Erdogan’s fear of 140-character assassination

A few days after the 11th anniversary of coming to power, Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's ban on Twitter is being seen as showing his sense of vulnerability, isolation and loss of his previously unparalleled political touch.

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The significance of Turkey's decision to block Twitter is not just because it is a restriction on freedom of expression. Nor is it because it indicates prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is feeling vulnerable ahead of local elections next week – the microblogging site had been used to publicise supposed intercepted conversations implicating him in corruption.

Instead, it is seen as emblematic of the dramatic reversal of fortunes that Mr Erdogan has undergone in the last few years, from being an almost unassailable character who dominated Turkish politics to being seen as having steered the nation towards divisiveness and isolation.

By banning Turks communicating via Twitter’s 140-character messages, in a bid to stop the spread of what Mr Erdogan claims are “fake and fabricated” recordings designed to assassinate his character and those of his inner circle, Turkey has joined both China and Iran, who have previously made similar moves. Even worse for the government, tech-savvy Turks were able to get around the ban and the number of tweets sent within the nation actually increased after it came into effect.

Turkish president Abdullah Gul was among those who used Twitter to condemn the ban, reflecting his rift with the prime minister, with whom he had shaped Turkish politics for a decade. It also mirrors Mr Erdogan's estrangement from another ally, Fethullah Gulen, a US-based Turkish Islamic cleric with strong ties to the police and the judiciary.

This state of affairs would have been almost unimaginable only a few years ago, when Turkey’s burgeoning economy seemed likely to fulfil its potential to be a regional powerhouse benefiting from being at the intersection of Europe, Central Asia and Arabia. Others cited it as a shining example of a modern Islamic state.

Mr Erdogan was riding high in the polls and seemed to have mastered inclusive politics by appealing to his conservative rural base without alienating liberal urban Turks.

But a series of missteps since 2011 have seen him fall out with powerful allies like Israel and Egypt, clash with liberal Turks and erode hopes of joining the European Union. In this context, the Twitter ban reeks of autocratic rather than inclusive government.

The ban came a few days after his 11th anniversary of becoming prime minister. Mr Erdogan’s opponents will say that he has simply been in power too long.