Commentary Magazine


Twitter and Turkey’s Slide Into Dictatorship

The government of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been gradually chipping away at every vestige of democracy in that country for years. Independent press outlets have been suppressed and more journalists are in prison in Turkey than in any other place on earth. Political opponents of his AKP and much of the secular leadership of the military have been jailed, and demonstrators have been brutalized. Despite this terrible record the West, and in particular the Obama administration, have largely turned a blind eye to Turkey’s excesses. But by trying to ban the use of Twitter, Erdoğan may have finally picked a fight that he can’t win in the long run.

The Turkish government is standing by an order issued by a judge who is friendly to the prime minister to block the use of Twitter in Turkey. The reason for the effort is that social media, such as Twitter and YouTube, is the vehicle for spreading evidence of corruption by Erdoğan’s son and other prominent scions of the country’s Islamist elite. While social media plays an increasingly critical role in the spread of news throughout the free world, it is especially critical now in a country like Turkey because the mainstream press in that country has been effectively silenced by the dictatorial policies of the AKP and its leader. That forced the flow of information elsewhere and Erdoğan’s courts have responded with demands that Twitter and other venues remove the embarrassing content from their sites.

But by adopting a stand that undermines the notion that Turkey is a modern state that is ready to be integrated into the international economy and the European Union, Erdoğan may have worsened his problems rather than solve them. After 11 years in power during which he has ruthlessly wielded influence, the Turkish leader may have finally crossed the line that separates a feared dictator from a laughingstock. By banning Twitter, Erdoğan has begun to resemble a parody of a despot rather than the strongman who has transformed Turkey from a secular state to an Islamist tyranny.

As the New York Times reports, his inability to suppress the incriminating information about his son and his regime has sent Erdoğan over the edge:

The shutdown, which Turks began to notice around midnight, occurred 10 days before local elections and came after Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan lashed out at Twitter in an election rally in Bursa, a western town, on Thursday, saying that he did not care about international reactions if national security was at stake.

“Twitter, mwitter! We will wipe out roots of all,” Mr. Erdoğan declared in a campaign speech before the pivotal elections on March 30. “They say, ‘Sir, the international community can say this, can say that.’ I don’t care at all. Everyone will see how powerful the state of the Republic of Turkey is.”

Mr. Erdoğan had faced perhaps the biggest challenge in his 11 years in office when unidentified critics began using Twitter and YouTube to leak dozens of phone calls and documents that seemed to tie government officials and business circles close to the government to a graft inquiry that began last December.

One of the recordings purports to be of the prime minister himself telling his son to get rid of large sums of cash on the morning of Dec. 17, when the homes of three former ministers’ sons were raided. Mr. Erdoğan has repeatedly — and angrily — insisted that the recording was fake.

This is far from the first instance of Erdoğan’s dictatorial manner. He has run roughshod over all legal opposition and shut down journalistic outlets that were not in his pocket. But perhaps by taking on the popular social media in such an absurd and transparently self-interested manner, a turning point may be reached on international opinion of his regime.

This is, after all, the same man President Obama described as his best friend among foreign leaders. While other Western heads of state were not quite so fulsome in their praise for Erdoğan, the result was the same, as the AKP’s excesses at home and its support for Hamas in Gaza were ignored because of Turkey’s membership in NATO and its role in supporting opposition to the Assad regime.

While the United States has slowly started to edge away from Erdoğan, Washington needs to do more now than merely state its displeasure with the antics of the president’s friend. The same applies to Turkey’s bid for EU membership. Relations with this increasingly despotic Islamist state need to be put on hold until the country and its dictator come to their senses.

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