Istanbul a hub for Arab exiles taking on their oppressive governments - NY Times

Istanbul has emerged as the region’s capital for many dissident Arab politicians, activists, rebels and journalists, who are operating out of the Turkey after receiving the go ahead from the President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government, wrote Bun Hubbard, Beirut Bureau Chief for The New York Times.

“Firebrands from Egypt, Yemen and elsewhere across the Arab world take on the Mideast’s oppressive governments’’ from the relative safety of Turkey, Hubbard wrote, while underlining that they are carving out new lives, carrying on the fight from afar and avoiding jail terms.

Muslim Brotherhood members from Egypt; rebel fighters from Syria and Libya; political activists from Iraq and Yemen; dissidents from Saudi Arabia and Jordan; even former members of the Kuwaiti Parliament all ended up in Turkey, whose president is lauded by the Arab world, it said.

Azzam Tamimi, founder of Al Hiwar TV, a platform for Arab dissidents, said, “There is nowhere else to go” and Istanbul is a good choice because it’s easier to get guests for its talk shows as they already in the country.

While offering an attractive combination of a Muslim-majority city, close to their homelands, with sophisticated communications infrastructure and a relatively tolerant atmosphere, Turkey remains more open to Arab refugees than the United States or Europe, the New York Times article said.

And for Erdoğan, it added, welcoming Arab exiles is a continuation of the support offered to the uprisings themselves.

“Sometimes we hear from some countries that ‘you have some people who are against us, who are broadcasting against Egypt,’ for example,” senior member of Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP)  Yasin Aktay said. “We tell them that there are many things that we need to broadcast against because they are violations of human rights.’’

However, the irony is Turkey’s internal opposition news media alongside its openness to Arab dissidents protesting human rights abuses, it noted.

Thousands of academics, lawyers, journalists and opposition politicians have been jailed, in Turkey following the July 2016 coup attempt. At least 180 news outlets have been shuttered since the failed putsch, according to Amnesty International.

So the Arab exiles here not only have greater freedom of expression than they would at home, but often have far more leeway than their Turkish counterparts.

“I have a mission to do in Istanbul, and the Turks don’t get involved in our political or media work,” Ayman Nour, a former lawmaker who ran for president in Egypt more than a decade ago, said.

Nour, who spent time in prison there and fled the country after President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi seized power in a military coup in 2013, fled to Lebanon first, but felt unsafe there. His next stop was Turkey.

Nour oversees two television channels critical of the Egyptian government and his office also houses the headquarters of the Arab Council for Defense of Revolutions and Democracy, an association that maintain “the true spirit of the Arab Spring.”

Tawakkol Karman, who won the Nobel Prize in 2011 for her role in the uprising in Yemen, is also part of Nour’s team. She oversees an Istanbul-based television station, Balqees TV, whose original office was stormed in 2014 by Houthi rebels when they took over Sana.

“The most important thing is to keep the Arab Spring alive and to keep fighting for freedom and democracy,” Karman said while speaking on her media efforts in Istanbul.

There are some exceptions to the treatments of certain dissidents, the article stressed, pointing to Saudi Arabia, whose citizens are asked to remain quiet so as not to damage Turkish-Saudi ties.

İstanbul’s Arab character has been amplified over the last few years, as the city has received its fair share of some 3.6 million refugees fleeing the war in Syria.

“They don’t follow you, they don’t bother you, and they clearly supported the revolution,” Majdi Nema, former spokesman for the Army of Islam, a powerful insurgent group that fought Syrian government troops, told the New York Times.