Turkey's hard-headed prime minister bans YouTube, as a divided country votes on his increasingly paranoid rule.

ISTANBUL, Turkey — "They have leaked something on YouTube today," Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan told a campaign rally on March 27. "It is a vile, cowardly, immoral act. We will go after them in their lairs."

Erdogan was worked up over a leaked recording purporting to feature top diplomatic, intelligence, and military officials discussing possible ways to justify military intervention in Syria. The timing of the leak appears designed to act as a final blow to the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) before Turks head to the polls on Sunday for nationwide local elections.

The Turkish government's response revealed how accustomed it has become to treating those who don't support it as enemies: It blocked access to YouTube the same day the leak appeared, less than a week after blocking Twitter -- two social media outlets where news of the leak had been disseminated widely. The government admitted that the conversation happened, but insisted, vaguely, that parts were distorted. Foreign Minister Ahmed Davutoglu described the leak as a "clear declaration of war."

This weekend, Turkey will elect mayors and city council members -- but the results will be interpreted as a referendum on Erdogan, who has been prime minister since 2002. These elections are occurring after 10 months of tumult and confusion, during which the country has seemed to subvert its reputation as a functioning democracy and regional leader.

In May, environmentalists occupied Istanbul's Gezi Park to save it from demolition and sparked the largest anti-government protests since the AKP took power. In December, prosecutors ordered the arrest of high-profile businessmen and sons of cabinet ministers in a sweeping corruption investigation, as a war between Erdogan and his former ally, the Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen, erupted into plain sight. Erdogan deemed the Gulenists a "parallel state" plotting a coup.

The Gulenists appear to have struck back with leaks of phone conversations that purport to show corruption at the highest ranks of the Turkish government. In one particularly explosive leak, Erdogan allegedly commands his son to dispose of millions of dollars hidden in relatives' homes. The prime minister retaliated: In broad, authoritarian strokes, the government passed laws granting itself sweeping power over the Internet and the judiciary, allowing it to control both the spread of the leaks and the prosecution's case.

Erdogan's rhetoric has also grown increasingly severe and polarizing. In mid-March, the prime minister called 15-year-old Berkin Elvan, who died after being hit on the head with a tear gas canister during a protest nine months earlier, a "terrorist" in front of a crowd of supporters, who reportedly booed the dead teenager. Even the Turkish Medical Association, the country's trade union for doctors, was swept up in the political debate: The association released a statement that read: "We are worried about the emotional state of Prime Minister Erdogan!"

"In my whole lifetime I've never seen an election day in Turkey with a society this divided," Murat Somer, a political scientist at Istanbul's Koc University, told me. "It's almost like two worlds. It's surreal, what's happening."

The election results will be parsed closely for any signs that Erdogan's decade-long dominance of Turkish politics is cracking. The AKP received 38 percent of the vote in the 2009 local elections, and officials have adopted that number as their goal for Sunday. It's modest compared to the 50 percent they received in 2011 parliamentary elections, but practical. Erdogan, though, tends to rely heavily on election results to justify his actions in office: During the Gezi Park protests, he criticized the protesters, telling his followers to "Be patient, and let's face off at the ballot box." More recently, he said that if the AKP does not come first on Sunday, he will "quit politics."

Polls show the AKP ahead in Istanbul, the election's biggest prize, though some surveys show their closest rival, the Republican People's Party (CHP), closing the gap. The fate of Ankara is less clear, and the CHP appears clearly ahead in Izmir, Turkey's third largest city.

Erdogan has been campaigning vigorously, identifying and punishing supposed enemies of Turkey, such as Gulen. At a recent rally, the premier's normally commanding voice was so strained that it broke into a high-pitched whine, earning him the nickname "helium man" among his detractors.

"[Erdogan] needs to maintain his image as the asset who makes AKP success possible," Somer said. "If he loses some votes -- even a small percent or a major city -- that will be a signal to people in the party that he is a liability."

In addition to securing control over his own party, a show of strength in the elections will signify the defeat of the Gulen Movement's challenge to his authority. The network, known alternately as the hizmet ("service") or cemaat ("community"), is said to number some 5 million worldwide, and is rooted in Gulen's religious teachings. Its influence, though, extends into the government, police, and judiciary. Erdogan and the Gulenists worked together to tame the Turkish military and build tolerance for religion within Turkish institutions, but began to part ways in 2011 when Erdogan reportedly grew unhappy with the group's power.

The split has harmed both sides, destroying the sense that they were the uncontested rulers of Turkish politics.

"A year ago most people assumed that the AKP was invincible, and that the Gulenists within the judiciary could come after [the opposition] with impunity," Hakan Altinay, a fellow at the Brookings Institution told me earlier this year. "It seems that the Gulenists were not as untouchable as we thought a year ago."

Sunday's vote won't fix the damage from this infighting -- but it will determine what form future damage will take. "If the election results come out in favor of the government, then Erdogan will most likely use even heavier handed tactics and Turkey's standing will sink lower," said Mehmet Ali Tugtan, an assistant professor of international relations at Bilgi University. "But if the opposition gains ground, again Turkey's options will decrease because the [AKP government] will look weak and lose credibility."

If the elections hope to restore some faith in the foundation of Turkey's democracy, they must go smoothly -- but even here, the atmosphere is thick with anxiety. "I trust the electorate, even if after all this they say we are sticking with Erdogan," said H. Akin Unver, a fellow at Istanbul's Kadir Has University. "I trust democracy ... but I have major concerns about how free and fair the elections will be. The stakes are so high."

OZAN KOSE/AFP/Getty Images


Egypt's Bloody Purge Is Just Beginning

As hundreds of young men are sentenced to death for the killing of one policeman, the state is gearing up to crush its Islamist enemies.

CAIRO — Egyptian Judge Saeed Youssef Mohamed presided over the mass trial of 683 people on charges of murder, incitement to violence, and sabotage on March 25 -- including Muslim Brotherhood Supreme Guide Mohamed Badie -- in the southern Egyptian city of Minya. The defense lawyers in the case boycotted the proceedings, but Mohamed demanded that the case go forward anyway.

It's not hard to see why the defendants might not like their chances. On March 24, Mohamed handed down one of the world's largest death penalty verdicts ever, ruling that 529 supporters of ousted President Mohamed Morsi would face the gallows for killing a police officer and attacking a police station last summer.

None of the accused or their lawyers was present on March 24, when Mohamed issued his sentence. The presiding judge in this Upper Egyptian court issued his damning ruling after a trial that lasted just two sessions. The verdict has not only dealt another blow to Egypt's reputation abroad, but it has shown how far some elements of the state are prepared to go in crushing supporters of the former Islamist government. It is impossible to know whether Mohamed was acting alone or on orders from the central government.

The defendants, many of whom are members of the banned Muslim Brotherhood, were accused of jointly murdering Mostafa El-Attar, deputy police commander of the southern town of Matay. The killing occurred on Aug. 14 in the aftermath of the forced dispersals of two pro-Morsi sit-ins in Cairo that left hundreds dead.

The 545 people in the mass trial were also charged with attempting to murder two security officers, participating in an illegal rally, and vandalizing public and private property. Only 16 defendants were acquitted.

The news of the mass death sentence sent shock waves across the world. Human Rights Watch referred to the ruling as a "sham," while Amnesty International's Middle East deputy director, Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, said it was "the largest single batch of simultaneous death sentences we've seen in recent years."

Not everyone, however, condemned the ruling. Several figures within pro-government Egyptian media celebrated the expanding crackdown on Morsi supporters. "I salute the fairness and justice of our judiciary in defiance of those killers and all those who attack it," said Ahmed Moussa, the presenter of a show on a private Egyptian satellite channel. "May they be 10,000 [sentenced to death], 20,000, not 500. We are not sad; we are happy."

The extraordinary hearings, which began on March 22, were in shambles from the beginning. During the first hearing, 147 defendants were crammed into a courtroom cage that had been specially modified to fit the enormous number of people on trial.

Judge Mohamed yelled at the defense lawyers, accusing them of being disruptive and "discussing politics," reported Reuters. The defense teams, meanwhile, furiously argued with him in an unsuccessful attempt to get the judge changed.

"We simply couldn't prepare the court case in time. The case file is 4,000 pages long," said Ahmed Shabeeb, one of the defendants' lawyers. "The court didn't even listen to our request for more time. We couldn't defend them," he said. 

The hearing lasted just 45 minutes, during which key witnesses were barred from giving their testimonies. The judge then adjourned the session and demanded that the lawyers submit a written defense. "He didn't even look at the evidence," Shabeeb said.

Two days later, Mohamed forbade the lawyers from attending the final hearing and issued the verdict to a courtroom of police officers.

The verdict, however, doesn't necessarily mean that Egypt will actually execute the 529 defendants. The case will next head to the Court of Cassation, which examines whether the legal process of criminal court cases followed the letter of the law. In this case, the procedural errors were so blatant that it is unlikely that the verdict will be upheld, said Karim Ennarah, a criminal researcher at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights.

But even if the sentence is not carried out, the verdict has propelled Egypt back into international headlines for all the wrong reasons -- and has wrecked some tentative signs of improvement in the country's human rights environment. Prominent secular activist Alaa Abdel-Fattah, who has been in jail since December and is on trial for allegedly organizing an illegal protest and assaulting a police officer, was finally released on bail on March 23. Meanwhile, interim President Adly Mansour personally wrote letters to jailed Al Jazeera correspondents Peter Greste and Mohamed Fahmy promising them a free and speedy trial.

This ruling, however, is a sign that some elements within the Egyptian state still favor a drastic escalation of violence against Morsi supporters. Doing so might come at the cost of the rule of law: After the trial's March 22 opening session, Tarek Fouda, head of the lawyer's syndicate in Minya, said that the presiding judge had "veered away from all legal norms and that he breached the rights of the defense."

Fouda promised to submit a report on what had occurred to Egypt's justice minister. The Justice Ministry was unavailable for comment on the case.

"I think it's safe to say all 529 people were not involved in collectively killing one police officer. That would be an unprecedented feat of group work," said Ennarah. He said March 24's ruling was part of an "alarming" six-month trend of Egyptian courts giving "reckless and brutal rulings to intimidate and terrorize opposition protesters."

The families of those sentenced, meanwhile, have been thoroughly disillusioned about the state of the judicial process. For them, this is solely a political attack on supporters of the former Islamist government.

"We don't even consider it a verdict. At first we were surprised by the huge numbers on trial; now we just think it's nonsense," said Mohamed Hafez, whose two brothers, Hossam, 30, and Mostafa, 31, both businessmen, were sentenced to death on March 24.

Hafez told Foreign Policy that the investigation actually uncovered proof that his siblings are not in the Muslim Brotherhood -- but they were sentenced to death anyway. "Maybe they're trying to terrify people to stop going to demonstrations or oppose the regime," he said.

The verdict comes just a few months before Egyptians are supposed to vote for a new president -- a critical step in the military-authored "road map to democracy." But as Egypt's newest 529 occupants of death row can attest, the country remains a long way from the stability and rule of law that Morsi's ouster was supposed to usher in.

"This is the largest death penalty in Egypt to the best of my knowledge," Mohamed Zaree, program manager at the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, concluded. "This is not a verdict; it is a massacre."

Photo: AFP/Getty Images