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Turkish Spring Update: Erdoğan Doubles Down

One of the more interesting things about the Arab Spring protests in Egypt was that the protestors did not initially seek Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s ouster: Rather, their chief demand was for Mubarak to fire the interior minister. It was only Mubarak’s ham-fisted response that caused both the crowds and their demands to grow.

Likewise, the protests in Taksim Square started small: Locals opposed the government’s desire to cut down a small park to erect a shopping center; after all, central Istanbul already lacks green space. As often occurs in Turkey, the government failed to solicit local opinion regarding its proposed redevelopment. That the prime minister had become so involved in a local building project also raised eyebrows, where such micromanagement is usually a sign of financial interest. (Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has increased his wealth exponentially in ways that salary does not account for since he took office; his explanation that his new wealth came from wedding gifts paid to his son is risible.) The character of the protests changed, however, when the Turkish police attacked protesters with considerable violence, not only using excessive tear gas and water cannons on non-violent protestors, but wounding students, journalists, and even parliamentarians. What was a local protest quickly became national, with crowds gathering in Ankara and government thugs attacking protestors elsewhere. Erdoğan’s pronouncements that the protestors were marginal characters only added to popular outrage.

While Erdoğan eventually had Turkish forces withdraw, like Mubarak he appears not to have learned the right lessons. Erdoğan has officially backed down from the mall project. So what to replace it? A mosque. Now that Erdoğan has banned alcohol sales within 100 meters of any mosque, it appears as if he is preparing to build mosques every 200 meters. His announcement is the equivalent of sticking up his middle finger at Istanbul’s secularists and liberals.

He also appears prepared to turn his animus toward Twitter, branding the communications tool “a troublemaker.” It may seem illogical to the American audience that Erdoğan could try to crack down on Twitter, but he may believe he has President Obama’s backing. After all, when Erdoğan visited Washington, Obama welcomed him with an op-ed not just in any Turkish paper, but in Sabah—a once-opposition paper that Erdoğan seized and handed to his son-in-law. And, as Obama stood beside Erdoğan in the White House “Rose Garden,” the Turkish prime minister’s henchmen were at it again, seizing more opposition media.

Erdoğan is arrogant, crude, and—at heart—an autocrat. He may believe himself invincible. If he is not careful and if he does not begin to respect the rule-of-law and recognize that he is accountable to the Turkish people, he might find himself going the way of Mubarak, Tunisian President Ben Ali, or Yemeni President Saleh.