When a Microsoft font exposed the Turkish President Erdogan and Pakistan's PM Mian Nawaz Sharif

Microsoft released the Calibri font to the general public in 2007. But two leaders produced certificates in the same font dating back to 1984 and 2006 respectively

When a Microsoft font exposed the Turkish President Erdogan and Pakistan's PM Mian Nawaz Sharif

Abhijit Shankar

When William Henry Gates III founded Microsoft in 1975, he could not have foreseen that the font used in its document processing software would one day end up rattling democratically elected governments. Far-fetched as it may seem, a particular Microsoft font has been instrumental in calling out despots attempting time-travel using Microsoft’s famous software, Word.

Microsoft had Times New Roman as the default font for decades, before switching to Calibri while launching their new operating system in 2007. A majority of its users remained oblivious to the change though.

Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s unchallenged President, has come a long way since being imprisoned for reciting rebellious poetry on the streets of Istanbul. This ancient city would eventually elect him its Mayor. While he was jailed, whiling away his days watching television, his supporters went to the extent of committing small crimes, merely to give him company in jail.

During one of my visits to Turkey as a UN official, I caught up with an old friend from a US Graduate school. He was now the head of security for Turkey’s then Prime Minister, Tayyip Erdogan. I was his responsibility within the borders of Turkey, he had quipped. I asked rhetorically, “What can you do for me in Turkey?” He coldly replied, “Anything.” The solitary word stayed with me for a very long time.

Erdogan and his men were indeed capable of anything. Any opposition is often met with large scale imprisonment or detention of public intellectuals, writers, and activists. A joke going around in diplomatic circles went like this: Where in Turkey do you go to get your book published? The answer was you went to the jails because that’s where you would find the editors, the publishers and the writers alike.

The one thing for which his opponents are not jailed for, however, is talking about his ‘fake degree’. During Erdogan’s ascent to the Presidency from being its Prime Minister for 11 years, the country’s constitution required him to have a four-year college degree. This was a requirement he had probably not foreseen and produced a college degree he claimed to have earned from the University of Marmara.

There was one problem. He had graduated from Aksaray High School in 1981, which had gone on to merge with University of Marmara in 1983 and become a four-year college. The University of Marmara was founded in 1982. It did not come as a surprise that the University certified that the new President had been its student and that he had earned a four-year degree. But there was just one more issue – the font used in the degree certificate was Calibri, which was released by Microsoft for its consumers in 2007.

Approximately 4,600 kilometres from Ankara, a scandal broke out in Islamabad over the Panama Papers in April 2016. Pakistan’s Prime Minister Mian Muhammad Nawaz Sharif got dragged into the scandal. By then, he had been the longest serving Prime Minister of Pakistan, having served the country for three non-consecutive terms for a total of nine years.

The Panama Papers seemed to suggest that the Prime Minister’s two adult children had used flats in London as collateral to secure large scale loans from Deutsche Bank in 2008. These flats were owned by two British Virgin Island companies, one of which Nescoll listed Sharif ’s daughter, Maryam Safdar, as its only shareholder.

Maryam Safdar produced papers certifying that she was not a shareholder but merely a trustee in the firm, thus attempting to disassociate from the offshore companies.

The problem? The certificate she claimed was issued in February 2006 had used the Calibri font. The controversy eventually led to the dismissal of the Nawaz Sharif government in 2017 – courtesy its Supreme Court. He is currently disqualified from contesting elections.

The confluence of power and an inflated sense of self-worth can wreak havoc over a large population, if not checked in time. The good days that Adolf Hitler had promised to Germans, or the change that Benito Mussolini had vowed to bring about, is not very different from what modern heads of states sometimes lead us to believe in the 21st century.

A quote by Hagel comes to mind: “History teaches us that man learns nothing from history.”

Calibri has had a wonderful run and has unwittingly stirred the hornet’s nest, has scared despots, and claimed at least one scalp. But it seems likely that its term as Microsoft’s default font is ending as well. In May 2021, the company announced that it will soon be replacing Calibri with another font as the default on the world’s most popular word processor.

(The author worked for the United Nations in New York and served as UNICEF’s Chief of Communications.)

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