This article was originally published here on Politico.com on Tuesday, February 3, 2015.
Last month, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan did something so outrageous he went viral. On January 12, Erdogan was photographed at the bottom of a grand staircase in his new mega-palace with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Behind them were 16 men wearing military garb celebrating pre-Ottoman Turkic and Ottoman-era warriors. From the picture it was unclear whether Abbas looked so painfully uncomfortable because he was meeting one of the leading patrons of his archrival Hamas or because of the awkward pageant unfolding around him that suggested he was standing next to the natural successor to the Ottoman sultans.
Social media went into high snark over the photo, with hundreds of tweets and retweets referencing everything from the movie Night at the Museum to the ultimate geek game, Dungeons & Dragons. Like the photos of Kim Kardashian’s derriere, the Erdogan-royal-guard picture continues to ricochet around the Internet. Everyone seems to be having a good laugh at the Turkish president’s expense, but in fact the picture reveals much about the disturbingly authoritarian trajectory of Turkish politics.
Tayyip Erdogan is not Saddam Hussein or Bashar Assad, but he has become the sun around which all Turkish politics revolve. He has even cultivated a cult of personality. During the big nationwide rallies in the summer of 2013 called to counter the Gezi Park protests, many of his supporters came in Erdogan masks, T-shirts and scarves. For 40 Turkish liras—about $16—demonstrators could purchase a carpet with Erdogan’s profile woven in.
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