Will Turkey slide toward a regime?

He’s caused all sorts of problems without getting into trouble, and international public opinion still believes he is the bridge between the Islamic world and Obama, but his recent attack on the two great Molochs of our times, YouTube and Facebook, goes beyond his usual exploits. Erdogan is always in the news for something: from serious accusations of corruption against him and his son Bilal (“Take money from our relatives’ home”, his father told him, if the source is reliable) to praise for Hamas and the disastrous Flotilla, from the breaching of sanctions and visits to Iran to blind support for the Muslim Brotherhood, from accusing Israel of having organized the revolution in Egypt against his friend Morsi to personal attacks against Shimon Peres, not to mention all of the attacks on freedom in his own country, against journalists, the military, and anyone else who doesn’t agree with him.

But now Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish prime minister, with a growing sense of omnipotence and a hint of panic, has surpassed himself: he has announced that he will outlaw the two big social networks because, according to him, they have become an instrument of persecution in the hands of his political enemies. He has already said that Twitter is “a cancer.” “We are determined,” Erdogan said on Thursday night on ATV television. “We will not leave our nation at the mercy of YouTube and Facebook.”

Erdogan is referring to a series of telephone wiretaps, “faked,” according to him, which revealed instances of corruption among those closest to him: on 17 December, these wiretaps, together with the testimony of various witnesses, led to the arrest of 52 members of his inner circle, sending shock waves through the judiciary, bureaucracy and newspapers. The wiretaps also revealed abuses of power, such as an order to the owner of the Milliyet newspaper, 76-year-old Demiroen, to fire the newspaper’s director and one of its journalists because of an article. Erdogan makes tearful promises. He is right in thinking that the social networks contributed to the organization of the protests at Gezi Park and the Arab revolutions, including the one against the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. It is here that the resistible rise of Erdogan has weakened and his former ally, the powerful cleric Fethullah Gulen, has launched a deadly offensive from the USA which is still ongoing. Two years ago, without bloodshed, Erdogan threw in jail under the accusation of conspiracy (the Ergenekon case) no fewer than two hundred officials, all from the officer ranks of the Kemal and secular army. But times have changed: just yesterday, the Supreme Court granted General Ilker Babug’s application to be released after two years’ detention, and there is a very real risk for Erdogan that his enemies may soon be back on the streets. Erdogan attributes the storm besetting him on every side to the virtually omnipresent power within Turkish society of his former ally, Fethullah Gulen.

If Erdogan’s dreams of restoring the splendor of the Ottoman Empire are combined with Islamist passion, Fethullah’s Islam is not the same as the Brotherhood’s Islam, and nor is it the Islam of Saudi Arabia, which is why the Kingdom withdrew its ambassador from Qatar on Thursday. These are lethal animosities, and in this time when borders matter less than groups, sects, ethnicities and gangs, Turkey has also become a battlefield on which national calls sound faint. Erdogan senses the danger, and even though his approval rating is over 50 percent, he fears this will be eroded by recent events. He had intended to run in the first direct presidential elections this summer, but he’s now considering a fourth election as prime minister. He has served three terms over 11 years, and has frequently stated his belief that previous leaders had been wrong to stay in power for so long.

To run for re-election would be to embrace a course of conduct he has publicly scorned, which would be a sign of great political weakness. The current president, Abdullah Gul, immediately stated that he opposed closing the social networks: squabbles between these two are nothing new. And if Erdogan thinks his country will love him more when Facebook stops saying nasty things about him, he will shut it up. Just as he’s shut so many people up in jail.

This article originally appeared in slightly different form in Italian in Il Giornale; English copyright, The Gatestone Institute

About the Author
Fiamma Nirenstein is a journalist, author, former Deputy President of the Committee on Foreign Affairs of the Italian Chamber of Deputies, and member of the Italian delegation at the Council of Europe.