Turkey, communications, and autocracy’s future

Turkey’s tumult reminds us that no one can predict the event that will spark massive public protest, the incident that will bring longstanding grievances to the surface, the dispute that will ignite the courage of thousands to risk life and limb for freedom and democracy, dignity and respect.

No one knew, or could have known, beforehand that long-time Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos would lose power to a “Yellow Revolution,” that once-solid Romanian strongman Nicolai Ceausescu would suddenly be booed off stage and then quickly deposed, or, more recently, that a distraught fruit peddler would set himself afire in Tunisia and launch a regional brushfire known as the “Arab Spring.”

Similarly, no one could have known that, in seemingly stable Turkey, government plans to replace a popular park in Istanbul with a replica of an Ottoman-era military barracks would spark a peaceful protest that would evoke a brutal governmental response (including tear gas at the site and at hospitals where the injured were taken). Nor could they have known that the protest would spread to more than 60 cities and that the conflict to date would leave at least two dead, six blinded, and thousands more injured, some severely.

More importantly, Turkey’s tumult reminds us that, due to the global communications revolution through which news and information flow across and within borders at ever-faster speeds, autocrats will find it increasingly hard to retain power by withholding rights and refusing accountability.

As in the Philippines, Romania, the Middle East, and so many other places in recent decades, Turkey’s tumult reflects deep-seated anger about the person in charge – in this case, Prime Minister Recep Erdogan. His crackdown on civil liberties since he took office in 2003, his desire to consolidate and retain power, and his efforts to put an overt Islamic cast on a proudly secular society, have all contributed to the high-pressure environment.

Erdogan has reduced the power of the military, independent judiciary, and free media to check his power, jailing not only political opponents but also more journalists than any other country in recent years. He also has proposed constitutional changes that would let him rule for another 10 years.

Reflecting Erdogan’s efforts to impose Islamic values on Turkish society, the authorities in recent weeks restricted the sale and consumption of alcohol, banned Turkish Airways flight attendants from wearing lipstick, and used closed-circuit TV surveillance to prevent passengers on Ankara’s subways from kissing.

As witnessed over the last week, however, global communications can weaken an autocrat like Erdogan in at least two ways:

First, TV, radio, and the internet bring the world to once-closed societies, letting broad publics see how others are living in freer societies, thus giving them more incentive to overthrow oppressive regimes at home.

Second, Facebook, Twitter, and other social media enable dissidents, organizers, and the broad public to communicate with one another in the midst of social unrest, making to harder for the government to contain unrest as protests continually spring up at different times and in different places.

Consider the last week in Turkey.

Undoubtedly fearing governmental retribution, a cowed mainstream media largely ignored the initial protest and its subsequent cross-country mushrooming. So, social media jumped in to fill the void, with protestors using Twitter to spread the word about the latest developments across the country.

The authorities tried to impose a news black-out, with the police reportedly arresting 25 people during the early stages for allegedly using Twitter to incite hate and with Erdogan calling Twitter “the worst menace to society.” But, in a society as advanced as Turkey’s, even a defiant autocrat like Erdogan can’t put the genie of modern communications back in the bottle of governmental control.

To be sure, autocrats in Europe, Asia, Africa, and Latin America have found new ways in recent years to retain power. Some allow for “elections” (as long as those elections don’t threaten their continued rein), while others have convinced middle classes to sacrifice political rights for the promise of economic growth.

But, what has worked for the autocrats in recent years won’t likely work for the long term. At some point, frustrated citizens in China, Russia, Venezuela, and elsewhere will decide that enough is enough, that they want the power to choose their government and to replace it when dissatisfied.

Erdogan may survive this challenge. But, due to global communications, the days of autocrats like him are numbered.

Lawrence J. Haas was Communications Director and Press Secretary for Vice President Al Gore. He writes widely about foreign and domestic affairs and is the author of “Sound the Trumpet: The United States and Human Rights Promotion.”