Shut It Down, It Will Become More Powerful
The Turkish prime minister thought he was portraying power and strength to his supporters when he lambasted social media and threatened to block and censor the Internet at one of his many rallies. Indeed, he was cheered and applauded by his supporters for challenging what he called an international conspiracy against his Justice and Development Party, known as the A.K.P.
But the latest move to block Twitter makes Erdogan look weak. Censorship is futile in our hyper-connected world. Many Turks are more convinced than ever that Erdogan has something to hide and can be brought down to his knees.
Since the Twitter ban on Thursday, Turkish tweets have increased by 138 percent as users have turned to rerouting services or proxy sites and even text-messaging services to tell Erdogan, “Nice try, we’re still here.” The ban has further coalesced Erdogan’s growing list of opponents who have united to include #TwitterisblockedinTurkey in their circumvented tweets. Erdogan’s ability to contain this message will be unstoppable, at least before the all-important regional elections on March 30.
Erdogan’s perceived weakness is exacerbated by the tweeting of fellow A.K. Party members, including President Abdullah Gül, his friend and rival. The unraveling of support for Erdogan within his party’s rank and file is a viral threat, and Erdogan has no Trojan horse for protection.
When former President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt shut down the Internet in 2011, crowds of activists poured into Cairo’s Tahrir Square. Repeated attempts by Syria’s Bashar al-Assad to shutter the Internet have put more fire in the belly of citizen journalists, who document the horrors of his regime on YouTube.
Middle East governments ought to take heed that resorting to censorship and Internet bans will motivate more protest and defiance, as opponents are ever more convinced that toppling a government can start with one simple retweet.
Erdogan Is Circling the Wagons
The majoritarian temptation can be difficult to resist, and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has clearly succumbed. Erdogan, who could claim many early successes in growing the economy, limiting the military’s influence over Turkish politics, and moving the country closer to the European Union, has now, apparently, convinced himself that everyone is out to get him. Some people no doubt are, but Erdogan has let his paranoia drive his politics, to his and the region’s detriment.
Erdogan’s Turkey is a classic example of an “illiberal democracy,” where populist leaders win one election after another. Cloaking themselves in victory, they seek to limit civil liberties and suppress dissent. While it clearly hasn’t “worked” in Erdogan’s case – Turkey’s Twitter ban is trending worldwide – there is a logic to such moves.
When leaders in young democracies (and even old ones) face growing opposition and struggle to deliver on their promises, falling back on populism and ideology becomes one way to close the gap and shore up the support of those you know you can count on – your base. The timing, too, is far from coincidental; local elections are set for March 30, which, in a way, are a referendum on Erdogan’s increasingly controversial, even erratic policies.
The idiosyncrasies of individuals can, in fact, matter just as much as the more tangible, structural factors that political scientists tend to focus on most. It was Erodgan, with his charisma and sheer force of personality, who helped revive Turkey in the early 2000s. And it is Erdogan, now, who appears intent on undermining the very Turkish “model” he popularized.
In a sense, Erdogan fell victim to his own success. With each election, his party’s share of the vote only increased, culminating in the 2012 elections, where it received an unprecedented 49.8 percent of the vote. Winning nearly 50 percent of the vote in a parliamentary democracy is no small feat, and Erdogan interpreted it as a mandate to reshape the constitution, the political system – and ultimately the Turkish republic – in his own image and according to his nearly insatiable ambition. Now, he finds himself struggling for political survival, as opposition mounts not just in the usual quarters but among erstwhile allies and within his own party.
Shadi Hamid, a fellow at the Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World at the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center, is the author of “Temptations of Power: Islamists and Illiberal Democracy in a New Middle East.”
A Case Study in the Reversal of Reforms
Since well before the Arab uprisings, Turks, the American foreign policy establishment, the U.S. government, and some Europeans touted Turkey as a “model” for the countries of the Middle East. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (A.K.P.) had charted a third way in which Islamist politicians accumulated power in an officially secular republic, undertook democratic change, and presided over a booming economy.
Today, few speak in such terms. Turkey has become a case study in the reversal of political reforms, especially in the area of freedom of expression. The recent ban on Twitter is the logical next step in a process that has unfolded during the last few years in which the Turkish government has sought to intimidate and thereby silence critical journalists, academics and other observers.
Erdogan, who is both paranoid and calculating, has sought to frame his offensive against freedom of expression as a fight against foreign plots to dishonor Turkey and undermine its recent prosperity and diplomatic influence.
The Turkish educational system nurtures a not entirely unwarranted mistrust of foreign powers, lending credence to Erdogan’s message among his sizeable core constituency who will vote for the A.K.P. in the March 30 municipal elections.
Still, for many Turks the ban on Twitter is reminiscent of the tactics that recently deposed Arab leaders employed to gain political control. It did not work for them and it will not work for Erdogan. Turkey has gone from a country many Arabs sought to emulate to one that reminds them of the authoritarianism they endured in the recent past.
Steven A. Cook is the Hasib J. Sabbagh senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.