When you are a government aide visiting the site of a national tragedy, there are a good number of things you should refrain from doing. I'm not sure exactly where it ranks, but kicking a protester who is pinned to the floor by armed police officers must be pretty high on the list. Perhaps more important still, don't get photographed doing it.
If you want proof of that, just ask Yusuf Yerkel, identified by the Turkish news media as an adviser to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Yerkel was with Erdogan when he visited Soma, Turkey, the day after a mining disaster Tuesday that has left almost 300 people dead and about 150 feared trapped underground. Yerkel has confirmed to BBC Turkey's Safak Timur that, yes, it was indeed him who was photographed from multiple angles apparently kicking a protester.
As you can imagine, the photograph did not go down well. Images of the kick have been shared tens of thousands of times on social media:
Exactly what happened in the photograph is not clear. Hurriyet Daily News, an English-language Turkish newspaper, reports that witnesses saw Yerkel run over to the protester, who had apparently struck the prime minister's car, to kick him a number of times as he was pinned to the ground. Yerkel has offered little explanation other than saying he was sorry for "losing his cool," and Erdogan's office has refused to comment, stating instead that the issue was Yerkel's “own personal matter."
No matter what his explanation today, the photograph has become the focus of discontent among those angry with Turkey's response to the mine disaster. And worse yet for Erdogan, the photograph may just be the tip of the iceberg.
Not long after the photograph began to spread, left-wing newspaper Evrensel reported that Erdogan had punched or slapped a girl near a supermarket in Soma after she accused him of killing her father. That moment was also apparently caught on film and can be seen around 1:30 in the video below:
Another video apparently from the scene paints an even worse picture and appears to clearly show Erdogan's security attacking a man.
It's very hard to see exactly what's going on in either video, but one thing is very clear: Erdogan is facing an extremely hostile crowd.
The tragedy in Soma is the worst mining disaster in Turkish history. Erdogan's response to it is facing incredible scrutiny, and he doesn't appear to be meeting the challenge: Turkish media have been picking apart a speech he delivered Wednesday, in which Erdogan said mine disasters were "usual things" and made comparisons to mining disasters that occurred years, even centuries, ago in other countries.
And Erdogan's problems go beyond their (at best) tone-deaf response. The Soma coal mine was privatized in 2005 with support from Erdogan's Justice and Development Party, or AKP, and is run by a private company named Soma Komur Isletmeleri that had sought to bring down costs. Although the government says the mine had passed all its recent safety inspections, the Reuters news agency reports that the AKP was able to block opposition calls for an investigation into mining accidents in Soma just last month.
The angry reaction he's seen in Soha follows almost a year of troubles for the Turkish prime minister. First, there were the protests in Istanbul's Gezi Park after his government planned to build a shopping mall over one of the city's few green spaces (in that instance, a photograph of official violence also became a focal point for the violence). Then there was the rift with the powerful Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen and the mysterious release of wiretapped recordings that appeared to embroil Erdogan's party elite in a corruption scandal. Ongoing issues with censorship and Syria also have damaged Erdogan's standing outside his Islamic, pro-business base.
This post has been updated to include Yerkel's apology and a link to the second video that allegedly shows Erdogan's own attack.