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Erdoğan’s total war

The Turkish PM's bid to control the news doesn't improve chances of normalization with Israel

The portrait of the traditional, obedient Turkish citizen, cultivated in the Ottoman Empire and re-emphasized by the 1980 military coup via Turkey’s school textbooks and its education system, is crumbling under the new realities of the 21st century.

The Gezi Park protests, which changed the rules of Turkish politics, are the most prominent indicator of this shift. The radical change in Turkish political culture is a result of three important factors: (1) the rising influence of globalization and its effect on Turkish culture, (2) the increase in Turkish citizens’ level of education, and the inevitable byproduct of the aforementioned two — (3) the utilization of social media.

As social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram have become ubiquitous, Turks now have a secondary source of news and can break away from the State’s absolute domination over the flow of information. Despite its strict control over print and visual media, the Turkish government is struggling mightily to control the narrative online.

It is within this fragile environment, following the Gezi protests, that another political earthquake shook Ankara. The natural alliance between Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s AKP (Justice and Development Party) and Fethullah Gülen’s Hizmet (Service) Movement ended in light of Erdoğan’s decision to shut down private university preparatory schools — a highly sensitive issue for Hizmet as these schools are key in recruiting new followers.

Eventually the friction between the two parties turned into a full scale clash. On December 17, 2013 Turkish police — which is believed to include members with Hizmet leanings — launched the country’s largest corruption operation against the government’s close associates, including sons of cabinet ministers and leading businessmen. Pictures of cash found in shoeboxes and the banknote counter seized by police during the raids created a firestorm on the Turkish street that led to massive demonstrations across the country.

Since then, both the AKP and Hizmet have blamed each other for acting immorally. While the Hizmet Movement portrayed Erdoğan and his government as corrupt by leaking details of the investigation to the press, Erdoğan and his party accused Hizmet of establishing a “state within a state” and began purging members of the movement from the government.

This bitter conflict that rocked Ankara soon began to make waves in social media. AKP and Hizmet created respective twitter accounts reaching thousands of people. Both sides declared a total propaganda war and created catchy hashtags to direct public opinion to the ongoing political chaos and corruption scandal.


In a way, the AKP’s effective control over print and visual media elevated the importance of social media. For example, an anti-AKP twitter account shared a recording in which Erdoğan was heard instructing the vice president of the Habertürk news channel to interrupt the live broadcast of a speech by the chairman of nationalist MHP Party. The printed press was not much better. The chief editor of Habertürk’s newspaper was implicated in another tape in fiddling with results of an election survey, in order to please the prime minister.

However, none of this deterred Erdoğan. In a press conference, he assumed full responsibility for the news-tampering and even suggested he was right in doing so. Moreover, in a thinly veiled attempt to control the only media source he does not enjoy total control over, the Turkish prime minister enacted a controversial Internet law, giving Erdoğan the authority to shut down Internet access to any website or user — in accordance with a court decision.

If that wasn’t Orwellian enough, the prime minister is requiring Internet service providers to store web behavior information on all Turks. Should the government request that information, all it has to do is turn to the courts. This provision was made possible by President Abdullah Gül who forced cosmetic amendments in order to get the law passed.

Besides social media, another sphere that Erdoğan did not exercise his absolute control over was the judiciary. Since the beginning of the corruption operation, Erdoğan accused the judiciary of not acting independently, and has denounced prosecutors as agents of Hizmet. After a serious purge and re-location of prosecutors, the government passed another law concerning the supreme board of judges and prosecutors (HSYK) in which the jurisdictional powers of the Minister of Justice were empowered vis-a-vis the judiciary.

After dealing with the Internet and the judiciary, the government, which felt betrayed by the police, is looking to strengthen the jurisdictional powers of the Turkish “National Intelligence Agency” (MIT) in matters related to domestic security. Many Turkish journalists and analysts criticized the government for turning Turkey into a Syria-like intelligence “mukhabarat” state. In response, two pro-government newspapers revealed a list of 7,000 people whose phone numbers are allegedly bugged by Hizmet, as a means to stress the significance of the proposed MIT law. Hizmet, for its part, has rejected these allegations.

While this kept the Turkish press busy for couple of hours, an anti-AKP group tweeted a link of an alleged phone conversation between Erdoğan and his son, tying him directly to the corruption scandal. The prime minister was heard instructing his son to get rid of the cash that they kept in their houses. Not surprisingly, Erdoğan denied the accusations and claimed the tape was a cheap forgery.

Despite Erdoğan’s pronouncements of innocence, recent events led to mass public outbursts in major cities all across Turkey, some including violent confrontations with police forces.

The timing of these recent scandals and political maneuvers is also worth mentioning, especially in the context of Turkish foreign policy. With the upcoming local elections in late March, the Turkish government will avoid normalizing relations with Israel so as not to further agitate voters. Despite Israel’s apology and enhanced offers in the compensation talks, Erdoğan’s emphasis on the removal of the Gaza blockade is one indicator of this unwillingness. On the other hand, it’s unlikely Jerusalem would bend even more before the close of the March elections — which would gift Erdoğan another victory he could use in the elections. Therefore, hopes for a breakthrough in normalization talks should remain low. The March 2014 elections — the test case for the presidential elections — will serve as a critical junction for Turkey’s future domestic and foreign policy.

About the Author
Hay Eytan Cohen Yanarocak is a junior Research Fellow at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies, doctoral candidate in the Graduate School of History in Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University, Turkey Analyst at the Middle Eastern Network Analysis Desk – Bee Hive and on the editorial board of the Middle East News Brief of the Dayan Center.