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Gezi Continues

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Yesterday a tragic incident provided proof that Gezi is far from over.  Many of the facts surrounding the event are still in dispute, but what is clear is that during the course of a protest in Antakya early Tuesday morning, 22 year Ahmet Atakan died.  His death triggered renewed protests across the country, including Istanbul, Ankara and the AKP stronghold of Bursa.  Istiklal Boulevard in Taksim was once again the scene of police intervention with tear gas and water cannons.

Though eyewitnesses report that the protests were smaller than those at the peak of the Gezi uprising this summer, the renewed clashes between police and civilians is an important and potentially dangerous sign.  Many reports state that Atakan died during a protest related to the previous death of a Gezi protester.  However, some also mention that the protest Atakan participated in was against Turkey’s involvement in Syria’s civil war.  Whether or not Atakan went out with the intention of protesting Turkey’s current and future involvement in Syria, his death is perfectly poised to exasperate an already tense situation.

Atakan’s hometown Antakya is located in a small peninsula of Turkish territory that sticks down like a thumb into Syria.  The area has a proud history of religious and ethnic diversity, even through the periods of ethnic cleansing that homogenized much of the rest of Turkey during the 20th century.  However, the Syrian civil war is putting a strain on both inter-communal relationships and the relationship between the citizens of the province and the Turkish government.  Potentially making this situation even more explosive, Atakan was apparently an Arab Alawite, the ethno-religious group to which Assad belongs.  Most Alawites both in and outside of Syria continue to support Assad’s government, if for no other reason than they fear the consequences for their community if the rebels prevail.  So far the Alawite community in Turkey has largely kept a low profile, but this death could energize the community to lash out against the Turkish government or even Sunni refugees and fighters from Syria.  Resentment of Turkey’s unofficial involvement in the Syrian civil war is not isolated to the Alawite community.  Polls consistently show that the majority of Turks are against further intervention in Syria.  The bombing in Reyhanli earlier this summer, which was assumed to be connected to the Syrian regime, already demonstrated the potential for retaliatory attacks against Syrian refugees in Turkey.

In addition to it’s involvement with the Syrian war, Turkey is also currently confronted with another extremely delicate internal situation.  A few days ago, the much hailed peace process between the Turkish government and the PKK broke down.  The Turkish government has claimed that the PKK has not withdrawn enough of its fighters from Turkish territory and now the PKK has stated that it will halt its withdrawal until progress is made on the issue of Kurdish cultural rights.  Ethnically Kurdish areas generally refrained from participating in the protests this summer.  However, there were representatives of the Kurdish BDP party at Gezi and the movement in general has shown itself to be sympathetic to the issue of Kurdish rights.  If the protests we witnessed on Tuesday result in a revived Gezi movement, Turkey’s frustrated Kurdish minority may find this an opportune moment to revive protests for their rights as well.

The Turkish government has a potentially explosive situation on its hands.  In the case of the Gezi protests of this summer, the repeated use of force by the police encouraged protesters to seek out creative non-violent ways to continue their resistance.  However, if the government chooses to meet minority protesters in Turkey’s south with violence, past experiences demonstrate the potential for prolonged, deadly conflicts to erupt.

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Written by ataturksrepublic

September 11, 2013 at 3:01 pm

Gezi in the Greater Context

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I recently watched the documentary Urbanized with my aspiring city-planner spouse.  Toward the end of the movie there is a segment on the Stuttgart 21 project, a highly controversial urban renewal project centered on Stuttgart’s central train station.  The purpose of the project to improve ties with the greater European transportation and economic networks through a major renovation and expansion of the Stuttgart train station.  Those opposed to the project centered their attention on the project’s destruction of a public park and the 100 year old trees it was home to.  The movie featured video from a police intervention during one particularly large protest:  tear gas, water cannons and fleeing crowds.  Seeing the eerily familiar images of the anti-Stuttgart21 (S21) protests led me to consider what now seems like a glaringly obvious hypothesis: Gezi belongs to a wider phenomenon of public-space centered protests in democratic nations.

Analysts and journalists have been struggling, mostly unsuccessfully, to relate Gezi to other recent protest movements.  Especially at its onset, Gezi was often falsely categorized as part of the “Arab Spring.”  As the ongoing crisis in Egypt most dramatically demonstrates, Gezi’s relationship to other recent regional protest movements is superficial at best.  Despite what some would argue are Erdogan’s desires to the contrary, Turkey remains a largely stable democracy.  In Turkey, there were vociferous calls for the “dictator” Erdogan to resign, but only the most naive considered this to be a serious possibility.  In contrast, the leaders who were the target of the Arab spring were true autocrats who, with the exception of Assad, many but not all of whom were eventually ousted as a result of the protests.  In a historic change, the unrest in Turkey also failed to materialize any serious calls for a coup.  For better or worse (and I would strongly argue the “better” outweighs the “worse”) Turkey’s civilian government has simultaneously stripped the military of its former political power while building up its own authority.

In the first few days of the movement, the Gezi protestors began to adopt the terminology of the “Occupy” movement that began in New York in 2011.  Although the association of Gezi with Occupy is more accurate than the Arab Spring, the two movements in some ways also make a strange partnership.  Despite their signature tactic of “occupying” a space, the Occupy movement was largely a protest about wealth inequality and government coddling of the banking industry rather than the destruction of public space.  In contrast, Gezi began a movement to save a public space and morphed into a protest against government repression and authoritarianism.  As varied as the motivations of those who joined in to the Gezi movement were, there was a distinct lack of economic complaints.

Of the large-scale protest movements that have captured the world’s attention in the past 3 years, the recent events in Brazil are the most clearly analogous to Gezi.  Both center around a lack of public input into large scale construction projects and government encroachment on public spaces.  The anti-Stuttgart 21 fits this pattern as well.  Throughout the democratic world, there have been a number of largely overlooked local protests aiming to curb construction in urban public spaces.  Defining Gezi as a public-space centered movement, as opposed to anti-government movements like the Arab spring or economic protests like Occupy, allows us to locate it within a greater context and compare it to similar protests.  The anti-S21 protests provide a particularly useful example for comparison as it is slightly older than Gezi and therefore its impact has had more time to solidify.

One of the most superficial conclusions we can draw from the pervasiveness of public-space centered protests is that city dwellers are increasingly opting for quality of life and community over economic development.   Even those in low income areas or informal settlements who are most likely to be the victims of development are increasingly able to express their discontent through the use of new media.

Though they are more likely to have their voices heard than in the past, protesters are at a distinct disadvantage when attempting to stop planned construction projects.  This is true in both developing and more mature democracies.  In Stuttgart, the S21 project had undergone a public review and approval process for a number of years before the protest movement began.  The government therefore countered the protests with the assertion that the public has already been given the chance to weigh in on the project.  In the case of less mature democracies such as Turkey and Brazil, the government is less likely to seek public approval prior to beginning a project but will subsequently use an appeal to majoritarian politics and sheer force to “argue” their case.

Despite their de facto advantage, governments often feel threatened by these protests, especially when they draw large crowds, and tend to use excessive force in attempts to break up demonstrations.  This is true even in a “mature” democracy like Germany, though notably the forceful suppression of the anti-S21 only happened on one occasion as opposed to the dozens (and counting) police-protester encounters related to Gezi.  I would posit that the violent government reaction stems from the fact that these type of protests threaten state monopoly over the control of public space.  Public space provides a home for dissent (through protests) as well as less “desirable” and more volatile elements of society such as the poor, the homeless and young people.  Protests against building up and “sanitizing” such public spaces are therefore not just a threat to the viability of an individual project but existentially to the government itself.

It unfortunately appears inevitable that a modern state will need to reassure itself that it maintains a “monopoly on violence” and from time to time end up acting against its own people.  The test of a true democracy is if there are consequences for doing so.  In the case of S21, the party that had championed the project was summarily voted out of power in the next local election and took a major hit in the state elections as well.  The political consequences of Gezi have yet to be seen and most likely will be small initially.  However, as I have previously argued, I believe that largely young supporters of Gezi will soon begin to make their mark politically and change Turkish politics for the better.

Written by ataturksrepublic

August 22, 2013 at 3:19 pm

Ergenekon is not Gezi

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In the few days since the initial sentences were pronounced in the Ergenekon and Sledgehammer cases, the media has been inundated with articles about this years-long judicial saga (or at least as inundated as the media ever gets regarding news about Turkey).  Most experts acknowledge that Turkey’s Deep State was a very real and powerful entity that has to some degree been tamed by these trials.  However, there is also widespread consensus that the net cast by the investigation also caught up many government critics that most likely had nothing to do with the deep state or coup plots.  Given the timing of the case and its targeting of journalists, academics and politicians critical of the government, it is all too easy to try to draw a straight line between Ergenekon and the ongoing Gezi movement.  Some media coverage of the case has done just that, juxtaposing a picture of an Ergenekon defendant with a story about Gezi-related media censorshipOthers are more subtle, emphasizing demographic and political commonalities between the protesters in Gezi and those outside the Ergenekon courthouse.

However, as with most things in Turkey, the connection between Gezi and Ergenekon is far from simple.  Though arguably they both can be cited as examples of the AKP’s suppression of its critics, Ergenekon and Gezi represent two very different moments in Turkish political history.  Ergenekon and those who passionately defend or disparage the handing of the case represent the old Turkey and it’s strict Kemalist/Pro-military vs. Islamist/anti-military political divide.  In contrast, Gezi is the first truly liberal and diverse widespread political movement in Turkish history.  The “polarization” that is so stark in the case of Ergenekon is much fuzzier in Gezi.  Those who oppose the Ergenekon trials are generally affiliated with the old Kemalist secular elite who were very much already politically aware and active.  In contrast, Gezi is overwhelmingly young, the majority of which claim no political affiliation and were not politically active before the protests.

While it is fair to assume that anti-Ergenekon secularists would support the Gezi protests, the same does not hold true for the reverse scenario.  Therefore, it comes as no surprise that the Gezi leadership has refused to get involved in the Ergenekon protests.  While at least some of those facing prison terms in connection with Ergenekon or Sledgehammer are the victims of injustice, they don’t represent the same kind of injustice the Gezi movement was built around.  Gezi resonated amongst those who felt they had no voice in politics.  In contrast, many of the non-military defendants in Ergenekon became targets because of their prominence as outspoken nationalists and government opponents.  Despite the involvement of MHP (nationalist) and CHP (Kemalist) in Gezi, the movement itself eschewed these labels.  Polls have shown that participants in Gezi are not keen on voting for any of the existing parties.  CHP parliamentarians have noticeably become more liberal in their rhetoric since Gezi in an effort to attract it’s stubbornly politically independent demographic.

In short, Gezi supporters seem to be happy to watch Turkey’s political battle royale from the sidelines with no particular concern for the outcome.  After all, the two sides represent illiberal, if opposite, political positions.  If we learned from Gezi, it is that the next generation wants to free itself from state paternalism and authoritarianism, whether it be in the name of Islam, capitalism or secularism.

Written by ataturksrepublic

August 8, 2013 at 3:24 pm

No, things are not back to normal in Turkey

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or Why Occupy Gezi still matters.

Egypt may have usurped Turkey as the Muslim-country-in-crisis of the moment, but the protest movement that began over a month and a half ago in Turkey is far from dead.  The police have continued to use force against any gathering that even remotely resembles a protest, especially in or near Gezi park.  They have also begun arresting individuals suspected of participating in the protests outside the context of demonstrations.  In response to the heavy-handed tactics of authorities, there has been a boom in creative passive-resistance protest in recent weeks including public standing, walking, festivals and even Ramadan Iftar dinners.  There have also been move made toward creating a solid political movement out of the diverse grievances of the protestors through the creation of community forums throughout Istanbul.

These forums are of course only baby steps toward Occupy Gezi having representatives in local or national government.  In the short term, as myself and others repeatedly predicted, Erdogan and the AKP are not going anywhere.  Indeed some, including anthropologist of Turkey Jenny White*, have begun to question whether Westerners and Turkish elites have over estimated the real impact Occupy Gezi has had and will have on Turkish politics.  I certainly don’t discount her observations and they mesh with my own impression that away from the protest centers there is little sympathy for the movement.  In this way the AKP’s base has been little effected by Gezi and the party is sure to remain a force to be reckoned with in the short term.  However, the very existence of the Gezi movement itself remains remarkable and bodes well for the political future of Turkey.

Occupy Gezi would be an interesting political anomaly in almost any country because of the political and cultural diversity of its participants.  However this kind of intermixing of people is especially remarkable for Turkey.  As White outlines in her new book, “mixing” of different populations has been stigmatized in Turkey as long as the existence of the Republic.  Homogeneity was something to strive for and difference, whether it be ethnic, religious or linguistic, suppressed.  In Gezi participants have marveled at how the complete opposite sentiment prevailed.  As both myself and my collaborator have discussed previously on this blog, this kind of classical liberalism and tolerance of difference is a new development both in Turkish society and politics.  It appears that Western liberalism has not only arrived in Turkey through some of the EU-influenced legal changes but through soft power and cultural means as well.

M. James believes that it will take a radical upending of Turkish society for liberalism to take hold, but I counter that Gezi could very well bring about a liberal transition in more slow but sure manner.  I believe that the Occupy Gezi protestors represent the future of Turkey.  This statement may sound overly sentimental, or like propaganda from the Jewish controlled interest rate lobby if you are currently part of the Turkish government, but statistics and social trends back me up.  The Turks who have participated in Occupy Gezi up to now have been largely young. The average age of a protester in Istanbul is 28.  Not only do young people make up an inordinate number of the Gezi protestors, but the Turkish population as well.  The Gezi demographic has become politically awakened and is just reaching the age where members of their generation will start to have a direct political impact. I hypothesize that even those young people who did not or could not participate in protests are more likely to be sympathetic to the protesters because of their use and access to social media.

In short, I believe that what we are witnessing in Turkey is the symptom of a generational change that will gradually overtake and liberalize Turkish society, much like the changes America underwent from the 1960s onward.  There are still many political obstacles that these new “Young Turks” must overcome, not the least of which is finding and fielding political candidates that believe in classical liberalism.  However, I continue to remain optimistic that in the end State violence will not be able to stop this liberal awakening.

*Full disclosure- I am a former student of hers.

Written by ataturksrepublic

July 17, 2013 at 3:08 pm

Kurds, Occupy Gezi and the Peace Process

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Despite their concurrence with the Kurdish Peace Process in Turkey, the Occupy Gezi protests initially took little interest in the struggle of Kurdish Turks.  Though there were signs of a Kurdish presence in Taksim and Gezi, the vast majority of Kurds have chosen to watch from the sidelines.  However, as the Gezi movement has moved forward it has begun to make some historic connections with the Kurdish movement, even as the Turkish government has begun to retreat from the peace process.

Despite the turmoil in Turkey’s major cities over the past month, steps in the peace process between the Turkish government and the PKK have continued on schedule. The “Wise People” commission finished their tour of Turkey and reported back to PM Erdogan with suggestions on how to continue the detente with the Kurds.  The PKK has been busy with step 1 in the process, moving its guerrillas out of Turkey and into the Kadil mountains of Iraq; the Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) claims that 80% of PKK fighters have already left Turkey.  As a result the PKK has begun demanding that Ankara institute promised reforms such as the right to Kurdish-language education and lowering the 10% electoral threshold for parties to be included in the parliament.

Despite the unprecedented initiative on the part of Erdogan and the Turkish government to begin this peace process, the past week produced some worrying developments.  In contrast to the BDP, Erdogan claims that only 15% of PKK fighters have left Turkish territory, the implication of course being that the PKK has not fulfilled their end of the bargain.  In addition, he seems to be full out refusing to even consider implementing promised reforms, step 2 in the outlined process.  In a speech last Wednesday, he claimed that the government has “no plans” to lower the 10% election threshold or to provide “mother tongue” education for minorities.  His related pronouncement that “the only official language is Turkish” hearkened back to the Kemalist nationalism that was instrumental in creating the Kurdish resistance and the PKK in the first place.

On Friday, protests over a perceived government violation of the peace agreement turned deadly.  In the largely Kurdish Lice district in the province of Diyarbakir, protesters clashed with the Turkish army over the building of a new gendarme outpost.  One young man was killed and a number of other seriously injured when members of the military opened fire on the hostile crowd. *(eyewitness reports suggest that the government’s version of events exaggerated the violence of the protestors)

This incident is extremely worrying but so far the PKK seems hesitant to retaliate.  Currently the PKK appears to more eager to see the peace process succeed than the Turkish government.  Indeed Turkey’s Kurdish population has much more to lose from the failure of the peace than the Turkish government or average Turkish citizens.  While Turks of all stripes protested in cities across the country over the past month, the Kurdish south-east has remained almost eerily quiet.  Many have interpreted the lack of protests in Kurdish-majority areas as stemming from a desire to avoid giving the government any excuse to back out of the peace process.  There are likely other factors at play as well.  The Dutch journalist Frederike Geerdink who is based in the largely Kurdish city of Diyarbakir, argues that the Kurds do not feel a need to participate in  the Occupy Gezi movement, even if they sympathize with the protesters.  Their “protest” started with the founding of the PKK and has been ongoing ever since.

In contrast, as the protests have gone on those involved have begun to take more and more of an interest in the Kurdish struggle.  The protests have brought together Turks of all different lifestyles, political affiliations and ethnicities and created an arena for them to not only interact but forge bonds in a struggle against mutual enemies.  The hugely important fieldwork conducted by Turkish sociologist Zeynep Tufekci in the midst of the protests in Gezi and Taksim has documented this culture of pluralism and tolerance.  One of the outcomes of Gezi’s nurturing of plurality is the first time large numbers of Turks are fully comprehending the grievances of the country’s Kurds.  After the incident in Lice, crowds gathered in various locals in Istanbul on Friday night in a solidarity protest.  They applied the same terminology to the Lice (diren Lice) as has been utilized in the Gezi protests and chanted pro Kurdish slogans.  As Tukekci observes “This would have been hard to imagine a month ago.”

A great number, if not a majority of Turks have a negative and even hostile view of Kurds.  They have been raised to believe in the centrality of Turkish ethnic identity to the survival of the Turkish nation-state.  Though Kurds make up the majority of the victims of the Turkish government’s war against the PKK, thousands of Turkish soldiers have also been killed.  Turkey still requires all its young men to complete mandatory military service.  Their military training and experience in the field has served to reinforce the idea that Kurds are the enemy to a generation of young men (and their families).   However, Occupy Gezi has introduced the “other 50%” to the grievances of the Kurds in a very personal way.  It is too early to make any predictions as to how Occupy Gezi will affect the outcome of the Kurdish peace process and vice versa.   The Kurdish cause could very well give the Gezi movement the legs it needs to keep going now that its initial, Weberian “charismatic” stage seems to be coming to an end.  No matter if the Lice protests in Istanbul end up being an isolated incident or not, I am optimistic that the pro-Kurdish protests by Turks is a sign of a cultural shift among at least some elements of Turkish society.  After experiencing a month of insults, violence, and pro-government media coverage, I suspect that the “resistors” and their supporters will have trouble believing the official government line on aspirations of the Kurds and the inherent evil of the PKK.

Written by ataturksrepublic

July 1, 2013 at 3:04 pm

The Prime Minister’s Speech

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Two speeches to be exact.  On Sunday PM Erdogan spoke for two hours at a rally for his supporters, which may have drawn a crowd as large as 295,000.  His rhetoric was nothing new for anyone who has been following protests- reminders that he has the backing of the majority interspersed with accusations against a wide range of conspirators (more on this speech below).

A few hours later he was at the annual Turkish [Language] Olympics, an event sponsored by the Gulen Movement.  Here Erdogan sought to rally supporters of the Movement to his cause, referring to peace. brotherhood and unity- Gulen buzzwords.  Though supporters of the Gulen Movement are generally conservative Muslims, a demographic that makes up much of the AKP’s base of support, Erdogan knows he can’t take their support for granted.  Even before the protests broke out, the head of the Movement, Fethullah Gulen, was making some very poignant sermons warning about the evils of hubris.  During the last two weeks, Gulen has also made statements urging dialogue and reconciliation- of course, the precise opposite of what Erdogan is doing.  However, Erdogan’s reception at the Turkish Olympics was reported to be extremely positive.  It will be interesting to see if Gulen makes any statements in the near future in response to this weekend’s crackdown.

The wild card of the Gulen movement aside, Erdogan’s message is undoubtedly still convincing to a significant portion of Turkish society.  In contrast to embattled dictators, Erdogan most likely did not have to bribe or threaten supporters into attending his rally (although free and easy transportation certainly did not hurt).  Despite his increasing image problem abroad, Erdogan is still able to hold his base by controlling the reality they experience.  While protesters elsewhere were being gassed by the police, the atmosphere at the AKP rally was relaxed. The free transportation ensured participants would not have to encounter any unpleasantness on the trip to the rally.  During his speech, Erdogan repeated his main talking points, telling the crowds that they represented the “real” Turkey and that protesters represented marginal groups.  The actions of the police were praised and those police in attendance were as relaxed as the crowds around them.  Partnered with the Turkish media’s pandering to the State, it is not hard to imagine that many of the PM’s supporters simply cannot fathom what the other “50%” has been seeing and/or personally experiencing for the last two weeks.  The AKP’s supporters are spoon fed a version of reality that they want to believe for many reasons, not the least of which is the fact that the PM is “one of them.”  I can’t personally attest to this, but I suspect that if you are a working-class Turk living far from the centers of protest, even on the outskirts of Istanbul, it would be all too easy to believe Erdogan’s propaganda.

I refer to Erdogan’s talking points as “propaganda” because aside from his (former) 50% electoral success, many of the claims Erdogan has made and continues to make in his speeches have been proven false.  I will not review the evidence for these claims, as many have already done so, but discuss one in particular which touches on the crux of the issue.  Erdogan continues to accuse protesters of drinking, fornicating and walking around with shoes on inside the Dolmabahce mosque, which served as a makeshift shelter and triage point during some of the clashes.  As Louis Fishman discusses in his excellent article, Erdogan is acting as if the country is still as deeply divided along religious and secular lines as it was once was.  Those Turks who have gathered in Gezi and Taksim over the past weeks have been nothing if not eminently respectful of the pious Muslims in their midst.  Erdogan seems either unable or unwilling to believe that it is possible to be simultaneously secular and respectful of religion.  This mindset reflects a Turkey that is fading away.  Young men and women, which make up the majority of those protesting in Istanbul, exhibit a classically liberal mindset that was largely unknown in previous generations.  The fight in Turkey is not about the trees, it is not religious versus secular or even AKP verses supporters of other parties.  It is a struggle of classic liberalism against the last vestiges of the democratic but decidedly illiberal Statist Turkey that has existed since its founding.

As I argued previously, Erdogan believes that he can strong-arm the protesters into submission, but he may very well be letting his anger blind him to the damage he is doing to his own position.  I still believe that Erdogan may have no end game, aside crushing the protests and then smoothly sailing into the next election cycle.  However, the chances of this protest movement being summarily crushed without a fight are increasingly thin.   If a true dialogue is not quickly established between the protestors and the government, the situation will inevitably continue to deteriorate.

Written by ataturksrepublic

June 17, 2013 at 1:56 pm

Clueless in Turkiye

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As I sat and watched a stream of the violent raid on Taksim square Tuesday night, I like many others wondered what the Turkish government could possibly be thinking.  What did they have to gain by repeatedly gassing demonstrators on the eve of promised talks with protest representatives?  Why would the governor lie to the people he governs?  Why would the Prime Minster set the stage for a showdown between two groups of his own citizens?  It was irrational.  It was insanity.

To an outside observer the Turkish government’s and PM Erdogan’s don’t appear to be acting upon any rational strategy aimed at resolving these protests.  What is their end game?  Perhaps the essential problem is that there is none.  According to an intriguing new approach to game theory, some actors are simply “clueless.”  Michael Chwe, who introduced this theory, was inspired by the interaction between two characters of unequal social status in the novel Pride and Prejudice.  The higher ranking character believes that she can control the actions of a lower ranking character simply by throwing around the weight of her social standing.  However, the lower ranking character refuses to be controlled and is actually able to manipulate the situation to her advantage because of the anger she elicits from her superior.  Despite her social advantage, the higher ranking character looses in the end.  She is “clueless” about other factors impacting the situation because her anger precludes her from approaching the situation in a rational manner.  In other words “calling your enemy an animal might improve your bargaining position or deaden your moral qualms, but at the expense of not being able to think about your enemy strategically.”  PM Erdogan is currently “clueless” and is allowing his anger to cloud his judgement, raising the tension in Turkey to a dangerous level.  Both Erdogan and his government stand to loose big if they continue to allow their real but tenuous popularity to convince themselves they have the upper hand.