July 24, 2016

Turkey’s Failed Coup

Vijay Prashad

THE ‘failed’ coup of July 15-16 in Turkey is now over. Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has consolidated power – becoming even more powerful than before. He has ordered the arrest not only of over six thousand military and judicial figures, whom he has blamed for the coup but also thousands of teachers and professors as well as journalists who have been in the sights of the ruling party. Rumors abound: who is responsible for the coup? Erdoğan persists with the view that the culprit is the US-based Islamic scholar Fetullah Gülen. He wants him to be extradited to Turkey. Fingers are pointed toward the United States, which is not keen to let Gülen go. Erdoğan wants to retrieve the death penalty to execute the soldiers. Tension remains over Turkey.


Erdoğan, who has long attempted to create pliable State institutions, said that the coup was a ‘gift from God to us because this will be a reason to cleanse our army’. The government arrested more than six thousand people from the military and from other State institutions. Saying that the Gülen movement had become a ‘cancer virus’ on society, Erdoğan pledged to purge its membership from positions of authority. The ultimate arbiter of who is or is not in the Gülen movement will be left to Erdoğan’s own loyalists, who are likely to remove those who have long resisted Erdoğan’s own bid to monopolise power. Erdoğan deliberately linked the Gülen movement to the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK), which the Turkish army has attacked in its bases in southeastern Turkey and in Iraq. To call both the Gülen movement and the PKK ‘terrorists’ is a convenient way to sweep up all Erdoğan’s enemies into one target and use the coup – a ‘gift from god’ – as the opportunity to go after them with vehemence.


Was the coup a plot by the followers of Gülen? So far Gülen has denied responsibility for the coup, saying that a military coup cannot develop democracy. Nonetheless, Gülen also said that he does not know who his followers are within Turkey, and that some of them might very well have – of their own volition – been involved in the uprising. Gülen, who runs a vast empire of educational and spiritual institutions inside and outside Turkey, was once a close ally of Erdoğan. They fell out when the president began to centralise power around himself and began to feel, as a consequence, that any other power center was a threat. Paranoia plays a significant role in the worldview of Erdoğan. Gülen’s own participation is not of the essence. What will be useful is that this coup will allow Erdoğan to flush out some of Gülen’s followers and remove them from places of authority in the military and the judiciary.


A senior military officer in Turkey told me that over the past half century the Turkish military has been increasingly isolated from society. It has built parallel institutions and believes in values – partly republican – that are at some remove from the Islamic piety and suffocation of Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP). It is likely, this officer said, that some military leaders felt that their putsch might inspire others to join in against Erdoğan’s centralisation of power. The amateur attempt to seize power suggests either that these soldiers had no idea what they were doing – and so had been set-up – or that their officers believed that the propaganda of the deed would bring society and the rest of the military on their side. Nothing like this happened. Smatterings of soldiers on the Fatih Sultan Mehmet and Bosphorus bridges in Istanbul do not make much of an impression on the public. This was nothing like the 1980 military coup in Turkey, nor like the covert coup of 1993 or the post-modern coup of 1997. Only Erdoğan has gained from it.


When Erdoğan came to power in 2003, he worried about the power of the Turkish military. It had conducted hard coups in the past, and it had perhaps assassinated a president in 1993 and removed an Islamist coalition government in 1997. Erdoğan’s AKP came from the Islamist tradition and was vulnerable before a military that had imbibed modern Turkish secularism. To earn immunity from coups, Erdoğan put his party’s Islamism on mute, threw himself into providing for his Anatolian businessmen base and attempted to join the European Union as a full member – an affiliation that disallows military coups. In addition, Erdoğan placed loyal Islamists into positions of authority in the military. Some of these men were also followers of Gülen. When Erdoğan says that Gülen is responsible for the coup, he knows well the role the two of them played together to line the military with their kind of modern Islamist. Turkey’s military had increased its authority through the war on the Kurds, which Erdoğan tried to bring to an end with a peace negotiation with the PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan. These steps disarmed the military for the first decade of Erdoğan’s leadership of the country, first as Prime Minister and then as President.


But everything unraveled with Turkey’s Syria policy. Erdoğan’s aggressive push against the government of Bashar al-Assad in Syria pushed Turkey into a crisis. As a Kurdish leader told me a few years ago, Turkey began to resemble Pakistan, with Syria being the current Afghanistan. Extremists came across the Turkish-Syrian border, which became porous for arms and men to create mayhem in Syria and to enliven extremist cells inside Turkey. The war on the Kurds was reopened, since the Syrian Kurds on the border had begun to make gains towards a Syrian version of their homeland. This was intolerable to Erdoğan and to Ankara in general. Disgruntlement grew in the military due to the futile war on the Kurds and for the AKP’s duplicitous policies toward the Islamic State. Erdoğan’s attempt to suffocate institutions of Turkish democracy for his own presidential ambitions took their toll. Turkish society became greatly polarised, with Erdoğan’s supporters more arrogant about his gains and with his opponents bemoaning the lack of democratic space.


Not one Turkish political party backed the coup. Everyone opposed it, including the Republicans and the Left. The People’s Democratic Party (HDP), which is the party of the Kurds and the Left, said that it is ‘against all kinds of coups. There is no way but democracy’. Turkish society should take comfort that there is little political appetite for a coup. Nonetheless, there is a great deal of concern at the use of the coup by Erdoğan to push his agenda. The imams from the mosques, through the night of July 15, called upon their supporters to take to the squares. At the funeral service for those killed during the coup, Erdoğan reiterated the call for people to occupy public spaces across Turkey. Violence against political opponents of Erdoğan and the AKP have picked up in Turkey. It has meant little that the opposition has been united. A generous president would have built national unity around that. Erdoğan’s is a narrower game. He has used the polarity to his advantage. The coup failed this time. But it is not the end of violence. Turkey remains at the edge of the precipice.