How Turkey grew to become a hub for Arab Spring exiles


As a charismatic revolutionary from a scrappy Cairo neighbourhood, Ahmed Hassan was one of many stars of Jehane Noujaim’s 2013 documentary The Sq., which adopted a bunch of Egyptian activists as they toppled longtime ruler Hosni Mubarak in 2011 after which fought to maintain their faltering revolution alive.

The movie gained three Emmy Awards and was nominated for the Oscars. However Hassan’s life received tougher after it was launched.

His work as a cinematographer and filmmaker dried up as manufacturing firms stopped hiring him, maybe as a result of he was blacklisted.

He needed to abandon a movie venture after receiving threats. He couldn’t carry a digicam on the street with out being harassed. Most of his buddies have been in jail, some had died.

“I felt like I used to be simply centimetres from jail,” Hassan advised Al Jazeera.

In 2018, he jumped at a chance to flee and went to Turkey, which has change into a significant hub for Arab exiles as lots of the Arab Spring uprisings that first emerged a decade in the past descended into violence and repression.

“You’ll be able to carry a digicam in Turkey. That’s lovely really,” Hassan stated. “Right here, I’m strolling and I be happy.

“I really feel there’s a authorities. I see the police however I’m not scared, it’s not like Egypt. I really feel like there may be regulation right here.”

However life can also be exhausting. Hassan says that, for him, Turkey seems like a watermelon with vivid, attractive crimson flesh.

“However once you chunk into it, it’s salty, not candy.”

In 2018, Hassan jumped at a chance to flee and went to Turkey [File: Erdem Sahin/EPA-EFE]

Place of exile

“There isn’t any Arab metropolis like that, with massive populations from totally different components of the Arab world having these instruments of cultural and political expression, like Istanbul in the mean time,” Mohanad Hage Ali, a analysis fellow on the Carnegie Center East Middle, advised Al Jazeera.

Ali stated this pattern first emerged from the gentle energy insurance policies pursued by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Improvement Celebration (AK Celebration), in energy since 2002, which sought to increase Turkey’s affect and relations within the area by means of higher diplomacy, funding and academic initiatives.

It was aided by common tradition as Turkish TV collection additionally grew to become wildly common throughout the Center East and infrequently glamorised Istanbul and glorified its Ottoman previous.

“Have a look at Turkey earlier than Erdogan, [it was not] on the coronary heart of the Arab world the best way it’s now,” Ali stated.

The pattern of Arab exiles heading to Turkey accelerated sharply with the fallout from the Arab Spring.

Turkey is now residence to about 4 million refugees – largely Syrians – together with activists, journalists and political figures from nations throughout the Arab world.

Neighbourhoods in Istanbul have been reworked by an inflow of Arab communities and companies, with town’s Arab inhabitants more likely to be properly over a million. Turkey is residence to an estimated 700,000 Iraqis. Greater than 500,000 largely Syrian refugees stay within the southern Turkish metropolis of Gaziantep.

Turkey was broadly supportive of the Arab Spring uprisings, significantly as a staunch opponent of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and a supporter of Egypt’s short-lived Muslim Brotherhood-linked authorities of Mohamed Morsi.

Istanbul grew to become a big Muslim Brotherhood hub, particularly after Morsi was overthrown by the navy led by general-turned-President Abdul Fattah el-Sisi in 2013.

Islam Akel, an Egyptian journalist and TV presenter, virtually died in August 2013 after he was shot and a bullet lodged in his lung on the pro-Morsi sit-in at Cairo’s Rabaa Sq., at which at the least 1,000 folks have been killed by the safety forces.

He escaped to Lebanon, after which frolicked in Sudan, earlier than going to Turkey in 2014. He now works as a presenter on the Muslim Brotherhood-linked Watan TV in Istanbul. Akel praised Turkey for welcoming exiles.

“As an Egyptian Arab Muslim, being in Turkey was not a tough factor for me, as being in a rustic the place I hear the voices of the muezzins to wish and discover mosques in entrance of me in each avenue is a matter of reassurance, connection and integration,” he stated.

The pattern of Arab exiles heading to Turkey accelerated sharply with the fallout from the Arab Spring [Umit Bektas/Reuters]

Hamza Zawba, a former spokesman of Morsi’s Freedom and Justice Celebration, arrived in Turkey in 2014 and now presents a present on the Mekameleen tv channel.

“Turkey accepted us to stay right here as exiles, no person else did that,” he advised Al Jazeera, including that Turkey offered them with a significant house to problem el-Sisi’s narrative.

“[The show] is a venue to specific my views and to provide some evaluation, to face the claims of the media of the coup and to lift consciousness over what’s happening,” he stated.

The Egyptian liberal reformist politician Ayman Nour additionally moved to Istanbul and arrange his personal tv channel, Al-Sharq TV.

Istanbul’s Arab Media Affiliation has greater than 800 members. Exiles from nations resembling Libya, Yemen and Syria have additionally established media retailers, think-tanks, colleges, charities and NGOs. Istanbul has additionally change into a spot the place some LGBTQ Arabs really feel safer and may stay a extra open life.

However whereas some exiles have thrived, others have struggled, and Turkey’s function as a protected haven has modified over the last decade.

‘Shrinking house’

Bassam Alahmad is the chief director of Syrians for Reality and Justice, a non-profit organisation that paperwork rights violations by all events in Syria. He got here to Turkey from Syria in 2012.

“It was ambiance for us to behave and work in,” he stated.

However he stated the ambiance grew to become extra restrictive over time, particularly after Turkey’s first direct navy intervention in northern Syria in 2016, and he felt he was now not in a position to publish a few of the human rights abuses he had documented. He says he was interrogated by Turkish safety companies over his work in 2018.

Turkish troopers patrol the northern Syrian Kurdish city of Tal Abyad, on the border between Syria and Turkey [File: Bakr Alkasem/AFP]

He was additionally threatened by somebody he believes is linked to al-Assad’s safety forces, however says that though he reported it to the police, they took no motion. Murders of distinguished activists in Turkey additionally unnerved some exiles and undermined the nation’s status as a protected haven.

A Turkish authorities media spokesperson stated they’d not reply to Alahmad’s particular claims however offered a press release from a senior Turkish official that stated: “Turkey gives a protected haven to just about 4 million Syrian refugees. We take all essential steps to make sure that asylum seekers really feel at residence and protected.”

Alahmad additionally stated that attitudes in Turkey have change into extra resentful, hostile and racist in direction of Syrian refugees over time. Many Syrians additionally wrestle to entry companies and schooling, can hardly ever purchase citizenship and are sometimes exploited in casual jobs.

“We felt that it was a shrinking house,” Alahmad stated. He and his spouse managed to realize asylum in France and moved there in 2019.

“Right here, you possibly can say or write something.”

Hassan praised Erdogan and Turkey for its generosity in welcoming so many refugees and dissidents, however he additionally talked about anti-Arab racism as a big drawback.

“Once they hear you converse Arabic, issues change into bizarre. Folks take a look at you and deal with you otherwise. Generally after I’m with my buddies we don’t converse in Arabic on public transport,” he stated.

Turkey is now residence to about 4 million refugees [File: Umit Bektas/Reuters]

Some exiles have additionally been modified by residing in Turkey.

Mustafa Menshawy, a analysis postdoctoral fellow on the SEPAD venture, College of Lancaster, advised Al Jazeera that many rank and file members of the Muslim Brotherhood have change into much less conservative of their views and even left the motion after being uncovered to a extra socially liberal local weather in Turkey.

However he additionally stated that the Brotherhood change into much less hierarchical and extra open to debate than it was in Egypt.

“The truth that Turkey, which is authoritarian in the best way it treats its personal media, is permitting members of the Brotherhood to have a voice, and the way democratising that’s, is a bit paradoxical,” he stated.

“Turkey provides a voice to people who weren’t offered a voice both by the organisation itself in Egypt or by the regime, and that is very revitalising.”

However Menshawy characterises the group’s relationship with the Turkish authorities as a “marriage of comfort”, and he and others say Turkey’s standing as an Arab hub is weak to shifting political tendencies.

The following decade

“I see this [Arab] presence as helpful to venture energy and put Turkey up entrance as a significant participant in Arab politics,” Ali stated.

However he stated internet hosting so many Arab dissidents can change into an issue and “very limiting for Turkey’s choices” if it decides to pursue rapprochement with el-Sisi or al-Assad, who now seem entrenched in energy, in addition to proving unpopular domestically.

He additionally stated Turkey’s function as such a robust Arab hub may be very a lot contingent on Erdogan remaining in workplace.

“This Arab presence and this Arab expertise ends with Erdogan,” he stated.

Akel stated exiles resembling himself fear most about “political vicissitudes and fears in regards to the rise of nationalists” on the expense of the AK Celebration.

In the meantime, whereas Hassan has loads of Turkish buddies, most of his deepest friendships are with folks again in Egypt.

“I nonetheless really feel lonely in Turkey,” he stated.

He’s additionally combating the financial issues besetting the nation, together with excessive inflation, low wages and an absence of employment alternatives. He has been unable to get permission to shoot scenes for a documentary he’s making, and says he’ll attempt to go away for a Western nation when the coronavirus pandemic eases.

“I can not keep right here for much longer, it’s change into extra sophisticated, it’s not straightforward to shoot delicate topics. And all the things goes so slowly, I really feel like I’m not steady. However it’s higher than Egypt.”