Trial by Twitter? Erdogan, Gülenists, and the future of Turkish democracy

TurkeyMiddleClassFlagProtestTaksimRTR22YAE-198x132Last week’s attempt by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to “wipe out” Twitter was  rightly decried as a sign of his creeping authoritarianism and an effort to contain the effects of incriminating recordings of telephone conversations between him, his cabinet ministers, family members, and newspaper editors, says Halil Karavelli, a Senior Fellow at the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute and the Silk Road Studies Program, affiliated with the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University. 

The country’s democrats have yet again “failed to stand on their own feet,” he writes for Foreign Affairs. “Turkey’s pro-democratic forces, and liberals in particular, have a history of putting faith in illiberal forces to advance or protect democracy,” Karavelli observes:  

In the 1990s, as the Islamists’ popularity grew, many in the left looked to the military as a savior. When the military grew too powerful, the influential liberal intelligentsia rallied to the Islamic conservative AKP, whom they expected to stand up for democracy once the generals had been emasculated. To that end, the liberals were willing to turn a blind eye toward many of Erdogan’s abuses of power. With Erdogan now proving autocratic, it seems that the liberals have turned toward a new ally. Even though Gülen says all the right things about democracy and the rule of law, however, the way his followers have used their positions in the bureaucracy to put in place a Big Brother state indicates his true intentions.

erdoganFor Erdogan, the timing of the recent scandals could not be worse, says Svante E. Cornell, the editor-in-chief of The Turkey Analystand Karavelli’s SAIS colleague.

On March 30, Turkey is holding municipal elections, in which the stakes are anything but local, he writes for the Middle East Forum:

Instead, they are a battle of wills between the prime minister and the Gülenists, followers of the Islamic cleric Fethullah Gülen who have been locked in a showdown with Erdogan, their onetime ally, since last December. The tapes are apparently meant to hurt Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) in the elections, laying the groundwork for his eventual downfall. But in addition to exposing the prime minister’s abuses of power, the tapes also reveal the Gülenists’ own dirty dealings.

“As alliances have been struck and dissolved, Turkey’s pro-democrats have tended to focus on one enemy — whether the generals in the past or Erdogan now,” Karavelli writes:

It is telling that Cengiz Çandar, one of Turkey’s leading liberal pundits recently wrote in the daily Radikal that, if the country were a real democracy, Erdogan would have had to resign after the recordings of him first started to leak. The irony that a prime minister of a democratic country had been wiretapped by his own bureaucratic apparatus apparently did not give Çandar pause. Indeed, Turkish democratic intellectuals and pundits demonstrate intellectual laziness when they reduce their country’s democratic crisis to an Erdogan problem. RTWT

Erdoğan is a talented politician and may yet find ways to survive this crisis as a weakened leader, argues Cornell:

His main asset is the sense of unity within the core AKP that provides a strong antidote to an overt split….Even the Gülenists appear to see a united AKP—but without Erdoğan—as the ideal outcome. But even if Erdoğan succeeds in staying in power, his chances of achieving one-man rule are now largely illusory. He could change party rules and seek a fourth term or, more likely, open an escape hatch and seek to be elected president under the current constitution. This would lead to his gradual loss of influence over day-to-day politics. In any case, it is more than likely that the Islamist movement that he led to unprecedented dominance over Turkish politics will soon conclude that Erdoğan has done his part. ….

What, then, would a post-Erdoğan Turkey look like? This will be the moment of truth for Turkish “moderate” Islam. At first sight, Turkey’s trajectory over the past several years suggests that even in the best possible circumstances, political Islam will be unable to shake its undemocratic, authoritarian, and intolerant characteristics. Even Turkey’s largest Islamist community, the Gülen movement, now implicitly acknowledges this, opposing the very notion of political Islam.

“Islamists have been able to say with some justification that the problem is not political Islam but Erdoğan as a person,” Cornell notes. “The track record of Erdoğan’s successors will determine whether political Islam can redeem itself.”



After the protests: the limits of slacktivism

Last Wednesday, more than 100,000 people showed up in Istanbul for a funeral that turned into a mass demonstration. No formal organization made the call. The news had come from Twitter, analyst Zeynep Tufekci writes for The New York Times.

“Protests like this one, fueled by social media and erupting into spectacular mass events, look like powerful statements of opposition against a regime. And whether these take place in Turkey, Egypt or Ukraine, pundits often speculate that the days of a ruling party or government, or at least its unpopular policies, must be numbered,” she notes.

“Yet often these huge mobilizations of citizens inexplicably wither away without the impact on policy you might expect from their scale,” says Tufekci, a fellow at the Center for Information Technology Policy at Princeton University:

This muted effect is not because social media isn’t good at what it does, but, in a way, because it’s very good at what it does. Digital tools make it much easier to build up movements quickly, and they greatly lower coordination costs. This seems like a good thing at first, but it often results in an unanticipated weakness: Before the Internet, the tedious work of organizing that was required to circumvent censorship or to organize a protest also helped build infrastructure for decision making and strategies for sustaining momentum. Now movements can rush past that step, often to their own detriment.

Remember Spain’s Indignados (the outraged) Egypt’s tech-savvy Tahrir Square protesters and Occupy Wall Street?

Social media can provide a huge advantage in assembling the strength in numbers that movements depend on, Tufekci contends:

 Those “likes” on Facebook, derided as slacktivism or clicktivism, can have long-term consequences by defining which sentiments are “normal” or “obvious” — perhaps among the most important levers of change.

Media in the hands of citizens can rattle regimes. It makes it much harder for rulers to maintain legitimacy by controlling the public sphere. But activists, who have made such effective use of technology to rally supporters, still need to figure out how to convert that energy into greater impact. The point isn’t just to challenge power; it’s to change it.


A ‘fate worse than death’ for the Internet. Has U.S ceded oversight to authoritarians?


Credit: WSJ

Credit: WSJ

Has the U.S. “played into the hands of authoritarian regimes” by ceding control over the Internet? Analyst L. Gordon Crovitz thinks so.

“Until late last week, other countries knew that Washington would use its control over the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or Icann, to block censorship,” he writes for The Wall Street Journal:

The U.S. has protected engineers and other nongovernment stakeholders so that they can operate an open Internet. Authoritarian regimes from Moscow to Damascus have cut off their own citizens’ Internet access, but the regimes have been unable to undermine general access to the Internet, where no one needs any government’s permission to launch a website. …..In the past few years, Russia and China have used a U.N. agency called the International Telecommunication Union to challenge the open Internet. They have lobbied for the ITU to replace Washington as the Icann overseer. They want the ITU to outlaw anonymity on the Web (to make identifying dissidents easier) and to add a fee charged to providers when people gain access to the Web “internationally”—in effect, a tax on U.S.-based sites such as Google. The unspoken aim is to discourage global Internet companies from giving everyone equal access…. If authoritarian regimes in Russia, China and elsewhere get their way, domains could be banned and new ones not approved for meddlesome groups such as Ukrainian-independence organizations or Tibetan human-rights activists.

“The ITU is now a lead candidate to replace the U.S. in overseeing Icann,” Crovitz writes.  

Internet guru Esther Dyson, the founding chairwoman of Icann (1998-2000), and a former board member of the National Endowment for Democracy, calls U.N. oversight a “fate worse than death”  the Internet.

HT: RealClearWorld

Voices from the Internet Underground

comradesNow I Know Who My Comrades Are: Voices from the Internet Underground follows the experiences of online activists in Cuba, Russia, and China and traces how the Internet is transforming citizens’ relationships with their governments and with one another. While authoritarian governments’ attempts to isolate individuals from each other were largely successful in the past, this segregation is no longer possible in the age of social media. The use of the Internet to effect political and social change is relatively new-it was in 2011 that ordinary Egyptians, many armed with little more than mobile phones, helped overthrow a thirty year-old dictatorship.

Now I Know Who My Comrades Are takes us beyond the Middle East to the next major battles between the Internet and state control. Please join us as Emily Parker profiles well-known activists such as Cuba’s Yoani Sánchez, Russia’s Alexey Navalny, and China’s Ai Weiwei, as well as lesser-known digital dissidents. She will also discuss the tactics this new generation of opposition figures uses to thwart government control and how authoritarian governments are changing their methods in response.

The International Forum for Democratic Studies and the Center for International Media Assistance at the National Endowment for Democracy cordially invite you to a book launch celebrating the publication of

Now I Know Who My Comrades Are: Voices From the Internet Underground


Emily Parker

Digital Diplomacy Advisor and Future Tense Fellow,

New America Foundation

with comments by

Christian Caryl

Editor, Democracy Lab

moderated by

Christopher Walker

International Forum for Democratic Studies

Thursday, March 20, 2014 5:00-6:30 p.m.

(Copies of the book will be available for purchase) 1025 F. Street, N.W., Suite 800, Washington, D.C. 20004 Telephone: 202-378-9675 RSVP (acceptances only) with name and affiliation by Tuesday, March 18.

Emily Parker is the author of Now I Know Who My Comrades Are: Voices From the Internet Underground, which was published in February by Sarah Crichton Books/Farrar, Straus & Giroux. She is currently a digital diplomacy advisor and Future Tense Fellow at the New America Foundation. She is also a founder of Code4Country, the first open government coding marathon between the United States and Russia that brought together Russian and American software developers to identify technological solutions to challenges of government transparency. Parker previously served as a member of Secretary Clinton’s Policy Planning staff at the U.S. Department of State, where she covered 21st century statecraft, innovation, and technology. Before joining the State Department, she was a staff writer and editor at The Wall Street Journal in Hong Kong and New York, and a former staff editor at The New York Times. From 2004 to 2006 she wrote a Wall Street Journal column called “Virtual Possibilities: China and the Internet.” She is a former Global Policy Fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center, where she researched the role of blogging and social media in Russia. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Slate, Newsweek, Foreign Policy, The New Republic, The Far Eastern Economic Review, Project Syndicate, and World Affairs.

Christian Caryl is a senior fellow at the Legatum Institute and a contributing editor at Foreign Policy magazine, where he edits “Democracy Lab,” a special online venture of Legatum and Foreign Policy devoted to countries aspiring to make the transition from authoritarianism to democracy. He is also a senior fellow at the Center for International Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a regular contributor to The New York Review of Books. From 2000 to 2004 he served as Newsweek’s Moscow Bureau Chief and later headed its Tokyo Bureau. Caryl has contributed to numerous publications, including The Wall Street Journal, The New Republic, The Spectator, and Der Spiegel. He was a winner of the 2011 Overseas Press Club award for Best Online Commentary, a member of a Newsweek reporting team that won a 2004 National Magazine Award for reporting from Iraq, and a 1999 finalist in the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists Award for Outstanding Investigative Reporting.

Google encrypts Web searches in China: World Day Against Cyber Censorship

What rights should Internet users have? What rights should content creators have? Should the Internet be censored? Why or Why not? Democracy Challenge asks.

“Google has begun routinely encrypting Web searches conducted in China, posing a bold new challenge to that nation’s powerful system for censoring the Internet and tracking what individual users are viewing online,” The Washington Post reports:

The company says the move is part of a global expansion of privacy technology designed to thwart surveillance by government intelligence agencies, police and hackers who, with widely available tools, can view e-mails, search queries and video chats when that content is unprotected.

China’s Great Firewall, as its censorship system is known, has long intercepted searches for information it deemed politically sensitive. Google’s growing use of encryption there means that government monitors are unable to detect when users search for sensitive terms, such as “Dalai Lama” or “Tiananmen Square,” because the encryption makes them appear as indecipherable strings of numbers and letters.

“No matter what the cause is, this will help Chinese netizens to access information they’ve never seen before,” said Percy Alpha, the co-founder of, an activist group that monitors China’s Great Firewall. “It will be a huge headache for Chinese censorship authorities. We hope other companies will follow Google to make encryption by default.”