By Lambros Kaoullas (Contributor)
It was a period of general upheaval and anger around the shores of the Mediterranean. The “Arab Spring” was taking hold on the southern bank, while on the northern bank, from Spain and Catalonia to Greece, mass demonstrations rocked capital cities for months. These demonstrations did not bear the customary south European characteristics of Marxist-inspired popular social unrest, usually led by loose coalitions of the far-left. These protests were autonomous and truly grassroots, as demonstrators came from all socioeconomic strata and age groups. The movements did not share a distinct, overarching political identity and the various factions and offshoots covered almost the entire political spectrum.
What differentiated the Cypriot Greek indignant movement (Kýprioi Aganaktisménoi) from their Spanish, Catalan and mainland Greek counterparts was the spark which ignited the protests. It was not the deadly blow of harsh austerity measures -that would come two years later- as Cypriots were still economically well-off that summer. It was rather the deadly blast of the 11th of July 2011 at the Naval Base “Lieutentant-General Evangelos Florakis” in Mari that killed thirteen members of the National Guard, and the Fire Service, and almost obliterated an adjacent electricity power station.
According to an official inquiry the explosion occurred as 98 containers of arms and ammunitions, confiscated by the Cypriot authorities whilst en route from Iran to Syria, overheated to the point of combustion for months under the blazing summer sun. During the initial fires which took place in the few hours preceding the explosion, Navy officers, NCOs and conscripts, as well as firefighters from the Disaster Response Special Unit (EMAK in Greek) ran to the scene. All men sacrificed their lives instantly at the time of the gigantic explosion: two Navy officers, three Navy NCOs, three Navy conscripts and six firefighters. Ironically, Commodore Andreas Ioannides, Commander of the Navy Administration of the National Guard, who had been reporting for months to his military and political superiors the grave dangers that these containers posed, was himself killed on the ground while personally coordinating the containment operation.
It’s always an array of explosions that awake the Cypriots to the geopolitical contradiction between their easy-going life on a colourful, touristic, sunny Mediterranean paradise, with the damning strategic predicaments that haunt the island, making it a point of friction between empires throughout the centuries. In recent times, events include the blasts of the anticolonial ambushes of the EOKA guerrillas in 1955-59, the Turkish TMT false-flag operations of 1963-64 and the bombardments of the invading Turkish army in 1974. The blast in Mari plunged the Cypriot Greeks into literal darkness and once more into the forceful realization that all was not merry on their blessed little island.
The explosion was met with enormous social indignation as it brought to light serious deficiencies in the way various governmental authorities functioned whilst exposing the widespread corruption which bred these bureaucratic insufficiencies. As a result, the blast sparked unprecedented mass demonstrations outside the Presidential Palace in Nicosia which lasted for almost two months and triggered a series of ministerial and military resignations, an open official inquiry and forced the breakup of the then governmental coalition between the Communist Left and the Centre-Right. The short-lived Kýprioi Aganaktisménoi movement sprung out of this anger, and it is interesting to note that no political party participated officially, both because they weren’t sure where it would end, but also because the established parties felt that the damning criticism against corruption could potentially touch them as well.
At the time the government was in the hands of AKEL, a self-described Marxist-Leninist party (which, however, had no qualms about pursuing neoliberal policies culminating in an invitation to the IMF to bailout the corrupt Cypriot banks and restructure the economy). The government of President Demetris Christofias reacted with extraordinary force (by Cypriot standards) to the mass demonstrations and the popular demand for his resignation, as he was personally handling the case of the confiscated containers. And although scenes of police violently clashing with demonstrators are a common spectacle in Greece, they have never been discernible in Cyprus. It was probably the first time since 1974 that the state used disproportionate police violence against protesters. Besides the common police, equipped with anti-riot equipment, the force utilized its most elite units, including the Mechanized Emergency Response Unit (MMAD in Greek) and its elite within elites, the Special Anti-Terrorist Squad (EAO in Greek). There was an overuse of tear gas, almost leading to the trampling of thousands of protesters, and the white armored “Pinzgauer” vehicles of MMAD and EAO chased citizens, rounding them up into alleys adjacent to the Presidential Palace. In the weeks which followed activists’ cars and buses were stopped at police checkpoints and many citizens were apprehended on the mere suspicion that they had “insulted the President”. This included an outrageous attempt by the Presidential Guard to arrest -inside the hall the official inquiry was taking place, on the day Christofias himself was testifying- the son of Commodore Ioannides, Nicholas.
Parallel to the actions taken by the state, the ruling party had taken its own measures to contain this growing political movement, actions reminiscent of those espoused in outdated Soviet manuals. They spread ludicrous disinformation and conspiracy theories in the form of rumours through SMS, social networking and viva voce, that demonstrators were organizing a coup d’ état against Christofias and that the explosion itself was the result of “a suicide attack by far-right officers”. Furthermore, they tried to provoke conflict between demonstrators, and the party’s rank-and-file, to excuse police violence. Their climax was an open threat, made by party officials, that assault rifles (commissioned by the National Guard to them as reservists) could be used against the demonstrators, if required.
The strong patriotic flavour of the Kýprioi Aganaktisménoi movement was reinforced by tapping into the military’s social imaginary. The fallen had been buried as national heroes under state and national banners, flags were waved and the national anthem was sung at every demonstration and the reason for the corruption in the National Guard was linked to short-sighted party politics and the “diffidence of treacherous politicians”.
This article was written as a primary attempt to document the existence of this peculiar movement and also, as a conclusion, to present two noteworthy points:
- On the 11th of July 2011 it was not economic hardships which caused the Cypriots to flood the streets, butrather the death of thirteen members of the Armed Forces and the Security Services (the Fire Service operates under the command of the Cyprus Police). For me, as a social scientist in general, and as a criminologist in particular, this movement exhibits the surprising resilience of the faith and trust Cypriot Greeks have in such institutions. This is something which I find quite surprising considering the vilification and political hostility these men and women have been subjected to for at least the last decade for a variety of political, economic and social reasons, connected both with neoliberal politics, the breakdown of traditionalist social norms and of course the pursuit for a solution to the thorny Cyprus problem.
- So why was this spontaneous, uncoordinated and unorganized movement addressed with such a ferocious clampdown? Because it genuinely scared the then left-wing government -as it would have scared any party in power for that matter- as there has never been such mass mobilisation of indignant citizens with no clear objectives, physically and menacingly encircling the seat of power. All previous mass demonstrations, at least since the 1974 tragedy, which eventually turned violent, were either directed against the Turkish occupation army or the British military Bases. Most other mass political gatherings were traditionally headed by a party or trade union, and no matter how radical the demands of the demonstrators might had been in words, they never challenged the physical and spatial status quo in any ominous way.
The social dynamics that this movement stirred and unleashed are yet to be recorded and studied to the fullest. It will be interesting to observe the legacy it leaves behind, especially as their will be a field of fierce contestation between all the differing factions: those who supported the movement on one hand, and AKEL with its distinct Marxist approaches on the other. Additionally AKEL, ironically, has to reconcile itself with the fact that it used all of the “repressive apparatus” of the “bourgeois state” it was governing, to counter a popular movement led predominantly by youth.
Lambros Kaoullas has completed his BA in Sociology & Criminology at the University of Essex, England, with a brief exchange period at the Universitetet i Bergen in Norway. He earned his MSc in Criminology & Criminal Justice at The University of Edinburgh. He is currently a Doctoral Candidate in Criminology at the School of Law of The University of Edinburgh. His thesis explores the development of the security apparatus of the Republic of Cyprus in its turbulent post-colonial years following the national liberation revolution and independence, with a particular focus on the Police, the National Guard and the irregular formations.
All images provided by author.