Turkey: On to the next crusade

Saturday, April 19, 2014

It was an arresting headline: "Turkey mulls leaving World Wide Web." No, it wasn't from the Onion. Apparently, the article was real:

During an informal meeting with journalists in the Parliament on April 19, Elvan argued that not only Turkey, but also several European Union countries mull to establish "their own national Internet protocols."

"Instead of www, a ttt system can be formed. Turkey and other countries can establish their own domains. Such a move would detach the Internet systems from each other. This is a controversial issue," Elvan said.

Elvan also called for an "international convention" to cope with the "the lack of control over social media." 
Those of you who follow the news in Turkey have no doubt heard about recent efforts in that country to block YouTube and Twitter, while rumors had been running wild earlier this year about the imminent closure of Facebook.

Indeed, back in the end of March, I was receiving Harry Stamper-like goodbyes from Facebook friends of mine in Turkey, who posted grim updates announcing that soon they would vanish from this world forever.


'There won't be anything to be scared of soon. Take care of AJ, and please finish my latest construction project on Megapolis."

Of course, the Turkish government's battle with social media--and perhaps one day with the entire worldwide web--is just the latest in a series of conflicts that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been waging since he became Prime Minister more than a decade ago.

There's good reason, of course, for Erdoğan's combativeness. He served four months in prison, in 1999, for reciting a poem by Ziya Gökalp, one of the most officially popular poets in Turkish history. Upon becoming Prime Minister in 2003, Erdoğan at first laid low. After a few years had passed, the Prime Minister went after his political enemies through the Ergenekon trial, which I wrote about extensively while it was taking place--and while most of the English-language commentary on Turkey was naively taking the trial at face value as an 'anti-coup' investigation. 
Having systematically destroyed much of the opposition to the AKP within Turkey's 'permanent' state (the bureaucracy, the military and the judiciary), in 2013 the government took on the Gezi Park protesters.
Do you remember Gezi? I wrote about those events quite a bit last year, as I was residing in Istanbul during much of the protests. What struck me as particularly interesting about the events of last summer was the chilling feeling that I experienced when it first became clear to me that Prime Minister Erdoğan seemed totally fine with the idea of civil violence. He repeatedly called the protesters 'terrorists' and held a massive campaign rally in Istanbul at the very height of tensions. 

Mock Olympic campaign poster, 2013 
More than anything, Erdoğan seemed to believe that, for as long as a little more than half the population supported him, it was perfectly okay for people to be fighting in the streets. Rather than seek out any form of reconciliation with the protesters, the Prime Minister's attitude was: full stead ahead. Hence, the completely disproportionate use of force--especially teargas and water cannon--on the protesters throughout the summer and, over the course of sporadic encounters, in the months which have followed.
Then, in the fall, even more bizarre behavior. This time, Erdoğan became locked into conflict with his own backers: the cemaat, or brotherhood, centered around Fethullah Gülen. For some time, there had been rumors circulating which alleged that Erdoğan's Ak Party had been in conflict with their financial supporters in the Gülen brotherhood over the question of how to divide the pie. With so much construction going on--you know, the stuff that is usually discussed without reference to its political implications--it would seem like there would be plenty of money to go around to everyone. With so many construction projects going to the AKP-friendly holding companies that control much of the Turkish media (who show their gratitute through their silence), perhaps there isn't enough to go around, after all. 
In November of last year, Erdoğan's government first suggested closing private cram schools. While the AKP's erstwhile allies in the Gulen brotherhood are involved in a number of business sectors, one of the most identifiable has been these schools. Their closure--which was finalized in March of this year--brought about a ferocious counter-offensive from Gülen's supporters in Turkey. This came in the form of a corruption investigation, launched by Turkey's national police force, targeting the families of AK Party ministers and Erdogan himself.

My Kemalist friends in Turkey were gleeful, but my attitude was (and is): be careful what you wish for. As much as Kemalists and Gezi types may despise Erdoğan, my sense is that they would be even less happy with a government that was even more under the control of the Gülenists. I mean, what would have happened if Erdoğan had been forced out by the brotherhood's supporters in the national police (upon whom Erdoğan relied very heavily in quelling the Gezi protests). Would Kemalists have been happy to see Erdoğan replaced by someone more amenable to Gülen? Presumably not.

That's the problem with the Kemalist opposition in Turkey, though--they don't know what they want beyond getting rid of Erdoğan
If taking on the permanent state (through Ergenekon), Kemalist 2.0 youth (during the Gezi summer), and the Gülenists weren't enough, now the Turkish government is declaring war on social media.
It's not the first time. Back in 2008, YouTube and Blogspot were banned in Turkey, although the impetus for this was not with the AKP. In any case, most people just logged on via a proxy server, easily circumventing the ban. Now, they're hoping they can get companies like Twitter to open offices in Turkey, making them vulnerable to Turkish police and tax assessors.
My sense is that the current proposals will likely lead nowhere, but you never can tell. Summer is approaching. The universities will be closing soon, and there will be lots of Gezi youth--who had the time of their lives last summer--seeking to relive the magic of 2013. The less social media, reasons Erdoğan and his advisors, the more difficult it would be for street protesters to organize and disseminate information.











It's like he can't stop. The Prime Minister has been embattled for so long, and on so many sides, that it seems like he needs the confrontation. I don't think we'll ever get to the day when Erdoğan is just ruling the country. Instead, he'll always be in a war, whether it's with his political opponents, his former allies, or the worldwide web itself.
The drama will never cease with this man.
 
Also see:

Ergenekon Trial posts

İsyanbol: Gezi Park Notes



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