Trial By Twitter

Erdogan, the Gulenists, and the Future of Turkish Democracy

A Turkish national flag behind a broken Twitter logo, March 21, 2014. Dado Ruvic / Courtesy Reuters

Last week, after Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan pledged to “wipe out” Twitter, state authorities quickly tried to block the social media website. The move, which was immediately -- and rightly -- decried as a sign of Erdogan’s creeping authoritarianism, was an attempt at damage control, an effort to contain the effects of incriminating recordings of telephone conversations between him, his cabinet ministers, family members, and newspaper editors that have started to leak out on the Internet.

For Erdogan, the timing could not be worse. On March 30, Turkey is holding municipal elections, in which the stakes are anything but local. Instead, they are a battle of wills between the prime minister and the Gulenists, followers of the Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen 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 Gulenists’ own dirty dealings.

The recordings offer proof positive that Erdogan instructed his minister of justice to order the courts to punish a businessman who had displeased him. The most damning revelations are about Erdogan’s apparent involvement in illicit financial activities, including instructions to his son to remove money from his house. The recordings are apparently the result of years of illegal wiretapping of the prime minister and his entourage. And it is safe to assume that the Gulenists are involved. For one, the earliest tapes date from around 2011, just after Erdogan started to grow uneasy with the group’s reach in the Turkish bureaucracy. In addition, Gulenist cadres within the state apparatus would have had access to the codes and equipment needed to hack his encrypted phone. 

The episode reveals Erdogan to be an unusually unsuspecting autocrat. It has long been an open secret in Turkey that the followers of

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