25 June 2013

What To Do About Your Digital Footprint and Online Security

There are two schools of thought on this.

One side says that if you have nothing to hide why worry about such things, let them sift through your data. The other side says that even if I have nothing to hide, if they have the ability to record all my exchanges, the day I disagree with them publicly, they can destroy me by divulging embarrassing details about me.

I am not going to tell you which side makes more sense, that is up to you. But I will suggest a couple of things in case you want to take some measures.

First the facts:

1) Assume that all your phone conversations and email exchanges are recorded and stored. The storage technology and database software are so advanced that this is really easy and fairly inexpensive to do. Most of the time, no one will every listen to what you said or read what you wrote. This is why they issue blanket denials with a straight face. But if they need to, they can.

2) All your Internet activities are stored in several company servers, especially Google. Your queries are analyzed and your digital footprint is saved to sell stuff to you later on. If you book a trip to Orlando, the next day, your favorite blog will have ads for Disney World just for you.

3) Your email is like sending a postcard. It is visible to everyone. Think twice before you send your neighbor your home alarm system code for them to water your plants.

4) When you download something through torrents, don't assume that you are invisible: your ISP can see everything you download. In many places you will get a warning letter and if you persist some Movie or Music Association will sue you for everything you have got.

My suggestions:

1) For Privacy

If you wish to avoid your activities and exchanges being recorded and stored, start by using a Virtual Private Network (VPN). A VPN is a protocol that takes your Internet traffic away from your ISP's servers and re-routes it through encrypted servers. In other words, it makes your Internet explorations invisible to snoopers and hackers.

Note that this does not mean anonymous: Google will still know that you booked an Orlando ticket but your activities will be invisible to other prying eyes.

How to choose a VPN system? Most are commercial companies, which means you have to pay for the service (there are free systems but they are much slower). A couple of pointers:

- Choose the one that has many servers around the world so that you can have different IP addresses. This will also enable you to watch country specific programs by providing you an IP address in that country.

- Test their performance before you sign up. There should be very little speed penalty for going through their servers (roughly 10 percent speed degradation is acceptable).

- If you want decent protection L2TP/IPsec is a better protocol than the more common PPTP.

- Finally, if you are very serious about government interference. select a service that does not maintain logs.

Click here for a review of top VPN service providers.

Besides VPN, you can also use the "private browsing" option in Firefox.

2) For Anonymity

VPN makes your Web surfing private but not anonymous.

If you want to render your activities both private and anonymous you need to go through something like Tor. Tor was designed for the US Navy but it is now open to the public and is free.

What it does is this:

Internet traffic is composed of small packets of data with an address header to indicate where they are supposed to go.

Tor removes the final address from the header and moves these packets through secure servers one at a time.

At every step the next server is randomly chosen and only its address is given.

This way, and each time the header is changed and a new address is given, which thwarts attempts to follow your traffic.

Keep in mind that Tor involves a serious speed degradation.

3. Nothing Is Really Erased

Nothing you do or write on the Internet ever disappears. Most Web sites are stored at the Wayback machine.

Even dead sites are backed up somewhere. For instance, within two days of Snowden's appearance people found out that when he was 18 he wrote silly stuff in a now defunct Web site.

All your tweets are stored and Twitter has a deal with Library of Congress to make them available online. Right now it is a slow system but eventually it will become a searchable database.

And despite what Facebook says, nothing is completely erased on their site. Consider a fake identity.

In any case, exercise caution when you make statements. Any of it can pop up somewhere when you least expect it.

4. Secure Email

If you want your email to be a bit more secure than Gmail (your email messages are routinely scanned by intelligent bots to find key words to sell you stuff) use Hushmail.

Another way of making your email more secure is to use encryption. While the system is fairly easy it involves sending your interlocutors a private key and a public key so it could get cumbersome for most people.

Here is a primer.

5. Disposable Addresses

When you sign up for a service, do not use your regular email address. They are sold to spammers and they are also used to track your movements on the Web.

You can either use a service like Yahoo to create a new address with a fake name and fake original email account (which is getting harder to do). Or you can use a service like 10 Minute Mail. This service gives an address for ten minutes or just long enough to sign up to a site and receive a confirmation link via email. Once you confirmed your existence to the site you want to register to, your email disappears forever. Good luck tracking you through that disposable address.

6. Never Use the Same Password Everywhere 

If you use the same password for your alumni Web site and your bank, the day that alumni site is hacked, those people will be able to get into your bank account as well.

A simple method of selecting and retaining your passwords would be this:

- Choose a specific book, determine a page and use s specific line in that page as your password for a site; use the the same line of the next page for another site and so on.

- Simply list those sites on a piece of paper in their proper order and put it in the book. If you selected page 20 and line three for the first one you will know what to do. The next one will be page 21 and line 3. And 22 and line 3.

- Even if someone were to find the list they would not know what to do with it without the page and line information.

7. Avoid Torrents If You Can

If you want to find specific files try Usenet. It is accessible through your email client (like Outlook or Thunderbird) but you will not find much unless you sign up for a paying service like GigaNews. They have a search engine (Mimo) and you can get a VPN (VyprVPN) for the price of a monthly subscription.

If you don't know what Usenet is, forget I mentioned it. You are better off by not knowing it.

And if after all that, you are still intercepted by the Big Brother, whatever you do, don't mention me.

24 June 2013

A Couple of Notes on Edward Snowden

The revelations by the NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden did not surprise me. In fact, I was surprised that people were shocked to find out that all our communications were being monitored.

Let me say it without moving my lips: This has always been the case and it will always be the case.

This is nothing new. Have you heard of the ECHELON system?
ECHELON is a name used in global media and in popular culture to describe a signals intelligence (SIGINT) collection and analysis network operated on behalf of the five signatory states to the UKUSA Security Agreement (Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States, referred to by a number of abbreviations, including AUSCANNZUKUS and Five Eyes). It has also been described as the only software system which controls the download and dissemination of the intercept of commercial satellite trunk communications. [my emphasis]
Read the last sentence one more time.

But during the last decade, most of the communication traffic was moved from satellites to fiber optics. So the first thing the Cheney Administration did after 9/11 was to design a program (with the Orwellian name Total Information Awareness or TIA) to gather data from telephone communications, email, social media, credit card receipts and all online transactions without warrants. Admiral Poindexter, the formerly convicted felon of the Iran-Contra scandal, was the point man for this brilliant idea.

When TIA was greeted with dismay, the Cheney Administration changed tack and had the NSA approach the Telcos in 2001 to get direct and secret access to the Internet backbone. This is known as the "NSA Warrantless Surveillance Program" and it was exposed by James Rosen and Eric Lichtblau of the New York Times in December 2005 (incidentally, they filed the story a year before but Bill Keller, the Editor of the liberal NY Times decided to sit on it until after the 2004 presidential elections).

Thanks to that story, we learned that there was a Room 641A in the AT&T floors of the SBC Communications Building in San Francisco and beam splitters installed in fiber optics trunks pushed all of Internet traffic through the computers in that room.

In other words, they had access to everything. But when the story broke, the NSA claimed that it was not listening in on any conversation between two American citizens. They had access but refrained from using it. And they never listened in on innocent parties. Some people might be naive enough to believe these assurances but they were not quite true. For instance, some whistle-blower revealed that NSA analysts were listening regular conversations between military personnel and their families:
Faulk says he and others in his section of the NSA facility at Fort Gordon routinely shared salacious or tantalizing phone calls that had been intercepted, alerting office mates to certain time codes of "cuts" that were available on each operator's computer.

"Hey, check this out," Faulk says he would be told, "there's good phone sex or there's some pillow talk, pull up this call, it's really funny, go check it out. It would be some colonel making pillow talk and we would say, 'Wow, this was crazy'," Faulk told ABC News. 
But American exceptionalism being what it is, people disregarded such stories and believed that the NSA folks would never, ever listen in on their fellow citizens.

Once the warrantless surveillance became public, the Cheney Administration pushed a new legislation through Congress (a bi-partisan effort) which exonerated the Telcos, retroactively justified the warrantless surveillance practice and gave the NSA the power to acquire large scale warrants from the secret FISA Court to monitor unspecified communications between unspecified parties.

Then they continued to record and data mine everything. In fact the job got so big that they had to build a two billion dollar new facility in Utah just for these activities. But even that was not enough, they enlisted private contractors. And large private security companies began taking over the spying business.
Seventy percent of America’s intelligence budget now flows to private contractors. Going by this year’s estimated budget of about $80 billion, that makes private intelligence a $56 billion-a-year industry.
Enter Edward Snowden. He was a contractor working for the giant defense and security firm Booz Allen Hamilton.

He revealed that through a program called PRISM the NSA had access to the metadata of all telephone conversations.  Moreover, they were monitoring (along with their British counterpart GCHQ) all of Internet traffic. They also had direct access points to Google, Yahoo, Facebook, Apple and Microsoft servers. Of course these companies denied the existence of such access but they acknowledge that they complied with requests of information from the NSA.

Of course, this is a meaningless denial since the NSA warrants are very broad, the rules and procedures are secret and these companies cannot discuss even the extent or nature of NSA requests.

I am pretty sure they have full blown TIA. Snowden stated that they only have access to metadata of telephone and email communications (where, when, who type of information) but I suspect he was being cautious not to reveal all he knows at once. With the kind of access described in this Power Point presentation, I don't see how they would just limit themselves to metadata.

In fact, there was a recent example of the kind of access we are talking about. If you remember, the FBI sort of acknowledged that they had access to previous phone conversations between Boston marathon bomber Tsarnaev and his wife. Since they were not persons of interests at the time, it meant that they could go back and find past communications.

Having said all that and perhaps weaken your trust in the inherent goodness and decency of the national security state, I want to highlight a couple of intriguing points about Snowden.

His timing coincided with the US visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping. One of the most important topic on Obama's agenda was the Chinese hacking. He even said that he had blunt talks with Xi. Within days, Snowden revealed (from Hong Kong where he was holed up) that the US government routinely engaged in similar hacking activities.
Within hours of news breaking that the US had filed charges against Snowden, the South China Morning Post reported that the whistleblower had handed over a series of documents to the paper detailing how the US had targeted Chinese phone companies as part of a widespread attempt to get its hands on a mass of data.
Clearly, this is a major embarrassment for the US government whose motto is "Do As We Say Not As We Do."
 All over the country, a magic switch went on. Thousands of writers and editors who hadn’t dared touch the Snowden story on Tuesday couldn’t get enough of it on Wednesday.
“The U.S. Has Attacked Chinese Networks for 15 Years,” said a headline in The Yangtze Daily. “Snowden Leaks Information About Prism to Reveal the Hypocrisy of the U.S. Government,” added The Wuhan Evening News. 
China Daily quoted a Chinese expert on American affairs saying, “For months, Washington has been accusing China of cyberespionage, but it turns out the biggest threat to the pursuit of individual freedom and privacy in the U.S. is the unbridled power of the government.”      
Another intriguing point is the incomplete extradition request sent to Hong Kong authorities. The people who put together dossiers like these do not make mistakes. My guess is that the State Department was fearful of further revelations in case he was blocked in Hong Kong and they had tp go through a lengthy extradition process. No one knows for sure how many secret files Snowden took from the NSA computers (he has been travelling with four laptops) and the way he intervened in the Obama Xi debate must have given them pause.

I never understood why he went to Hong Kong until he gave this important trump card to China. If it was done on purpose this was an astute move.

Once he left Hong Kong, Snowden decided to fly out to Moscow, en route to Ecuador. When the US asked Russian authorities to prevent him from leaving the country they flatly refused that request. Russia is about one of the few countries in the world to be able to thumb their noses to the US in such a situation. Another good move on Snowden's part.

As for his asylum request to Ecuador, the most significant part of it is the fact that it was arranged by Wikileaks. The message this conveys is that his secrets could be shared with the organization and even if he is intercepted and "rendered" back home, the genie will be let out of the bottle.

These are all excellent moves and shows wit and knowledge on the part of Ed Snowden.

If he has the goods, that is documents proving the extraordinary overreach of the NSA and the US intelligence community, he might one day be known as the guy who brought the National Security State to its knees.

18 June 2013

Standing Man in Occupy Istanbul

As you know, the protests that started out as a minor display of environmental discontent turned into an epic yet peaceful confrontation with the authorities. Last week, I wrote that this was something completely new in Turkey and it signaled the birth of a civil society.

I also suggested that the Prime Minister was likely to separate the environmental element of the protest from the political discontent and act generously regarding the former. And he would use fiery rhetoric to whip up more support from his base.

He did both but he was much less generous about the environmental demands than I thought and his rhetoric to his constituency was much more belligerent and polarizing.

When he ordered the police to take back the Square there were skirmishes all around the area. Initially, I was dismayed that the demonstrators abandoned their non-violent civil disobedience and began confronting the riot police. But it quickly became clear that the groups that responded in kind belonged to some traditional left wing organizations and had little to do with the original demonstrators.

Those young people were using a different tactic. They were moving to an area and waiting for the police to attack them. Then, instead of standing there and taking a beating, they were quickly dispersing only to pop up somewhere else. It was a cat-and-mouse game that really unnerved the riot police. Social media sites had cell phone clips of police officers really in tears begging the protesters to stop doing that.

A young man said that in the past, there were two kinds of resistance: active or passive. This is a new one, he said and we invented it. It is neither active (we are non-violent) nor passive (we refuse to be pepper sprayed silently). And we are the video game generation, our goal is not to win or quit when we loose. We will play for as long as we want.

Everyday they came up with a new expression of civil disobedience. Now that the Taksim Square is open to pedestrians, yesterday a young man stood in a corner and stayed there for eight hours. People quickly realized that he came up with a new way of communicating their anger.
His protest quickly captured the imagination of the protest movement. The hash tag "duranadam" ("standing man") dominated Turkish-language Twitter on Tuesday morning.
Then others started standing up in different areas of the Square. The original protester was a performance artist by the name of Erdem Gunduz. This is him in the center and behind him are the people who later joined his silent and immobile protest. They are looking at a large picture of Ataturk that is hanging from the Opera building in one corner of the Square.

Apparently, this unnerved the police and they detained ten people. According to social media, these detainees were charged with resisting police by not making a statement and by not moving. You can see how perversely funny this new mode of demonstration: try making those charges stick in a court of law.

This is what I meant when I suggested that these events looked like the birth of a civil society. These people did not need some kind of leader to tell them what to do. They got together spontaneously, organized themselves, quickly adopted an inclusionary and non-violent posture and they resisted traditional organized groups trying to take over the movement by re-introducing violent methods.

More importantly, their demands were not material benefits to be bargained down, as they were revendicating more freedom in a better society. And how they formulated these demands was as important as their content.

In contrast, Erdogan's response could not have been more traditional.

He copied to old state over society blueprint: He organized rallies in conservative neighborhoods, he bussed in his supporters, he called these young people terrorists and threatened to use the full power of the state against anyone and everyone who helped them.

In other words, we are the state and we are in charge and you the society should know your place and shut up when we tell you to.

Kenan Evren, the general who led the last coup in 1980, would have been proud.

It is indeed ironic that a party whose actions helped the emergence of a civil society is completely unequipped and unable to deal with that society.

14 June 2013

Syria, Sectarian Violence and Pipelineistan

A good friend of mine asked me what I thought of the sectarian violence in Syria and why I was not commenting on the upcoming Geneva II talks.

I told him that both of these issues are closely linked and they were intelligible only if you looked at the larger picture. I added that there was a very complicated chess game that was being played out and it was hard to make pronouncements without looking foolish in the short run.

He retorted that looking stupid never stopped me before.

And besides, he said, nobody is reading this thing, what do you care?

I have devoted friends.

Let me start with the sectarian violence. In the past, I expressed concern about a prolonged civil war and the radicalization that this would bring to the parties. Over the last few months, I have come to realize that the sectarian violence is a feature not a bug.

What do I mean by that?

Think about the recent horrific video clip that showed the leader of the Omar al-Farouk Brigade killing a Syrian soldier and opening up his chest to bite into what he thought was his heart (it was his lungs apparently). What is unusual about it, is not the unspeakable act he committed. Humanity being what it is, in every war, countless acts of unspeakable barbarity have always been committed.

What is odd is that (a) this Jihadi filmed himself killing that guy and opening up his chest and biting into his organs (b) uploaded the video to You Tube and social media sites (c) took questions from a Time Magazine reporter to acknowledge that he was indeed the guy in the clip (d) volunteered the information that he had recently killed a shabiha militant and cut him up into small pieces with a chain saw. And he said gleefully that he was planning to upload that clip soon.

The clincher: At the end of the interview, he announced that he and his Sunni brothers would do the same to every Alewite in Syria.

A couple of days later another clip appeared on You Tube showing al-Nusra Front militants killing 11 Syrian soldiers.

There was also the (rather credible) allegation that the rebels have used sarin gas. And while "interested"  parties cast doubt on that notion, rebels did not lift a finger to dispel it.

Since then, there was another incident every other day, the last being a couple of days ago, with Al Nusra Front rebels butchering 60 people in a Shia village.

The UN has just released a report that states that 93,000 people died in the civil war.

I have seen similar behavior during the Bosnian civil war and the goal was to ensure that any goodwill or any trace of trust among various communities was permanently erased.

It is ethnic cleansing through You Tube.

A prolonged civil war, increasingly radicalized and polarized community groups and the dissemination of barbaric acts collectively ensure that Geneva II or not (and Assad II or not), at the end of hostilities, Syrians will no longer be willing to live side by side in the same political entity.

And that too is a feature and not a bug.

Let me try to explain why that is the case.


The term was coined by the brilliant Pepe Escobar and it is a fairly apt description of the process of re-arranging the political geography of the region.

Let's take a look at the actors and their stakes.


Qatar is a tiny country in the Persian Gulf. Its most important attribute is to be sitting on top of the largest natural gas fields in the world, the South Pars/North Dome Field. The field is estimated to hold 51 trillion cubic meters of natural gas (that's trillion) and 50 billion barrels of natural gas condensates.

What complicates things is that Qatar is not the sole owner of the field. It shares it with Iran as you can see on the map below.

Now Qatar has been developing its side of the field and it has been actively looking for ways to export this natural gas through pipelines. Other than the fact that this is more efficient and cheaper, pipelines eliminate the Iranian threat of closing off the Strait of Hormuz through which tankers transport Qatari gas.

If you look at the map of the region, you can see where such pipelines could go.

The shortest route would go through Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Syria to reach the Mediterranean. Alternatively, the pipes could be rooted through Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Syria.

And Qatar has been trying to find a way to do this.

But it is a complicated game.


Iran has been trying to do the same for its side of the South Pars field. The Iranian pipeline would go through Iraq and Syria, as it was announced in July 2011. It is a $10 billion project. With a Shiite Prime Minister in power in Iraq and an Alewite running the show in Syria, the project appeared like a Shiite pipeline (at least to Qatar and Saudi Arabia and especially to the US).

But Iran's efforts were hampered by the fact that it needed to invest a lot of money (by some estimates $50 billion) to exploit efficiently its side of the field. To give you an idea of the disparity between the two sides, Iran ranks as the 25th exporter of natural gas in the world, whereas Qatar is now the leading global exporter of liquefied natural gas.

The economic hardship that came with the US sanctions means that Iran has a harder time to find the funds needed for a better exploitation of its oil and gas fields.

From the US perspective, Iran has to be contained and it is something that is proving to be difficult. Already, Iran signed a deal to build a pipeline to Pakistan and India (IPI or the "peace pipeline" that the departing Pakistani President Zardari inaugurated as his last act in office). And that is a problem for PaxAmericana.

The IPI is not the only setback for the US policy. There is more. China is Iran's biggest client for oil and gas and it does not care about sanctions.

In that context, the American thinking is that, if Iran is allowed to build the Iran, Iraq, Syria pipeline, the Islamic Republic might increase its exports significantly and find the necessary investment to exploit South Pars more efficiently. As I said, China, for one, would be happy to help.

This is something the US desperately wants to avoid as they believe that if Iran regained its economic power, it would throw US plans for the region into disarray. They are convinced that Iran would likely use its economic power to challenge its regional rival, Turkey; it could certainly make life difficult for Israel by increasing its material assistance to Hezbollah and Hamas; and it might disrupt efforts towards regional stability by changing the dynamics of the Kurdish and Palestinian peace initiatives.

In that sense, for Syria, choosing the Iran, Iraq, Syria pipeline over Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria pipeline was not a safe and rational economic decision. It signaled to the US and other regional actors that Bashar Al-Assad was siding with one group and thumbing his nose to the others.

Perhaps more importantly, the move was part of a larger strategic plan that went against Turkey's vital economic interests. And alienating the US, Turkey and the wealthy Sunni bloc, all at the same time, was not Assad's brightest move.


You see, prior to signing off on what I call the Shiite pipeline, Assad had announced a new long term vision entitled the "four seas strategy" which aimed to make Syria a regional oil and gas hub by bringing together the Persian Gulf, Caspian, Black and Mediterranean Seas.

Initially, this looked like a fine idea. After all, Syria's Northern neighbor has been working towards the same goal. And bringing Syria in it would be grand for all concerned. In fact, there was already a pipeline that went from Egypt to Turkey passing through Syria and carrying Egyptian natural gas (it was called Arab Gas Pipeline or AGP).

For a while, Erdogan and Assad were each other's BFF and Turkey offered to connect its grid to those proposed pipelines that were going to crisscross Syria. Moreover, AGP was going to be extended to go from Aleppo to Kilis in Turkey to eventually link up with the on-again, off-again Nabucco project.

But then the Shiite pipeline was introduced and, wonder of all wonders, the project completely bypassed Turkey. Not surprisingly, this was perceived by Turkey as a challenge to its energy hub aspirations.

Within weeks, the Turkish government stopped joint oil explorations with Syria.  Erdogan made a complete about face and began to attack Assad and his administration. And since then Turkey has become Assad's number one foe and a safe haven for Syrian refugees and a training ground for Free Syrian Army (FSA).

There is one more actor in all this and that is Russia.


From a Pipelineistan perspective Russia has every reason to support Assad and to push for a protracted civil war.

Russia is Europe's (and Turkey's) biggest supplier of natural gas. By and large, Gazprom is a monopoly. It controls both the volume and price and if there is an issue with either, it simply cuts off the supply. Which means that if Putin or his successors decide to use energy to blackmail Europe, European countries would be helpless. Hence, their desperate quest for an alternate supplier.

Qatar's proposed pipeline through Turkey would provide that lifeline for Europe and put Gazprom in its place. However, that could only be realized if Assad is no longer in charge and a Sunni government replaced him. Conversely, if Assad hangs on the power, every passing month postpones the Qatar pipeline.

In that sense, Russia's moves like blocking successive UN resolutions or pretending to send more arms are intelligible as maintaining a reasonable sense of stalemate and giving its Gazprom monopoly a new lease in life. And I can see those Gazprom managers speculating about the uncertainty of what would happen between the start of the construction and inauguration of the proposed Qatar natural gas pipeline.

It is an intriguing game of chess and it has got a little more complicated with the Hezbollah helping Assad's army to take back Qusayr. The Syrian army is now going after Aleppo. And the US, Turkey and the Sunni bloc are standing up for the beleaguered city.

This is the politics of Pipelineistan.

And this is why no one wants Syrians to be together after the hostilities. They are given every reason not to accept a peaceful outcome. The interested parties expect that Syrians should accept a de facto partitioning like Iraq or de jure partitioning like Bosnia.

And through the Sunni region of the divided up Syria, a shining new pipeline will carry Qatari natural gas.

One last thing: now that the FSA is not doing well, I expect that the US, Turkey and the Sunni bloc to look for a casus belli that would enable them to set up at least a no-fly-zone. I don't expect ground troops going in. I just expect that they would deny Assad's air force to attack targets.

This is why Russia had initiated the process to send them modern anti-aircraft missiles. And this is why it is taking so long.

Next, expect innovative attempts for a decent casus belli.

We live in interesting times, provided that you are not part of the sad statistics.

11 June 2013

What Is Next For Occupy Istanbul?

I don't think anyone really knows the answer to that question.

My Turkish friends are convinced that Erdogan will soon order the sweep of the Square and the Park and he will do so through violent means. And if he doesn't do that, they think that his bearded Islamist supporters will take matters into their own hands and do it themselves.

They also tell me that I am being too optimistic about the liberal inclinations of a new bourgeois class.

Fair enough. Maybe the civility and pluralist tolerance of the demonstrators will be met with bloodshed in the near future. And maybe the birth pangs of civil society will be more violent than I envisage.

Still, I remain optimistic as I am not persuaded that the government would be stupid enough to act violently. For one thing, they realize that that every time Erdogan escalated his rhetoric, the stock market took a nose dive. And every time he sounded somewhat conciliatory, the markets rose immediately. He may be a hot head but ultimately economy matters more than anything else. And business classes are unlikely to let him dig himself into a deeper whole.

Today around noon, police moved in to push the demonstrators out of the Square and back into the Park. There were clashes with the police and some reports of violence (the protesters maintained that the people who hurled Molotov cocktails and stones to the police were not part of their group). But once they were in the Park, the police withdrew and so far has kept its distance.

If I were to speculate about what the government and Erdogan might do in the short run, I would suggest three courses of actions to be implemented simultaneously:

First of all, the government might have a more flexible approach starting from tomorrow. Erdogan has already agreed to meet with the representatives of Occupy Gezi. He and his advisers would make an effort to separate the environmental issue from the general anti-Erdogan sentiment. After that meeting, Erdogan might actually propose to create a much larger green space that encompasses the Gezi Park. This would be the kind of grandiose gesture that he likes. In his mind, accepting their proposal would be sign of weakness but turning their modest vision into something larger would make him look like he is in charge. As W used to say, that would show that he is the Decider.

It would also give the impression that he is willing to listen to people and occasionally change his positions.  This would go a long way towards reducing public anger about his arrogant and stubborn stance. And if the protesters do not accept his offer, he can denounce them as hypocrites who are not interested in green spaces and trees.

Such a move would have no downside for him and no real upside for the protesters. Because of that I see that as a strong possibility.

Secondly, he might issue a challenge to the protesters to put their energy into drafting the new constitution. There is a process in place and it has been stalled by the opposition parties dragging their feet about Kurdish rights and freedoms. If you are so keen on liberal democracy, work with us towards a better future, he might say. Once again, that would make Erdogan look less like an autocratic Prime Minister and more of a populist politician encouraging participation.

This one is less likely than the first course of action, as Erdogan might see this as giving to much credit to these young people. But I suspect someone from the Gulen camp might actually suggest this.

Thirdly, he would continue to use harsh rhetoric in order to get his base worked up. His would suggest to them that this is not an anti-Erdogan movement and they actually target the conservative Islamist constituency of the AKP. He might insinuate that what these people want is to go back to the dark days of military backed secularism where Islamists were prosecuted relentlessly.

This one will almost certainly be implemented.

In short, my guess is that he will attempt to separate the environmental from the political and he will try to trick them to choose between equally inconsequential alternatives. He will look magnanimous in one setting and he will continue his polarizing discourse when he addresses his power base.

We'll see.

One final word:

My optimism stems not only from the vigilance of business classes who do not want to see the economy collapse but also from recent developments in Syria.

Unless Erdogan turns his focus back on that conflict, Assad might be able to strengthen his hand before Geneva talks next months. And this is something the US and the regional Sunni coalition do not want to see.

I am sure the US must be pushing him hard to relent on "that insignificant green space."

10 June 2013

The Emergence of Civil Society in Turkey

It will soon be two weeks since Occupy Gezi or Resistanbul began. Most observers -including this blogger- assumed that the protests would wane and people would go home after a couple of days of noisy outbursts.

Instead, these young people organized themselves quickly and skillfully and continued to demonstrate peacefully.

The most interesting aspect of these events is not whether they would be successful in overthrowing the government or they would spawn a new political movement similar to the Five Star movement in Italy. Either is unlikely for now.

To me, the most significant point about these demonstrations is this: The way these events spontaneously came about, the extremely varied composition of the crowds and the way the protesters handled themselves indicate that there is now an emerging civil society in Turkey.

What Is a Civil Society?

You see, civil society is a highly misunderstood concept. Some people use it to refer to NGOs, charities and/or all kinds of associations. Others use it to mean a society with a large number of diversified political organizations. But, by and large, people fall back on the basic conceptualization provided by the conservative political scientists in the early 1960s: these behavioralist scholars conceived of a post-ideology, slightly apathetic, self-content society, which was quite similar to how late 1950s America saw itself.

Accordingly, that society had multiple interest groups competing in a political market place modeled after the neo-classical free market. With economic growth and spreading affluence, this non-ideological and harmoniously resource allocating society expressed itself in what was known as civic culture.

Because of that, we think of civil society as a series of characteristics, as in any society that has these elements:

a) Economic development
b) A political system defined by free elections
c) A legal system with basic liberties
d) Freedom of association
e) Large number of interest groups and associations

Once we have the items in our laundry list ticked off, we determine whether or not we are in the presence of a civil society.

Even today, partly because we never confronted the legacy of those early formulations, we end up making similar arguments in our analyses. Case in point is a recent Op-Ed by an illustrious American scholar (of Turkish descent) about the causal links between economic development and liberal democracy. He was using the Turkish case to demonstrate that economic development was not a sufficient condition for liberal democracy. Personally, I doubt that this is a point worth making.

Actually, civil society is not a complicated construct but you need to see it historically rather than through a list of attributes.

Historically, nation states came about first and subjugated societies for a long time. It took the rise of capitalism, the emergence of various classes and the Industrial Revolution for society to fight off the tutelage of the state. But what needs to be emphasized is that, the way societies tried to emancipate themselves from their states determined the meaning and content of those attributes we placed in our laundry list.

Let me explain what I mean.

The key element in that historical process is the rise of a bourgeois class and the way that class fights for its emancipation. The appearance of that class implies a number of changes. A bourgeois class exists only in a capitalist economy and because capitalist production is based on capital and labor, its existence is inseparable from working classes. When one shows up, the other has to be there.

When that bourgeois class appears on the scene, it has to take on the previous ruling class. The bourgeoisie has to fight for its right to conduct its economic activities, it has to struggle for its political rights, including the right to vote and the right to be elected and it has to revendicate for itself the freedom of expression, freedom of the press and freedom of association.

While these rights and freedoms are meant to be enjoyed by the new bourgeois class, because they had to be formulated in universal terms, over time, they are extended to all members of society.

Secondly, with capitalist economy overtaking agrarian subsistence economy, both the bourgeois classes and working classes undergo internal diversification. Activities span agriculture, industry, finance and service sectors and for each activity area you have a corresponding cluster of business people and working people. The outlook of these groups in different sectors are slightly different from other groups within their classes. Hence their diversified positions.

Thirdly, these expanding new activities require new skill sets. That means that the economy needs (and therefore gets) a better educational infrastructure and wider access to it. Which leads to a more educated and more sophisticated society.

Finally, when the economy is successful and growing, at some point, working classes will acquire a better bargaining position and manage to organize themselves around unions that are capable of negotiating on their behalf. When that happens, there is better income distribution, more affluence and a larger domestic market with a higher purchasing power. Which in turn leads to more growth.

In cases where the process takes place as described, with economic prosperity and a general acceptance of the status quo, politics becomes more moderate, extreme positions subside and new issue areas begin to be discussed and negotiated.

I know I make it sound like a mechanical process that is almost automatic. Actually, it is anything but. In fact, it happened this way only once in history and that was in the UK with the Industrial Revolution in full bloom.

Everywhere else, civil societies were stillborn. That is why those attributes are meaningless without their historical context.

If you remember your basic 19th century history, once the UK became the biggest super power in the world on the basis of its successful capitalist economy, other states began to sponsor the same model at home. France, Germany, Italy and Japan are typical examples of states trying to create a bourgeois class and a capitalist economy later in the century.

In such cases, the new bourgeois classes never really felt the need to emancipate themselves from the state's tutelage. Instead, almost naturally, they followed the state's lead to invest, they sought the state's protection to reduce their risks and they let the state mediate their relationship with their working classes.

The resulting societies had all the five characteristics I listed. But they meant something quite different to these classes. When the first wave of corporatist, nationalist and fascist ideas hit them, these societies did not react like open minded civil entities made up of a rich tapestry of independent associations with different outlooks. Instead, they acted in lockstep like a well oiled military machine. When faced with a crisis their social classes opted for the Fuhrerprinzip and lined up behind the state as a nation.

It took the bloodiest war in human history for these societies to emerge from under their states.

In that sense, what determines a civil society is not so much its economic development, its legal and political liberalism, the number of associations, but how its business classes see themselves vis-à-vis the state and how they led their society to extricate itself from the state's tutelage.

The moment they ask for liberties and allow others in that society to enjoy them is the starting point of civil societies. And if after that, this society develops the prerequisites I mentioned, including the rich tapestry of independent organizations, then they will react to crises quite differently.

Turkey and Civil Society

The roots of the Turkish case were in the same European (and Japanese) experiments. When the Republic was founded in 1923, the people in charge were part of the 19th century Young Turks movement and they were quite familiar with the idea of a state-sponsored bourgeois class. And this is what they set out to do.

I will not bore you with the subsequent evolution of bourgeois classes in Turkey. Suffice it to say that, until recently, Turkish bourgeoisie has always had a symbiotic relationship with the state. Let's call it the Republican bourgeoisie. This calls grew through the state's largess, it relied on the state to protect its investments and assets and it called upon the state to suppress unions and other unpleasant associations. And the state complied.

In the 1970s and 80s, a large number of SMEs began to blossom in Anatolian cities like Konya and Kayseri. The owners and managers of these enterprises had a conservative Islamist outlook that was rather Calvinist in essence. They had an entrepreneurial attitude, an investment oriented perspective, a disdain for ostentatious consumerism, a protective approach to their workers and a missionary zeal for their work.

Max Weber would have been proud.

As they believed that the state either ignored them or persecute them for their religious beliefs, they kept their distance from it. But they quickly became a formidable economic force and came to be known as the Anatolian Tigers.

After the coup d'etat in 1980, the military put in charge a moderate Islamist, Turgut Ozal, who implemented the IMFs economic liberalization policies. These measures removed strict import-export controls, allowed the currency to float freely and in essence removed the state from its role of primary economic regulator. These reforms were good for both the Republican bourgeois and the Anatolian Tigers but the newcomers were the biggest beneficiaries.

When the AKP came to power, liberal intelligentsia assumed that they were the political representatives of the Anatolian Tigers. And initially, the government received their enthusiastic support. Early economic policies led to an exponential growth (GDP quadrupled between 2000 and 2013). The country's economy also became very diversified with industry and service sectors rising and agriculture's share continuously declining.

The essence of the Tigers' belief system comes from Fethullah Gulen, a preacher who sees education and service to society as the twin pillars of his teaching. He established over 1000s schools around the world and he has been maintaining them with money contributed by this bourgeois class. To give you an idea about their push for widespread education, before 1980, there were only a handful state-owned universities in Turkey. As of this year, there are 174 universities and academies. And most of them are now in Anatolia.

This class also fought for the female students right to wear the Islamic scarf to get an education. Previously, women were not allowed to enter university buildings with a turban but over time, they won the right to do so. Interestingly, the previous generation of students following the lead of the Republican bourgeoisie supported the ban. This current generation is much more tolerant and they think it is up to each person to decide for themselves.

To illustrate: An opinion poll in 2006 asked university students to rank equality, freedom and solidarity and the majority chose equality as number one priority. In 2012 the same poll found that an overwhelming majority was now in favor of freedom.

With growth and widespread education, this new society focused on other issue areas. Instead of using state controlled associations and old style politics they hit the new social media. Internet, Smart Phone, Facebook and eCommerce penetration in Turkey is phenomenal. With 36 million Internet users (half the entire population), Turkey ranks 5th in Europe. For Facebook it ranks 7th in the world and for Twitter it occupies the 11th position globally.

You could say that a conservative and Islamist bourgeois class set the tone for a liberal civil society by fighting off the state (and the state sponsored bourgeois class), by accepting to share the freedoms it won for itself and by establishing the prerequisites for such a society.

In the last three years or so, they have been distancing themselves from the Prime Minister and his entourage of crony capitalists. They are behind Gulen supporters like President Abdullah Gul, the Deputy PM Bulent Arinc, and the Speaker of the House Cemil Cicek.

Tellingly, the President was the first to intervene and to announce that the demonstrators had every right to protest and the police reaction was too violent. The next day, Deputy PM apologized for police violence (which reportedly infuriated the Prime Minister). Many other Gulen supporters within the AKP and the state bureaucracy expressed their sympathy and support for the demonstrators. Their media outlets (like Zaman, which is the largest Turkish Daily) were critical of police intervention to Taksim Square.

As I said, the responses of a bourgeois class determines how a society handles crisis situations. In the case of Resistanbul or Gezi Direnis the responses were very different from the Arab Spring or Paris 1968.

What I have been trying to explain is being expressed much more eloquently in these pictures.

Here is a Muslim protester in Taksim praying. Check out the indifference around him.

Here is another group praying. A non-practicing protester is holding an umbrella for them.

Around the corner, young women in leotards participating in an open air yoga session.

In another part, street performances with a newlywed bride watching

Here is a sign that reads "The only thing they don't know how to handle is non-violence and humor"

Cleaning crews keeping the square in good shape

An elderly woman with her Guy Hawkes mask

A man and his best friend

Two young women in Islamist headscarves with a poster that reads "Don't give in"

Turning pepper gas canisters into flower pots

A young man and his guitar

And old man and his pen

These are the reactions of a civil society.

08 June 2013

Images from Occupy Istanbul

I am sure you must have seen many headlines comparing Occupy Istanbul (or Gezi Direnis as they call themselves) to the Arab Spring.

I am here to assert that they have nothing in common.

I will provide a theoretical framework tomorrow but first let me enumerate in lay terms all the points that make those events in Istanbul quite unique.

1) The starting point was about urban spaces and environmental concerns.

Roughly 100 well meaning environmental activists attempted a peaceful sit-in protests to protect a dozen trees.

Nothing earth shattering.

Then they were attacked by the police copying the NYPD's Occupy movement handbook. The police moved in around 5 a.m. burned their tents, used pepper spray on them and dispersed them with water cannons.

2) The reaction to police brutality was spontaneous.

As the activists hit the social media, thousands of people began pouring to the park. When they were attacked by the police, first tens of thousands then hundreds of thousands of people joined in.

People walked all night (Istanbul is vast city) to get there.

Perhaps for the first time in Turkey's history, participation had nothing to do with trade unions or political parties bussing in their supporters.

3) People from all walks of life joined the protest.

Just to provide an extreme example, in a macho and largely homophobic country like Turkey, there was a group of openly gay people with banners about their sexual identity and no one seemed to be bothered. (The banner on the right reads, "So what if we are queer")

Ultra-nationalists walked side-by-side with Kurdish separatists.

Soccer fans, who routinely beat each other up before or after soccer matches, entered the square as a united front.

Affluent housewives from posh neighborhood, who wouldn't be caught dead in such a crowd were chanting with women wearing the Islamic headscarf.

One woman with an Islamic turban had a banner that said "It is hard to take the AKP when you are sober."

Think about that. This is the woman in the picture on the left.

The one on her right reads "shoulder to shoulder against fascism."

These are people who most likely voted for the AKP in the past.

There is also this on the right. A Turkish Björk impersonator with a dove in her hand and her new found Islamist BFF.

4) The protesters received unexpected help from a large variety of people.

Shopkeepers in the area offered shelter, lemons (against pepper spray), water and anything else they needed.

Nearby five start hotels (like Divan) opened their doors to them, gave them food and shelter.

People offered their apartments as temporary shelter and put it on Twitter and post it on their buildings for passersby.

Interestingly, Starbucks refused and the following day there was a national boycott. They relented just in time.

5) The protesters organized themselves quickly and efficiently without the assistance of any Brotherhood or a political apparatus.

Within hours, they had the cell phones of pro bono lawyers on Twitter for people who were arrested (in terms of Smart Phone, Internet, Twitter and Facebook penetration Turkey leads Europe in most categories).

They set up Food Stands where people could phone in delivery of foods and put that on Twitter and Facebook.

They had a temporary field hospitals with physicians providing first aid to injured people.

They even had a field hospital for stray dogs who were affected by the pepper gas staffed by volunteer veterinarians. (image on the left)

Some protesters delivered first aid to stray dogs who live in the park.

And those dogs seem to have joined in the protests with banners of their own.

Here is a large clickable picture that shows all the facilities the protesters created after the first day.

Besides organizing themselves quickly, they did something very difficult to achieve: they took control of the message. After the disarray of the first day and violent confrontations with the police, they began stopping people from throwing stones or from swearing at the police.

Facebook and Twitter was full of short and informative "how to conduct ourselves" manuals.

They convinced the demonstrators that it is far better to be on the receiving end of excessive police force than to be shown on TV as angry people throwing stones.

And the woman in red became the iconic representation of that idea. Take a look at how she does not even move while being sprayed.

Perhaps their most unique gesture was to clean up the square after the first day of violent confrontations.

It seems to have touched a lot of indifferent people and convinced them that the demonstrators were responsible and serious individuals.

They still continue with daily clean-ups.

6) They rapidly got the message out.

After the first day, compiled videos began to appear on You Tube. Some with hauntingly beautiful background music.

Others (like "Everyday I am çapulling" using LMFAO's "Everyday I am shuffling") with a decidedly more mischievous take.

(Çapulling refers to Erdogan calling the protesters "Çapulcu" (pronounced chapooljoo but they simplified it as chapulcu in English posters and videos). It roughly means riffraff.

The protesters created a verb out of it as chapulling and there is a Wikipedia entry for it already.)


They managed to get an international solidarity movement with demonstrations in many countries and people claiming the label "capulcu."

They shamed Turkey's co-opted corporate media with very a effective image campaign on Twitter.

This one on the right shows CNN international live in Taksim and at the same moment CNN-Turkey broadcasting a documentary on penguins.

Another cable news channel NTV also ignored the events. The following day, some protesters went to their headquarters to denounce their dubious journalistic priorities. The company's CEO had to apologize.

The protesters than visited the HQ of Garanti Bankasi, another company owned by the same company that owns NTV and its CEO met with the protesters and declared himself a Capulcu.

Not to shabby for a bunch of Chapulcus!

7) Maintained a sense of humor

Their slogans and posters are very funny. And they are all over the place in Turkish social media.

But even the BBC took note. Their latest on Istanbul is entitled "Will Istanbul's Protesters Have the Last Laugh?"


As of tonight at 7 p.m. Istanbul time, here is where they are. It looks like nobody is going anywhere. And no organization has asked for this.

01 June 2013

Is Taksim Square Turkey's Tahrir Square?

That was the question posed by many commentators in the last two days.

Woman in Red is the Iconic Image of These Events
Although I get the irony of a government hailed as the model that could enlighten the Arab Spring (I dissented) finding itself at the receiving end of popular anger, I doubt that there is any comparison.

I also do not think that these events would lead to dramatic changes in Turkey in the short run.

But I agree that the uprising points to a number of significant problems for the ruling party. And it is likely to be the harbinger of difficult times for the AKP.

There are several approaches to explain the underlying causes of public anger. The most benign is to point to what we could call the AKP fatigue. They have been around for ten years and this is a very long time for any government to be in power. Remember the Blair years in Britain or the Jean Chretien years in Canada. People are naturally sick of seeing the same faces making the same claims. They also blame them (rightly) for everything that goes wrong.

Alternatively, you could make a list of all the grievances expressed by the protesters and/or all the errors committed by the AKP. The list is long indeed: growing authoritarianism of Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey being the biggest jailer of journalists in the world, the creeping Islamization of the country, discontent with Syria policy and its terror implications, etc.

Without denying these factors, I believe that there are two fundamental reasons behind the protests: One is structural and the other accidental but taken together they suggest that there is no easy solution to this issue.

Paradoxes of the Politics of Polarization

From the outset, Tayyip Erdogan, the Prime Minister relied on a deliberate policy of polarization. His was an "us and them" approach reminiscent of the post-9/11 Bush administration's crusade mentality. As a general rule, the big advantage of polarization is that it forces all the groups who share your worldview generally to leave aside small disagreements to support your government through thick and thin. These groups move to the "us" block and stop voicing minor criticisms.

Obviously, polarization has the same unifying effect on the opposition but if you can find a way to divide them up or make the "them" bloc less worthy (like the GOP successfully turning the term "liberal" into a pejorative label), you will be very successful electorally.

Especially if you can combine this approach with sustained economic growth.

And to their credit, they did.

The problem for the AKP is that significant economic growth has a way of undermining the implementation of this polarization policy. If you make the "us" group the main beneficiary of that growth (and to keep them in your bloc you would have to), initially more people would want to join your side. And this is what happened in Turkey. While quadrupling the GNP and vociferously belittling their opponents they kept increasing their popular support. Ultimately, they won the last general elections with 50 percent of the vote.

However, over time, these policies backfire almost inevitably. And there is a simple logic to that: With an increasingly larger pie, the groups in your bloc would start competing with one another to get a better slice of it. The unity and cohesion of your bloc would become fairly questionable. And unless your government could keep the pie growing exponentially (which is impossible), sooner or later some groups within the bloc would stop supporting the ruling fraction. Or worse, they turn against it.

Similarly, the groups in the "them" bloc would realize over time that they would need to put their differences aside if they ever wanted to have a share of the national pie. The government's efforts to keep them divided would gradually become ineffective in the absence of suitable carrots to offer to them. Since the basic definition of politics is "who gets what, when and how" economic exclusion is a very powerful motivator for the opposition. (Remember Machiavelli's cynical advice? He told the Prince that he could kill people but he should never touch their property "because men more quickly forget the death of their father than the loss of their patrimony.")

And there is no easy solution: Bringing in some of the excluded groups would be fiercely resisted by the competing members of the ruling bloc who do not want to share the pie.

That leaves a no-carrot-and-stick-only approach. Hence the growing authoritarianism of Erdogan, the relentless pressure on large media companies to manipulate the news (for instance all the large TV channels have refused to report of the events in Taksim), the imprisonment of dissenting journalists, the dubious prosecution of officers and intellectuals through the Ergenekon trial.

Consequently, the AKP government is in a bind. In a reversal of the effects of their polarization policy, their internal coalition is crumbling and the opposition is growing more unified. A good if symbolic example from last night was the unity of soccer fans. Turkish soccer fans are rabidly fanatical and they hate each other with a passion. But last night, the supporters of the three major teams entered the Taksim Square together chanting slogans about their united determination to face the government. It is just a symbolic gesture but it is highly significant as this has never happened in living memory over any other issues.

Perhaps more tellingly, radical left wing, right wing and even pro-Kurdish groups (like the MPs from the BDP joined the protests. Given the animosity between the largely nationalistic opposition and the pro-Kurdish parties, this latter was an unexpected development.

Incidentally, do you know what Taksim means? Taksim Square refers to the central point in Istanbul from which municipal water used to be redistributed to the city. But the word "taksim" means to divide up and to distribute.

You will note the irony.

The second (and accidental) reason is Erdogan's delusions of grandeur coupled with a sense of time running out on him.

Hubris and Cancer 

Erdogan has always been a belligerent politician. He has an in-your-face demeanor and he does not mince his words. In the early years this made him the perfect leader to implement the policy of polarization. Every time he insulted the colorless and ineffective head of the opposition his supporters felt proud and elated.

Like every charismatic politician, he was more brawn than brain.

When suddenly, in 2009, he was called upon to help implement the biggest transformation of the Middle East, he changed radically.

He began to project an image of a statesman. His speeches grew more ponderous and pedantic.

Like American Presidents bestowing upon themselves the gratuitous title of the "Leader of the Free World" he seemed to view himself as the Leader of the Middle East. His new Minister of Foreign Affairs formulated a policy of Neo-Ottomanism (making him the Sultan).

His bellicose style helped him gain admirers in the region, especially when he attacked Israel. But you could sense that he was a different man.  In the process, he start distancing himself from his long time partner Abdullah Gul (who is currently the President. They used to have a Medvedev-Putin relationship with Gul acting as a stand-in for him on several occasion. But Gul was also the brain of the operation.

Yet, after 2009, Erdogan stopped taking Gul's advice and Gul began expressing mild but very public criticisms of Erdogan's actions and decisions (He spoke out against police brutality about these recent events).

In late 2011, Erdogan was diagnosed with colon cancer (actually this was not reported in Turkey, they only acknowledged that he had to undergo an operation but I know from multiple reliable sources that his cancer was serious and at the time of the operation it had metastasized to his lymph nodes). The chemo was successful to stop the progression of the disease but he is not cured.

So, he is acutely aware that he does not have much time.

Since his chemo treatment there has been a radical change of style. He now works incredibly long hours. He never takes time off. He looks unhealthy in his TV appearances. And he became extremely short tempered and angry. Apparently, he gets upset over any hesitation, any slow down and any resistance to his ideas.

In that sense, Erdogan and AKP are in a tough spot. The economic pie is not growing as rapidly as the competition over it and because of it, unlike the early days, they have to use more stick than carrot. On top of this, Erdogan thinks that he was given a mission form God (actually it is the US but that is the same thing in this context) and he has a small window to achieve it.

So, I expect more authoritarian and more abrupt reactions from him. Consequently, I would be very surprised if he backed down over Taksim.

But in the long run, these events will be remembered as a turning point for his government.