You have heard of the Cairo quickstep, the Judas kiss and the Giocanda smile. Now we have the Ottoman slap.
In the April issue of The Atlantic, King Abdullah of Jordan in an interview spoke of the emergence of a new, radical alliance – one that both complemented and rivaled the Iranian-led Shia crescent: the development of a Muslim Brotherhood crescent in Egypt and Turkey. It was no accident that President Morsi spoke at Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party's congress last September, where Prime Minister Erdoğan declared that the government was following the path of the Ottoman sultans Mehmet II and Selim I. Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal, was also present and hailed Erdoğan as "not just the leader of Turkey but also the leader of the Islamic world."
According to King Abdullah, Erdoğan's AK Party was promoting a softer-edged version of Islamism. He regarded Erdoğan as a more restrained and savvy version of Mohamed Morsi, who instead of following the Turkish model and taking six or seven years, wanted to change things overnight. Now, as present events show, things are unravelling for both Morsi and Erdoğan.
The broad-based Tamarod ["Rebel"] movement in Egypt has in common with the Turkish "çapulcu" [marauders], as Prime Minister Erdoğan contemptuously called the Gezi Park protesters, that they want their country's leader removed; and in both instances, the government has cracked down on dissent. The Tamarod movement claims to have 15 million signatures calling for President Morsi's resignation; and, according to an official estimate, two and half million Turks, mostly under 30, took part in the country-wide protests.
In March, Egypt's popular comedian, Bassem Youssef, who has his own show modeled on Jon Stewart's "The Daily Show," was arrested for allegedly insulting President Morsi and Islam. In the first 200 days since Morsi came to power, there have been two dozen similar cases, more than in the 30 years Mubarak ruled, a pattern that liberal politician Mohamed Elbaradei said was characteristic of "fascist regimes."
In Turkey, this is nothing unusual: over the years, its notoriously thin-skinned prime minister has earned a tidy sum from suing those he claims have defamed him. In April, Turkish concert pianist Fazıl Say was given a 10-month suspended prison sentence for a number of tweets considered to have denigrated Islam. Reporters Without Borders has, in its 2013 World Press Freedom Index, ranked Turkey at number 154 (last year it was 148) out of 179 countries, as it is currently the world's biggest prison for journalists.
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland called Bassem Youssef's arrest "evidence of a disturbing trend of growing restrictions on the freedom of expression," which Morsi's Freedom and Justice Party considered "blatant interference in the internal affairs of Egypt."
In February, the U.S. Ambassador to Turkey, Francis Ricciardone, created a furore, when, at a discussion with Ankara bureau chiefs, he stated, "you have members of Parliament who have been behind bars for a long time, sometimes on unclear charges. You have your military leaders, who were entrusted with the protection of this country, behind bars as if they were terrorists. You have professors. You have the former head of YÖK [Higher Education Board] who is behind bars on unclear charges [….] You have non-violent student protesters, protesting tuition hikes, behind bars."
Ambassador Ricciardone concluded, "When a legal system produces such results and confuses people like that for terrorists, it makes it hard for American and European courts to match up." Nuland then stated that Ricciardone had said nothing new; however Prime Minister Erdoğan angrily responded, "Turkey is not anybody's scapegoat."
A study by New York University describes the role played by the social media in the recent unrest as "phenomenal," but Prime Minister Erdoğan has declared Twitter to be "a menace," and the social media as "the worst menace to society." During his election campaign, Erdoğan branded Facebook as "ugly technology;" nevertheless, there are 2.1 million "likes" on his official Facebook page.
Erdoğan's senior advisor, Yalçın Doğan, has said that a tweet containing lies and slander is much more dangerous than a vehicle loaded with a bomb, although perhaps this view is not shared by the victims of the U.S. Embassy bombing or the victims of the car bombs in Reyhanlı near the Syrian border.
Consequently, the Turkish government is believed to be working on plans to restrict the social media there, and a state department on cyber crime has already started to investigate some 5 million tweets about the Gezi Park protests. CIA News reports that Prime Minister Erdogan has instructed the head of Turkish intelligence [MIT], Hakan Fidan, to activate two secret web tracking centers, code-named "ahtapot" [octopus], that can monitor most IP telecommunication between Turkish ISPs [Internet service providers], and between Turkish ISPs and the outside world.
Already in 2007 the Turkish Security Directorate obtained a blanket court permit to monitor and record all communications in Turkey, including mobile and land-line phones, SMS text messaging, e-mail, fax and Internet communications. In this connection, Transport and Communications Minister Binali Yıldırım remarked, "It is not possible to prevent being listened to; the only way is not to talk [on the phone]. If there is nothing illegal in our actions, we should not be concerned about such things."
Two years ago Former President Süleyman Demirel stated in an interview that the press and judiciary were no longer free in Turkey but stifled by "an empire of fear." A fortnight ago, however, an academic who took part in a rally in Kuğulu Park in Ankara said, "The circle of fear is broken."
For this reason, the Turkish government intends to maintain its control. Both Facebook and Twitter have refused to provide user data to the authorities, so Transport and Communications Minister Binali Yıldırım has warned that the social media websites refusing to cooperate will receive "an Ottoman slap" from 76 million Turks.
It is still unclear what form this slap will take, but perhaps the Minister will call in the janissaries and have the uncooperative beheaded. Whatever happens, there will be ample room for creativity.
Robert Ellis is a regular commentator on Turkish affairs in the Danish and international press.