what he calls an “alliance of evil” is brought to account for alleged treason and creating a state within a state.

    In a symbolic gesture, Mr. Erdogan called on Turkish soccer legend Hakan Sukur to resign from parliament after his nameplate was removed from an Istanbul’s Sancaktepe Hakan Sukur Stadium. Mr. Sukur represented Istanbul on behalf of Mr. Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) until he resigned in protest again the government’s handling of a major corruption scandal.

    Back in 2011, Mr. Erdogan, a former soccer player, recruited Mr. Sukur to boost his election campaign to become prime minister for a third term. The former player had support the prime minister’s effort a year earlier to change Turkey’s constitution that had been drafted in the 1980s during a period of military rule. 
    “Turkey has experienced a tremendous development and I wanted to be a part of this progress and transformation, too. I love my country and I am part of a party that has gained large support,” Mr. Sukur said at the time.

    Three years later, responding to the renaming of the stadium, Mr. Sukur quipped on Twitter: “"It is better to have your name in people's heart than having a picture on a wall.”

    AKP won last month’s municipal elections despite a massive corruption scandal that was sparked in December when prosecutors believed to be close to Mr. Gulen launched an investigation into alleged graft by ministers and prominent businessmen. Police at the time detained sons of three ministers and the head of a state-owned bank.

    Mr. Erdogan has accused Mr. Gulen, who heads one of the world’s largest Islamist movements, of leaking a string of audio tapes allegedly implicating senior government officials, including Mr Erdogan, in the scandal as well as of a high level security meeting on Syria. The prime minister charged that the graft inquiry was part of a parallel state seeking to topple the government. Mr. Gulen is believed to have had a strong following in the judiciary and the police force

    In response to the leaking of the tapes, Mr. Erdogan sought to block Twitter and You Tube but was rebuffed by the courts who lifted the ban on Twitter unconditionally and ordered You Tube to be unblocked once it deleted the Syria-related video because it damaged national security.

    The move against Mr. Sukur, viewed as the best soccer player of his generation if not in Turkish football history, seemed petty against the prime minister’s earlier moves again Mr. Gulen, which included shifting scores of judicial personnel and thousands of police officers into new jobs in a bid to control the corruption investigation.

    In addition to the renaming of the stadium, police in the south-eastern city of Adana arrested eight police officers believed to be close to Mr. Gulen’s Hizmet or Service movement on charges of illegal wiretapping.

    Mr. Gulen heads a global education, banking and media empire that allied itself with Mr. Erdogan’s AKP in a successful bid to submit Turkey’s powerful military to civilian control. The mounting power struggle first became apparent in 2011 in a political and legal battle between Messrs Erdogan and Gulen over how to handle the eruption of the worst match fixing scandal in Turkish history. The match fixing inquiry was initiated by the same prosecutor who launched the graft investigation.

    Messrs Erdogan and Gulen fought a proxy battle over legal penalties for match fixing when the soccer scandal erupted. Mr. Erdogan won that battle by pushing through parliament a bill that significantly reduced the penalties and arm twisting the Turkish Football Federation (TFF) to get Fenerbahce SK, the political crown jewel in Turkish soccer, off the hook and prevent clubs guilty of match fixing from being relegated. At stake in the battle over Fenerbahce was control of the club with its millions of supporters.

    The battle as well as the escalation of the power struggle culminating in the graft investigation has raised doubts about whether Mr. Gulen, a frail, ailing 73-year old, who lives in self-exile in Pennsylvania, is in full control of his movement.

    Those doubts have risen given that Mr. Gulen’s movement turned the power struggle into open warfare with the graft investigation without an apparent clear endgame. The movement appeared unprepared for whatever the outcome would be, a fall of the Erdogan government, which it has not prompted, or government retaliation that would seek to seriously weaken it.

    Mr. Gulen appeared to implicitly acknowledge that he may not be in control in two phone calls to Fenerbahce chairman Aziz Yildirim in 2011 prior to soccer boss’s conviction on match fixing charges. People familiar with the phone calls quote Mr. Gulen as telling Mr. Yildirim: “There is nothing bad in my heart against you. I am not involved in this. There might be people who did wrong against you but I am not aware of this if it was my people.”

    In an inscription in a book Mr. Gulen sent to Mr. Yildirim in between the two phone calls, the preacher wrote: “To Aziz Bey whom I never had a chance to meet but admire for his activism, righteousness and perseverance. My prayers are with you that your difficult days may pass.”

    The renaming of the Istanbul stadium to punish Mr. Sukur is likely to be but a mild first push in Mr. Erdogan’s retaliation. So are allegations by Gulen-owned Turkish media such as Cihan news agency and Zaman newspaper - both affiliated to Gulen that they suffered cyber-attacks during last month’s elections.
    Fenerbahce is certain to figure in Mr. Erdogan’s campaign. The club emerged in the run-up to the municipal elections as a bastion of opposition against Mr. Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian rule.

    The club appeared to highlight its position in a tweet that said that Mr. Yildirim had written in his personal notebook an oath of allegiance to Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the visionary who carved modern Turkey out of the ruins of the Ottoman empire: "I promise you, Fenerbahce will be the last light on earth fighting against the darkest powers that want us to forget your revolution".

    James M. Dorsey is a Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University. He is also co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog and a forthcoming book with the same title.

    Wednesday, March 12, 2014

    Turkish soccer politics: a mesh of murky politics and alleged corruption

    Aziz Yildirim during mass anti-government protest

    By James M. Dorsey

    A stocky military contractor and football club president convicted on charges of match fixing is emerging as a potent symbol of mounting popular anger against politicization of Turkey’s judiciary and police force, apparent rampant corruption in the country, secularism and opposition to the country’s powerful, rival Islamists factions.

    Mr. Yildirim seems an unlikely symbol. While he insists that he is innocent and that his conviction is part of a political struggle for power between Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and self-exiled preacher Fethullalh Gulen, who heads one of the world’s largest Islamist networks, he refuses to express political opinions of his own. Instead, Mr. Yildirim conveys his opinions through what he says Turkish public opinion thinks.

    Mr. Yildirim is not without rivals in his ambition to be an undeclared opposition leader as part of his bid to reverse his conviction and the banning of Fenerbahce SK, the political crown jewel in Turkish soccer with an estimated fan base of 25 million, from European competitions. 

    The death Tuesday of Berkin Elvan, a 15-year old boy who was in coma since he was hit on the head last May by a police tear gas canister during mass anti-government protests on Istanbul’s Taksim Square in which soccer fans played a key role, sparked some of the most violent protests since last year’s watershed demonstrations against Mr. Erdogan. The protesters demanded the resignation of the government.

    Mr. Elvan, who was only 14 when he was fatally injured while buying bread, has too become a symbol of perceived arbitrariness of police brutality and lack of accountability. No police officer has been held responsible for the incident that led to Mr. Elvan’s death.

    Similarly, anti-government sentiment appears to be building in the Black Sea town of Trabzon, home to Fenerbahce arch rival Trabzonspor SK, amid the worst corruption scandal in modern Turkish history that potentially implicates Mr. Erdogan and his closest associates as well as unease that the prime minister is undermining Turkish democracy with his efforts to subject the judiciary to government control, limit access to the Internet, and curtail freedom of expression.

    Fenerbahce and Mr. Yildirim’s ability to mobilize were on display last month when tens, if not hundreds, of thousands marched in Istanbul in the largest anti-government demonstration since last year’s protests on Taksim demanding justice for the club as well as for Turkey at large. Fans chanted “Establish a party, Aziz Yıldırım” and “Thief Tayyip Erdogan,” a slogan often heard during matches of Fenerbahce, which prides itself on upholding the legacy of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the visionary who carved modern Turkey out of the ruins of the Ottoman empire and imposed French-style secularism. Fenerbahce is considering staging a second march in Ankara later this month.

    “Enough is enough. We stand against illegality, a gang-led legal system and anti-democratic establishments,” said a lawyer and fervent Fenerbahce fan who is close to Mr. Yildirim.

    Complicating Turkish soccer’s political battles in advance of March 30 municipal elections widely seen as a referendum on Mr. Erdogan’s embattled government is the fact that the corruption scandal, Turkey’s worst ever match-fixing scandal in which Mr. Yildirim figures prominently, and question marks about the integrity of judicial proceedings that put hundreds of military officers and others behind bars is the fact that all of this is overlaid by the power struggle between Turkey’s foremost Islamist leaders.

    That struggle focuses on control of Turkey’s judiciary and police force that are believed to be populated by supporters of Mr.Gulen. Mr. Erdogan has removed prosecutors who initiated the legal proceedings against alleged corruption in his government, the military as well as allegedly corrupt soccer executives, including Mr. Yildirim. He has also reassigned thousands of police officers since the corruption scandal erupted on December 17 with the arrest of sons of three Cabinet ministers and the head of a state-owned bank who allegedly had $4.5 million stashed away in his home. The prime minister asserts that his moves are designed to dismantle a state within the state.

    Few doubt the corruption allegations or the fact that match fixing is a fixture of Turkish soccer, but many Turks question the integrity of the legal process and the evidence and believe that the timing of both scandals was highly political. Mr. Yildirim is appealing his sentencing to 28 months in prison and asking the constitutional court for a retrial. “There is no match fixing case, this is a political case,” he says, expecting that he will be sent to prison to serve his sentence after this month’s crucial municipal elections.

    Fenerbahce is also applying to the Lausanne-based Court of Arbitration of Sport (CAS) to overturn its banning for three years from European championships by European soccer governor UEFA. Fenerbahce charges that the ban is unjust because it is based on an investigation by Turkey’s politicized police rather than the verdict of the court and that UEFA was manipulated by supporters of Gulen within the Turkish Football Federation (TFF).

    A flurry of tapes of conversations apparently recorded as part of a massive surveillance operation has fuelled the corruption scandal that has forced four of Mr. Erdogan’s ministers to resign and brought the simmering conflict between Mr. Erdogan and Mr. Gulen into the open. On the tapes, some of which Mr. Erdogan has acknowledged and some of which he has denounced as false, the prime minister is heard talking among others to his son of moving large amounts of cash in the wake of the scandal, favouring government contractors, and seeking to manipulate Fenerbahce’s internal affairs to ensure that Mr. Yildirim, who is serving his fifth two-year term, is replaced by a chairman more loyal to the prime minister. Fenerbahce has imitated internal disciplinary measures against the prime minister, a former soccer player and member of the club.

    Mr. Yildirim and his aides shower visitors with a barrage of detail and hand them a 745-page bound volume documenting his defence in what is a murky case in which it is difficult to distinguish fact from assertion. 
    Nevertheless, the legal procedures raise questions irrespective of whether Mr. Yildirim is guilty or not. Mr. Yildirim was tried in a special court that has since been abolished that only heard cases involving membership in an armed group and economic benefit from acts of violence.

    The abolishing of the courts has opened the door to potential retrial of many of its cases, including those against the military which were used in a joint effort by Mr. Erdogan and Mr. Gulen to subject Turkey’s powerful military to civilian control. Authorities have released in recent days scores of officers and others, including former chief of the general staff General Ilker Basbug who was sentenced to life in prison on charges of plotting against the government and establishing a terrorist organization.

    The arrest in 2011 of Mr. Yildirim and 92 others and of General Basbug in 2012 against Mr. Erdogan’s will served as early indicators of the developing power struggle between the prime minister and Mr. Gulen. The two men fought a proxy battle over legal penalties for match fixing when the soccer scandal erupted that Mr. Erdogan won by pushing through parliament a bill that significantly reduced the penalties and arm twisting the TFF to get Fenerbahce off the hook and prevent clubs guilty of match fixing from being relegated.

    In an article this week in the Financial Times, Mr. Gulen denied involvement in politics and asserted that his network “worked to provide equal opportunity for all, through educational institutions, relief organisations and other civil society projects.”

    At the same time, Mr. Gulen charged without explicitly naming Mr. Erdogan that “a small group within the government’s executive branch is holding to ransom the entire country’s progress” and was squandering public support with its recent actions, including “a law that gives the justice minister powers to appoint and discipline judges and prosecutors; a bill to curb internet freedoms; and a draft law that would give Turkey’s intelligence agency powers akin to those claimed by dictatorial regimes.”

    The Fenerbahce case despite Mr. Gulen’s denial that he is involved in any of the scandals raises questions about his ability to control his network. Some analysts believe that aides to Mr. Gulen, a frail 73-year old, may be driving events. Mr. Gulen appeared to implicitly acknowledge that in two phone calls to Mr. Yildirim in 2011 after the soccer official turned down an invitation to visit the preacher in his self-exile in the United States. People familiar with the phone calls quote Mr. Gulen as telling Mr. Yildirim: “There is nothing bad in my heart against you. I am not involved in this. There might be people who did wrong against you but I am not aware of this if it was my people.”

    In an inscription in a book Mr. Gulen sent to Mr. Yildirim in between the two phone calls, the preacher wrote: “To Aziz Bey whom I never had a chance to meet but admire for his activism, righteousness and perseverance. My prayers are with you that your difficult days may pass.”

    Mr. Yildirim is nonetheless convinced that the Gulenists sparked the match fixing scandal in a bid to gain control of Fenerbahce even if he refrains from saying so directly. “It is said that there is a powerful organization within state institutions,” he says referring to the police and the judiciary. “That is seen as dangerous. The Republic of Turkey is a democratic country with a constitution, a separation of powers and a parliamentary system. Ataturk is the face of Turkey. Any strike against this disturbs the public. It’s a real threat according to the public because the government cannot run the country. It seems that this is the situation in Turkey. People can’t trust these institutions. It’s against the public interest. If Cemaat (the Gulenist movement) wants to maintain their organization as a service to the people, they should not just think of themselves but work for the benefit of the public,” he says.

    With tensions in Turkey rising, anger is spilling not only on to the streets in the wake of the death of Mr. Elvan but also on to the soccer pitch. Fans of various clubs, not just Fenerbahce, chant “Erdogan Thief” during matches.

    A derby between Fenerbahce and Black Sea team Trabzonspor was abandoned last Sunday after fans of Trabzon, once a thriving Ottoman port still known for its legendary soccer club, its fanatical football fans and hot-tempered, explosive inhabitants who are quicker with a knife than with their wits, pelted Istanbul’s players and officials with smoke missiles.

    Tension between the two teams has been mounting since the 2010-11 season when Fenerbahce topped Trabzon on points to win the championship. Fenerbahce’s triumph was part of the match fixing investigation that led to Mr. Yildirim’s sentencing. "Anarchy starts when justice is over," said Trabzonspor coach Senol Gunes after Trabzonspor lost the championship to Fenerbahce.

    Trabzonspor, like Fenerbahce, is a politically important team for Mr. Erdogan. The prime minister has pumped money into the team and in 2005 appointed one of its former players as his minister of public works. 

    Trabzon has been in decline since its glorious Ottoman days with maritime trade all but drying up and railroad construction having bypassed it. Sevecen Tunc, a Turkish sports historian and author of a book on the social history of soccer in Trabzon, argues that municipal leaders believe that soccer can restore the city’s civic pride and ensure that it remains a player on the national stage.

    “Trabzon fans believe in Senol Gunes’ statement. All my friends who were directly involved in the events of last Sunday or indirectly supported them quoted him .That is how they legitimize what happened. I am afraid that this violence is just a beginning and will not be limited to football because sociologically, the inhabitants of this city have no agriculture, no industry and no commerce. The only way they can put Trabzon on the map is football. Trabzon has waited for the Super League championship since 1983-84 and they won it in the 2010-11 season, at least that is what they believe. This could get dangerously out of control if Yildirim is not punished and Trabzonspor is not as yet awarded the 2010-11 title,” Ms. Tunc says.

    Sunday’s violence was in part sparked by the positioning of sharpshooters on rooftops around Trabzon’s Avni Aker Stadium to protect the Fenerbahce squad, widely viewed in Trabzon as a pro-government club, in part because of Mr. Erdogan’s membership. To Trabzon fans, the message was clear, according to Ms. Tunc: “The state protects its team and sees people from Trabzon as terrorists.”

    James M. Dorsey is a Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University. He is also co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog and a forthcoming book with the same title.  

    Wednesday, February 26, 2014

    The Iranian Nuclear Deal: Rewriting the Middle East Map (JMD in Insight Turkey)

    Tuesday, February 18, 2014

    Murky Turkish soccer politics mesh with massive corruption scandal

    Fenerbahce fans protest

    By James M. Dorsey

    Always murky, Turkish soccer politics have become even murkier as a politics-laden match-fixing scandal meshes with a corruption investigation that targets Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his closest associates.

    Defendants in both scandals – Mr. Erdogan and the management of one of Turkey’s most storied clubs – portray the allegations against them as part of a power struggle between the prime minister and a self-exiled preacher who heads one of the world’s most formidable Islamist movements.

    To tens of thousands of anti-government protesters mobilized last Sunday by fans of Istanbul’s Fenerbahce Spor Kulubu for the largest anti-government demonstration since last June’s Gezi Park protests on Istanbul’s Taksim Square, the two scandals are expressions of a growing rot in Turkish politics and society. The protesters called for justice not only for Fenerbahce but all of Turkey, expressed support for Fenerbahce chairman Aziz Yildirim who is appealing a conviction on match fixing charges, and denounced Mr. Erdogan as a thief.

    Like last year’s Gezi Park protests, the largest in Mr. Erdogan’s decade in office in which soccer fans played a key role, Sunday’s Fenerbahce march  reflected growing public anger at a prime minister who has become increasingly haughty and authoritarian. The Gezi Park protests, sparked by government plans to replace a park with a shopping mall, were a precursor for the corruption investigation into public works, zoning and ties between senior government officials and prominent businessmen.

    Few doubt that Turkish soccer is riddled with match-fixing and hampered by an incestuous relationships with politics. That was no more evident when two years ago Mr. Yildirim was indicted with 92 others for match-fixing. Mr. Yildirim, who has denied the charges, was sentenced to six years in prison and is now engaged in his final appeal. He could be put behind bars for several years and banned for life from professional soccer.

    Fans chanted “Establish a [political] party, Aziz Yıldırım” and “Thief Tayyip Erdogan,” a slogan often heard during Fenerbahce matches even though the club has long been viewed as nationalist. The denunciation of Mr. Erdogan contradicted Mr. Yildirim’s implicit suggestions that the prime minister’s Islamist rival, Fethullalh Gulen, manipulated the court verdicts. Mr. Gulen, who heads a global educational empire and owns some of Turkey’s most influential media, is believed to have significant sway in Turkey’s judiciary and police force.

    A battle two years ago between Mr. Erdogan and Mr. Gulen over how to handle the match fixing scandal effectively amounted to a struggle for control of Fenerbahce, the crown political jewel in Turkish soccer because of its tens of millions of supporters.  

    “As I said from the very beginning, the court case regarding match-fixing in Turkey is a political case, and the ruling of this case has also been made politically. I do not respect or recognize this court,” Mr. Yildirim said last month after losing his first appeal. Fenerbahce issued a press release this week peppered with quotes of Mr. Erdogan’s pointing the finger at Mr. Gulen’s alleged control of the judiciary.

    “We would like to declare to the global public opinion; the only truth lying before Turkey in the aftermath of this operation which now lacks any sense of legitimacy is that, the right to fair trial, in accordance with the European Convention of Human Rights and the judgments and decisions of the European Court of Human Rights, is a must for all Turkey, and in particular, Fenerbahce Sports Club,” the club said in its statement.

    The divergence of opinion on Mr. Erdogan, a Fenerbahce member and former soccer player, between fans and the club’s management reflects the corruption scandal’s rekindling of widespread public discontent that exploded last summer on Taksim Square.

    Mr. Erdogan who is serving his third term initially came to office with a record of being clean in a country in which politicians are perceived to be corrupt. He risks, as a result of the latest corruption scandal, losing that aura.

    Mr. Erdogan portrays the corruption scandal that has implicated the sons of three ministers and the head of a state-owned bank alongside prominent businessmen with government ties and could embroil the prime minister’s son as a power grab by a state within the state, a reference to Mr. Gulen. The two men joined forces early in Mr. Erdogan’s rule in successfully subjecting Turkey’s powerful military to civilian supervision.

    Mr. Gulen’s movement was further instrumental in the initial rise of Turkey’s appeal across the Middle East, North Africa and in sub-Saharan Africa by employing its vast global network to pave the way for Turkish diplomacy and business. Mr. Gulen and Mr. Erdogan have since gradually parted ways as they appealed for support to different segments of conservative Turkish society.

    The case of Mr. Yildirim, a defence contractor with long-standing ties to the government, has been enmeshed in politics since day one. Mr. Erdogan drove through parliament a bill that limited punishment for match fixing immediately after the scandal erupted despite opposition from President Abdullah Gul, who like Mr. Gulen, favoured the existing severe penalties. Mr. Gulen was believed to have viewed the match fixing scandal as an opportunity to replace Mr. Yildirim with someone closer to his Cemaat movement.

    Three months later Mr. Erdogan got the Turkish Football Federation (TFF) to clear Fenerbahce and others of charges of match-fixing. That did not stop the judiciary from pursuing the scandal as a criminal matter. It took however the eruption of the broader construction and public works scandal for Mr. Erdogan to remove prosecutors and police officers whom he believed were associated with Mr. Gulen.

    The controversial TFF decision came three months after the soccer body against Mr. Erdogan’s wish rejected a proposal backed by the prime minister that would have shielded clubs guilty of match fixing from being relegated. The defeat of the proposal prompted the TFF’s three top officials, including its vice chairman, Goksel Gumusdag, a brother-in-law of Mr. Erdogan, to resign.

    Mr. Erdogan’s involvement resembled more recent reports in leaked tapes and statements by journalists about how the prime minister and members of his government regularly pressure editors and reporters to change their reporting to suit the government’s political needs. The prime minister has in recent days also rammed through parliament legislation that gives the government greater control of the judiciary and Internet access.

    “The judiciary has been used as a weapon against all the opposition no matter what field of social life is it coming from. Fenerbahce, its members and its fans are protesting against the tricks and the system. Enough is enough. We stand against illegality, a gang-led legal system and anti-democratic establishments,” said a lawyer and fervent Fenerbahce fan.

    James M. Dorsey is a Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University. He is also co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog and a forthcoming book with the same title.

    Tuesday, January 21, 2014

    Turkish match fixing: A precursor to corruption scandal rocking the government

    Aziz Yildirim: Culprit, Pawn or Victim?

    By James M. Dorsey

    When Aziz Yildirim, the head of Turkey’s foremost soccer club, Fenerbahce SK, denounced this week an appeals court decision upholding his conviction in a massive match fixing scandal, he drew a parallel with a construction-related corruption scandal that is rocking the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and pitting the country’s foremost Islamist factions against one another.

    Mr. Yildirim’s comparison stands on strong ground despite the fact that most experts on Turkish soccer as well as fans, including those of Fenerbahce, concede that Turkish football is thoroughly corrupt and that match fixing is a fact of life. Mr. Yildirim was sentenced to six years and three months in prison and is barred from serving as a club official. He has one last chance to appeal which would allow him to remain in office until he has exhausted his options.

    In a statement following the court decision, Mr. Yildirim suggested the verdict was part of a power struggle between Mr. Erdogan and Fethullalh Gulen, the prime minister’s Islamist ally-turned-nemesis. Mr. Erdogan has accused Mr. Gulen, a self-exile Islamist preacher who operates a global media, education and business empires estimated to be worth $20 billion, of establishing a state within the state.

    Mr. Gulen initially supported Mr. Erdogan’s rise to power and worked with him to bring the powerful 
    Turkish military under civilian control. The two men’s political and commercial power base is inextricably intertwined but their interests have over time diverged as Mr. Gulen targeted urban conservatives while Mr. Erdogan strengthened his hold on the rural vote. In a prelude to the construction scandal, Mr. Erdogan attempted last fall to curb Mr. Gulen’s influence by announcing that he would shut down tutoring schools operated by the preacher’s movement.

    The high stakes power struggle between the two men, already evident in the match fixing scandal, moved into high gear in December when an investigation by the police and judiciary, believed to be populated by supporters of Mr. Gulen, into a construction-related corruption scandal forced four of the prime minister’s ministers to resign and a reshuffle of Mr. Erdogan’s cabinet. Mr. Gulen has denied any association with the investigation.

    Many in Turkey nonetheless give credit to the corruption allegations but believe that the timing of the arrests raises questions about the independence of the police and the judiciary. Those qualms are certain to be discussed during Mr. Erdogan’s visit this week to Brussels and the European Union designed to give a new boost to Turkey’s EU membership bid.

    Mr. Erdogan has charged that the investigation was an attempt to undermine him in advance of crucial municipal elections in March that are widely expected to be interpreted as a referendum on his increasingly troubled rule. At stake in the battle with Mr. Gulen and the elections that are to be followed by Turkey’s first ever direct election of its president is not only Mr. Erdogan’s political future but also history’s initial judgement of moderate political Islam’s foremost foray into government. Mr. Erdogan, whose status as the successful embodiment of moderate political Islam has suffered a series of setbacks that started with last June’s mass anti-government Gezi Park protests, risks seeing his reputation irreparably damaged.

    Much like in the match fixing scandal, Mr. Erdogan has sought to limit the political fallout of the construction scandal by cleansing institutions of his opponents and seeking to control the legal process. Up to 2,000 police officers have been either relieved of their duties or moved to other jobs in recent weeks as have prosecutors who ordered the detention of three sons of ministers as well as the head of state-owned Halkbank. Among the prosecutors shoved aside is Zekeriya Oz, the man who initiated the investigation into the match fixing scandal.

    "I, Aziz Yildirim, do not respect this illegal judgement, I do not recognise this political decision," Mr. Yildirim said. His statement was echoed by Mr. Erdogan who described the appeals court decision as a political manoeuvre in advance of the municipal elections.

    Mr. Yildirim was first sentenced to jail in 2012 and fined some 500,000 euros for match-fixing during the 2010-2011 season and of forming a criminal gang, but was freed pending his appeal.

    Mr. Erdogan, a former soccer player and Fenerbahce fan, has fought hard in the past 2.5 years to spare Mr. Yildirim the worst. He viewed the corruption charges against the soccer boss as an effort by Mr. Gulen, a man some prominent players consult before deciding to switch clubs, to muscle his way into what the prime minister considered his political domain. Mr. Gulen was believed to have wanted Mr. Yildirim removed so that someone closer to his movement could take control of the club.

    In standing up for Mr. Yildirim, Mr. Erdogan hoped to garner support among millions of fans of Fenerbahce, the crown political jewel in Turkish soccer. Many of those fans however joined supporters of Istanbul arch rivals Besiktas JK and Galatasary SK in manning the front lines last June in mass anti-government demonstrations. Mr. Erdogan’s government has since sought to criminalize militant fan groups.

    If the degree of Mr. Erdogan’s success in seeking to shield Mr. Yildirim is any indication, the jury remains out on whether he can insulate himself from personal involvement in the construction corruption scandal that involves the awarding of large public works to groups close to the government, amendments to zoning laws that favoured those groups and patronage politics that generated funding for the prime minister’s political machinery.

    Mr. Yildirim was convicted despite Mr. Erdogan’s manipulations that initially lead to the soccer club chairman’s acquittal by the Turkish Football Federation (TFF). That however did not stop supporters of Mr. Gulen in the judiciary from pursuing the matter. It also did not prevent European soccer governing body UEAFA from banning Fenerbahce from European tournaments for two years on charges of match fixing.

    Nevertheless, Mr. Erdogan’s intervention was in many ways a dry run for his effort to manage the construction scandal, the most serious crisis in his decade in office which catapulted him into becoming the third most important leader in modern Turkish history after Kemal Mustafa Ataturk, the visionary who carved Turkey out of the ruins of the Ottoman empire, and Turgut Ozal, the conservative politician who liberalized its economy and was the only politician prior to Mr. Erdogan to successfully stand up to the military.

    As the match fixing scandal erupted and Mr. Yildirim and 92 others were indicted on match fixing-related charges, Mr. Erdogan and Mr. Gulen adopted diametrically opposed positions. Mr. Gulen’s position constituted an early indication that he was ready to challenge Mr. Erdogan’s grip on power.

    While Mr. Gulen and his supporters pushed for harsh sentences, Mr. Erdogan forced a law through parliament that limited the penalties for both officials and clubs. The law prevented Mr. Yildirim from being sentenced to tens of years in prison. The TFF meanwhile rejected a proposal backed by the prime minister that would have shielded clubs guilty of match fixing from being relegated.

    Three months later, Mr. Erdogan succeeded in getting the federation to clear Fenerbahce as a club and 15 others of charges of involvement in match-fixing. His interference prompted the TFF’s three top officials, including its vice chairman, Gospel Gumusdag, a brother-in-law of Mr. Erdogan, to resign.  Mr. Erdogan defended his moves on the grounds that punishing institutions rather than individuals would amount to penalizing “millions of fans who set their hearts on these institutions.''

    James M. Dorsey is a Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University. He is also co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog and a forthcoming book with the same title.

    Sunday, November 24, 2013

    What Role for World Cup in Arab Spring? (JMD in Global Brief)

    QUERY | November 11, 2013     

    What Role for the World Cup in the Arab Spring?Less than a year from Brazil 2014, in Egypt and Turkey alike, the stadiums give the pulse of the protests and the people

    A soccer brawl last year, in which more than 70 militant soccer fans died, galvanized significant numbers of Egyptians against the military and security forces. The brawl accelerated the military’s desire to turn power over to an elected government.
    Eighteen months later, mass protests, involving Muslim Brothers, non-Brothers and street battle-hardened soccer fans took place to oppose the military ouster of elected president Mohamed Morsi and the subsequent brutal crackdown on the Brotherhood. Both the coup and the crackdown were backed by a significant segment of Egyptian society.
    The resistance to military rule and the security forces by many soccer fans and the youth groups that formed the backbone of the popular uprising that forced Hosni Mubarak out of office in early 2011 is again visible. Today, this is a resistance that has been adopted by a far wider part of the Egyptian public, and indeed reinforced by what many Egyptians perceive to be a restoration of some of the repressive features of the Mubarak era. In other words, even if Morsi had succeeded in becoming widely reviled after only a year in office, the return of the capricious security force brutality that was one of the main drivers of Mubarak’s removal has the soccer ultras exercised. This has been evident in various forms of violent pro-Morsi protests inside and outside of Egypt’s soccer stadiums.
    The impact of soccer fans is, of course, not exclusive to Arab autocracies. It also felt in the region’s illiberal democracies – the possible direction of Turkey, for instance. Egyptian strongman General Abdel Fattah Al Sisi and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan see their critics in the same terms – as terrorists who need to be harshly subdued. Soccer fans rank high on both their agendas.
    Both Egypt and Turkey remain deeply polarized. Public opinion is fluid. Backing in Egypt for the coup against Morsi is fragile and conditional. Cracks in that support have manifested themselves despite a significant number of Egyptians egging on the military and the security forces to be even tougher in their crackdown on the Brotherhood.
    By the same token, Egypt’s deep polarization has not left the militant soccer fans untouched. The crisis in Egyptian soccer was famously amplified by last year’s deadly brawl in Port Said. And while the ultras as organizations have refrained from joining the fray, many of their members and leaders have, reflecting the gamut of political views in their ranks. For instance, in a twist of irony, many Ultras White Knights (UWK) joined the pro-Morsi protests. The UWK is a fan group of storied Cairo club Al Zamalek SC, which traces its roots to support of the monarchy that was toppled by the military coup in 1952 and replaced by Arab nationalist leader Gamal Abdel Nasser. Nasser became the club’s president and brutally repressed the Brotherhood.
    The arch rivals of the UWK, Ultras Ahlawy, the fan group of Al Ahly SC – historically the nationalist club – issued their first anti-Brotherhood statement in more than a year weeks into the current crackdown. The statement ended the group’s silence in respect of the government while Morsi was in office. By refraining from attacking the government, Ahlawy had hoped that harsh verdicts would be served in the trial of those responsible for the deaths in Port Said. Ahlawy got only partial satisfaction: while 21 supporters of Port Said’s Al Masry SC were sentenced to death, seven of the nine security officials were acquitted.
    “The ultras have become fascists. Like Egypt, they have collapsed. They have no values and no real beliefs,” said one former ultras leader, who left his group in protest at the political turn that it had taken. In a perverse way, the difficulty of Egyptian and Turkish ultras in defining themselves is not dissimilar to that of the Brotherhood. The Brotherhood has yet to make up its mind as to whether it is a social or a political movement. That decision may become easier if it survives the crackdown and emerges strong enough one day to negotiate the terms of a political solution to Egypt’s crisis – a prospect that, to be sure, appears increasingly unlikely.
    The Egyptian and Turkish ultras, for their part, refuse to acknowledge that they are as much about politics as they are about soccer. Their battle in Egypt for freedom in the stadiums and their prominent role in the toppling of Mubarak, as well as their opposition to the military rulers that succeeded him and the Morsi government, made them political by definition. Those who populated their rank and file were united in their support for their club and their deep-seated animosity toward the security forces. Alas, they were united on little else.
    The ultras’ fate could change if Egypt continues down the road on which it has embarked – that of a restoration of Mubarak’s police state. Repression with little more than a democratic façade could again turn stadiums into political battlefields. The former ultra again: “I’m afraid of the return of the military state. That is not what I fought for in the stadiums and on Tahrir Square. I’m also afraid of the Brotherhood. It’s a choice between two evils. If you ask me now, I’d opt for the military, but that could well change once this is all over.”
    The Turkish ultras have one leg up on their Egyptian counterparts. Carsi, the support group of Istanbul’s Besiktas JK, with a massive following across the country, traces its roots to the far left and positions itself as anarchist. Still, despite having wholeheartedly embraced massive anti-Erdogan protests last June in Istanbul’s Taksim Square, they, like the Egyptians, are responding to the backlash by insisting on their pro-forma apolitical nature – this after 20 of their numbers were charged with belonging to an illegal organization.
    Neither the government nor the ultras have illusions. Both are preparing for confrontations this fall and into the new year – not in Taksim, but in the stadiums and the universities. The prospect of renewed protests has prompted the Erdogan government to announce measures that could have been taken from Al-Sisi’s playbook. They include replacing private security forces in stadiums and on campuses with police forces; banning the chanting of political slogans during soccer matches; requiring clubs to force spectators to sign a pledge to abide by the ban before attending a game; and cancelling scholarships for students who participate in anti-government protests.
    To drive home the message that protest equals terrorism, a video issued by the Anti-Terrorism Office in Ankara warned that protests were the first step toward terrorism. The 55-second video featuring a young woman demonstrator-turned-suicide bomber warned the public that “our youth, who are the guarantors of our future, can start with small demonstrations of resistance that appear to be innocent, and after a short period of time, can engage without a blink in actions that may take the lives of dozens of innocent people.”
    As in Egypt, Erdogan’s efforts to squash further protests are failing. Fans have been reminding the government that the battle is not over – and indeed may only have just begun – when they chant during the matches, demanding political resignations: “Everywhere Is Taksim Square! Everywhere Is Resistance!” It is a slogan that the Brotherhood has adopted as it has launched regular, smaller-scale protests across Cairo and the rest of Egypt – a tactical evolution meant to avoid the massive demonstrations that risk ending in a bloodbath.
    James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture. He is the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog.
    (Photograph: The Canadian Press / AP / Amir Nabil)