Turkey’s PM Erdogan can weather Corruption and Islamic Politics: But Can he Weather Twitter?

(By Ahmet T. Kuru)

Erdoğan has consolidated the executive, legislative, and the judicial powers under his authority; yet he has been unable to control another source of power— Twitter.

When the Arab uprisings began, Turkey emerged as a role model in the Middle East in terms of combining Islam and democracy. The Arab uprisings have not produced the expected results, except in Tunisia. Meanwhile in Turkey, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s rule has recently leaned toward authoritarianism and Islamism; this has terminated Turkey’s claim to be a regional model.

Turkey’s political polarization and societal mistrust became visible in June 2013 with the Gezi protests where police brutality ignited nation-wide protests in which eleven people died and thousands were injured.

Erdoğan used an Islamist rhetoric to cover-up his provocations and strengthened his conservative constituency. He claimed that the Gezi protestors attacked a woman wearing a headscarf and consumed alcohol in a mosque. Although the evidence showed his claims were false, Erdoğan still continued to repeat them. He tried to take advantage of the Gezi events to solidify his base by presenting himself as the defender of conservative Muslims, assuming that this image would guarantee his victory in the August 2014 presidential election.

The corruption and bribery probe on December 17, 2013 was a major blow to Erdoğan’s plan of staying in power ten more years as a supra-powerful president. Four of his cabinet ministers had to resign due to allegations. Erdoğan defined the probe as a coup d’état staged by the “parallel state”—an alias he uses to imply the Gülen movement. He declared an “Independence War,” and has dubbed anyone who disagrees with him as “traitors” controlled by the Gülen movement. The list of “traitors” has become very long including the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), Doğan media group, Koç Holding, and Turkish Industrialists’ and Businessmen’s Association.

Similar to his reaction to Gezi events, Erdoğan has used an Islamist rhetoric to preserve his base in the face of the corruption allegations. He has called Fethullah Gülen “a false prophet” and a supporter of the headscarf ban, as well as calling the Gülen movement’s followers spies, collaborators in a US-based conspiracy, lovers of Israel, viruses, blood-seeking vampires, assassins, etc.

Erdoğan knows that he has to stall ongoing investigations of corruption. Therefore, he has reshuffled about 8,000 police officers and ordered police chiefs to disobey prosecutors and judges in new corruption cases. His new justice minister took control of the High Council of Judges and Public Prosecutors, which removed hundreds of prosecutors. The newly appointed prosecutors destroyed some wiretapped phone calls, and all arrested suspects were released. When the key suspect Reza Zerrab, who allegedly bribed three ministers and transferred billions of dollars to Iran, was released, Erdoğan said, “Justice has been served.”

Erdoğan has consolidated the executive, legislative, and the judicial powers under his authority; yet he has been unable to control another source of power— Twitter. He understood the danger during the Gezi events, calling it a “menace.” His party organized a group of “trolls” to promote Erdoğan in Twitter. Nonetheless, this could not protect him from being haunted by Twitter during the corruption scandal.

Some people, probably the policemen and prosecutors who were removed from the corruption cases, started to leak legal evidence (wiretapped phone conversations and even full indictments) to the Internet. They are now using Twitter accounts, such as @HARAMZADELER333 (children of corruption) and @BASCALAN (prime thief) to update over a quarter million followers when they upload new evidence. Since a recent law made it illegal to broadcast wiretapped conservations on TV and on web sites, and Erdoğan controls most newspapers, Twitter and YouTube remain the sole way of informing the Turkish public about corruption evidence. That is why Erdoğan has declared that he is considering banning YouTube and Facebook.

The content of leaked dialogues has shocked many in Turkey and abroad. Among various topics are Erdoğan’s villas, acquired in exchange for favours to his cronies; his way of controlling media outlets through some businessmen who were given governmental tenders; and his personal involvement in censoring the media. While these recordings were listened to hundreds of thousands times, there was only one occasion when a journalist managed to quiz Erdoğan about them. Erdoğan accused the journalist of serving the conspiracy, and was unapologetic for his phone call to a TV executive to withdraw coverage from an opposition leader during the Gezi events.

One recording had more impact than the combined effect of about two dozens previous records. This is the recording Erdoğan has defined as a “montage.” He also added that his encrypted phone was tapped, which has been interpreted as an unintentional way of accepting it. The leader of CHP, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, described the recording as, “as authentic as Mount Ararat” and has played it in his party’s group meeting in the Turkish parliament. Some experts have authenticated the recording, which includes five phone calls between Erdoğan and his son (Bilal) on the day the corruption graft began. In the recording, Erdoğan asks his son to re-locate a large sum of money kept in various family members’ houses. Toward the end of the day, Bilal called his father back to report that he had handled most of the money but still had 30 million euros to disappear. This recording has been listened to around 5 million times in five days on YouTube.

Although Erdoğan’s instrumentalization of Islam was effective against the Gezi protestors, it has not been that helpful against the Gülen movement, which has considerable credibility among Muslim conservatives. Twitter helped the Gezi protestors to organize their protests and during the corruption debates, Twitter has become much more detrimental for Erdoğan due to the regular leaking of evidence. If Erdoğan’s career ends in the March 30 municipal elections, Twitter will have played a large role in this dramatic result.

Ahmet T.Kuru is associate professor at the department of political science in San Diego State University, interested in comparative politics, religion and politics, and Islam and the Middle East.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 licence.

Mirrored from Open Democracy

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7 Responses

  1. If he can’t weather it, he can always shut it down. , as he’s shut down the courts, the prosecutors, and set to attack various professional associations and unions that he does not control. Beyond that, he can rest assured that the Turkish media control board will carefully regulate dissent (it’s happening already), that he will dominate TV, and that the AKP version of truth will be widely disseminated in all the crony-run newspapers. Beyond that, all the money will come in handy for buying votes with household goods.
    I’d be happy to see him gone, but I don’t expect it. People who say they won’t vote for him will still vote AKP, and that will remain his party as the three-term rule is set aside unless RTE sees a way to the presidency (much less likely within reach).

  2. Having jumped the shark months ago, Today Tayyip attempted the whale:

    Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has stepped up his fiery rhetoric against his ally-turned-nemesis, the Gülen movement, criticizing U.S.-based Islamic scholar Fethullah Gülen as the leader of “neo-Ergenekon.”

    link to hurriyetdailynews.com

    So, it is now all of Turkey against Erdogan and his shrouded boys. Alas, if he weren’t so violently opposed to the Shia, he could join Iran and Syria in the Putin league.

  3. So it seems all corruption and autocracy hating Turks owe a huge debt of gratitude to Gulen and the Gulenists, even if their motives are impure. Erdogan’s ill-advised decision to shut down Gulen’s schools has had the effect of poking a stick into a nest of hornets. So far only some cronies and his son have been stung, but none fatally. The question remains how can Erdogan silence an entire nest of Gulenists, who call themselves collectively a “movement” (Hizmet), and who have positioned themselves within every sector of power and influence in Turkey? Erdogan may currently control the levers of power in Turkey, but will his orders be followed if he unleashes the police, military, and/or judiciary on the Gulenists? I will wager that if tries to do that, the emasculated military (thanks mainly and ironically to the sham prosecutions by Gulenist police and judiciary) will regain its courage and coup-making powers to put an end to the Erdogan government. Why, one might reasonably ask, would the military intervene to stop Erdogan’s persecution of the Gulenists in light of the Gulenists’ persecution of military officers in the Ergenekon and Slegehammer cases? Because, strangely enough, Gulenist teachings are not as opposed and antithetical to the Turkish military’s secularist traditions and proclivities as are Erdogan’s and the AKP’s political Islamism and conservatism. In other words, the military and other secularists have more to fear from Erdogan and his AKP supporters than from Gulen and his followers.

    • He wouldn’t unleash the police: too many Fethilacci in it, though the restaffing of the upper ranks continues even today. I’d not be so quick to assume which side (if any) the Army would take. For one thing, if it’s still a bastion of secularism, it would be advantaged by the duelling lodges going after each other, and secondly, the Army’s distruct of Gulen is longstanding; Gulen canceled the indictment against FG that predates his government.

      The MIT appears to be free of Gulenist influences, which may well explain why it and its leader, Findan, have been targeted in the past by likely Gulenist circles within the state structure.

      Nopr should you underrate how strong AKP media is within turkey and how strong Erdogan’s influence over RTUK is.

      I can’t imagine who, other than the Cemaat and their Western retainers would hope to see FG rise.

  4. You may be right on all counts, but what puzzles and concerns me, admittedly an ill-informed American observer (but with Turkish friends), is why anyone who values secularism and freedom would not side with the Gulenists if taking sides may likely become necessary. (Yes, it’s fun for now to sit back and just watch Erdogan and Gulen maul and rip each other up in their current power struggle.) My point was simply that if the military or any other secular minded person who disdains political Islam and the repression it invariably brings with it in governance has to choose whom to back in this fight, the Gulenists seem to me to be the lesser of two evils. Yes, it would be nice for those of us who distrust and detest both sides to sit back and watch them destroy each other. But that rarely happens in real life. Instead, one side usually will eventually prevail and will likely emerge from that fight battle scarred more intolerant and repressive than ever before. Ask yourself this: If Erdogan and the AKP destroy or cow into silence the Gulenists, what do you think they will do to CHP and the secularist intelligentsia in Turkey afterwards? Would it not be wiser politically and otherwise for all those who fear Erdogan and his Islamists the most to join forces temporarily with the Gulenists now, before they themselves are eliminated or neutralized? I realize that many will need to hold their nostrils closed and to act very circumspectly whenever dealing with the Gulenists as allies, but one should not allow their political stench or past untrustworthiness to blind one to the need on occasion to choose the lesser of two evils in order to survive.

    • Only if you assume that the Gulenists really want something other than to control state power in Turkey are they a better choice. That’s not an assumption I share because I’ve heard too much for too long about his designs and the extent to which the organization’s infiltrated so much of the state apparatus and civil society institutions. If they hadn’t, this fight wouldn’t be happening now and extending through the courts, the police, the education apparatus …

      Gulen’s spent millions selling himself through his various publications, the conferences he sponsors to praise himself, the legislators whose good will he purchases, the naive academics who are suckers for any tale of oppression (sloppy reading of Fanon and Said is endemic at least in the US and UK academy).

      But read what little of Sik and Sener you can find; ask Andrew Finkel how questioning prior restraint worked out for him at Today’s Zaman, do some background reading on Ergenekon and Balyoz, and then ask yoursel why in god’s name they’s be an improvement over the AKP gang that can’t shoot straight?

      (& no, that’s not to say that the Army tutelage regime was anything less than excessive at many points in its career, but those who would knee-jerk invoke that narrative for the CHP might try to explain how Kilicdaroglu fits it. He’s not your father’s CHP — unless you want to say “thy all go that way,” but that’s just about crossing the line to a racialist theory of the Turks’ incapacity for democratic government.)

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