Turkish prime minister, fighting scandal, tries to ban Twitter

Prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan banned Twitter in Turkey after a video surfaced that he had previously tried to block. The ban has provoked furious backlash on Twitter. (NowThis News)

An attempt by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to ban Twitter backfired Friday, with millions of Turkish Twitter users — including the country’s president — finding ways to circumvent the restrictions to express outrage with the move.

This latest manifestation of what many in Turkey regard as Erdogan’s growing authoritarianism came amid a mushrooming scandal over corruption within his administration that has mostly been spread by social media. With key municipal elections this month expected to provide an important test of his party’s chances of winning a third term in power next year, Erdogan appeared to be hoping to stifle further revelations ahead of the poll.

In a defiant speech hours before the ban took effect after midnight Friday, Erdogan signaled his intent to shut down the Twitter.com Web site in characteristically bombastic language.

“We’ll eradicate Twitter,” he declared at a campaign rally in the western Turkish town of Bursa. “I don’t care what the international community says. Everyone will witness the power of the Turkish state.”

Instead, what they witnessed was the power of social media — and it may be Erdogan’s own political fortunes that were eradicated, said Henri Barkey, an international relations professor and Turkey expert at Lehigh University.

“Now he looks ridiculous,” Barkey said. “No one will take him seriously anymore.”

The initial reaction was one of disbelief that Erdogan had gone ahead with his threat to ban Twitter in a country hailed as a paradigm of democracy in the Muslim world. Turkey ranks among the top 10 Twitter nations, with more than 12 million users — among them Erdogan, who has 4.17 million followers and has tweeted 3,043 times.

The dismay quickly gave way to scorn as tech-savvy Turks found ways to bypass the restriction. The hashtag #TwitterisblockedinTurkey trended worldwide. A cartoon showing birds like the one in Twitter’s logo defecating on Erdogan was widely shared. Condemnation poured in from far and wide.

“Turkey has banned Twitter? That is a terrible decision. I don’t understand it,” tweeted the actor Russell Crowe.

Turkish President Abdullah Gul, an Erdogan ally who could emerge as the biggest beneficiary of his missteps, also defied the ban and tweeted his disapproval.

“A total shutdown of social media platforms cannot be approved,” Gul tweeted on his account in clear violation of Turkish law. “I hope this practice will not last long.”

Rebukes from allies

More worrying for Turkey, which prides itself on its role as an emerging economic powerhouse, was the international response, with Turkey’s foremost allies piling in to condemn the ban.

“Actions like this are contrary to Turkey’s own expressed desire to be a model of democracy,” said State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki, adding that Turkey remains “a close ally.”

The White House called on Turkey to reverse its decision. Germany and Britain voiced disapproval. A top official in the European Union, membership in which Turkey has long craved, sniffed that the ban “cast doubt on Turkey’s stated commitment to European values and standards.”

The biggest question now, analysts say, is whether the Twitter fiasco will affect Erdogan’s seemingly impregnable hold on his government.

Most opinion polls suggest there is little likelihood that Erdogan’s mildly Islamist Justice and Development Party, which has held power since 2002, is at serious risk of losing in a trio of elections to be held in the coming year. They are this month’s municipal elections, a presidential vote due this summer and nationwide parliamentary elections in 2015.

Turkey’s opposition is disorganized and disunited, and Erdogan is inextricably associated with his government’s achievements over the past 12 years. They include galloping economic growth that has delivered vast improvements in living standards, enabling Turkey to portray itself as a beacon of progress in the Muslim world and expand its influence across the Middle East.

“Turkey’s growth and Erdogan’s political fortunes are closely linked,” said Soner Cagaptay of the Washington Institute for Near East Affairs.

Pattern of behavior

There is already a question mark over Erdogan’s political future because he is not eligible to stand for a third term as prime minister. Few doubt, however, that he intends to retain a powerful role, and speculation has focused on whether he will do so by amending the party rule on term limits or by running for the presidency, following a path blazed by Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Erdogan’s attack on Twitter has illuminated his increasingly autocratic behavior, with social media serving at once as a target of his wrath, a vehicle for his political ambitions and an outlet for his opponents.

In mid-2013, protests ripped across Turkey, ostensibly in opposition to the proposed development of Istanbul’s Taksim Gezi Park. It quickly became clear that the discontent reflected a deeper sense of dismay with the Erdogan government’s high-handed behavior, its crackdowns on journalists, its encroachment on freedom of expression and its drift away from Turkey’s secular roots.

Outlets such as Twitter and Facebook played a major role in rallying support for the protests, which drew as many as 3.5 million participants in a nation of 81 million. Erdogan was outraged and called social media the “worst menace to society.”

After the release in February of recordings of a man who sounds like Erdogan telling his son to dispose of a large sum of cash, the prime minister again blamed social media.

“We won’t allow the people to be devoured by YouTube, Facebook or others. Whatever steps need to be taken, we will take them without wavering,” Erdogan said.

The issue of social media arose again this week after the Supreme Electoral Council blocked an Erdogan campaign video on YouTube that depicted thousands of his supporters defending the Turkish flag. The board said the ad had misused national symbols. Erdogan threatened to “ban the ban.”

“Then we will ban that,” he said. “We will bring a ban to the ban.”

McCoy reported from Washington.

Liz Sly is the Post’s Beirut bureau chief. She has spent more than 15 years covering the Middle East, including the Iraq war. Other postings include Africa, China and Afghanistan.
Terrence McCoy is a foreign affairs writer at the Washington Post. He served in the U.S. Peace Corps in Cambodia and studied international politics at Columbia University. Follow him on Twitter here.
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