After following the unfolding events of the attempted coup in Turkey, many couldn’t stop themselves from asking whether the “Arab Spring” chaos has reached the Eurasian country. There were terrorist attacks in the past, but nothing comparable to a direct attempt to change the rule in Turkey. Less than four hours later, news emerged that the coup has failed.
“Theatrical” is one way to describe the sequence of events. An army group declares a coup d’etat over Turkey after taking control over few key positions, including the Bosphorus bridge and two TV stations. Erdogan supporters and other Turkish people take to the streets to protest the relatively small number of rebellious army soldiers. Victorious Erdogan returns to Istanbul and the coup is put to rest.
The coup attempt seems to have taken a page from 1960s and 1970s coup d’etats: A group within the army interrupts communication, marches onto the key spaces of power in the country, kills or arrests the ruler, and finishes with a statement on national TV – usually the only TV station around – announcing the success of the coup. Even by these standards the plotters failed to capture any key spaces that would cripple their rival’s capability to take back control of the situation.
This begs the questions: Was this coup ever going to succeed? Were the plotters naive and foolish, or were they manipulated and given false promises by alleged supporters? While answers to these questions will probably never be answered, and will become juicy material for conspiracy theories, the outcomes of these short-lived but pivotal events may provide some possible answers.
The Sultan’s New Clothes
The “Marmara” incident back in 2010, where many Turkish people were killed on board a vessel delivering aids to Gaza, has considerably contributed to bolstering Erdogan’s popularity in the Arab and Muslim world. In terms of sectarian politics that are easy to understand by Western pundits, Erdogan became the most popular Sunni leader, in a time where there was a real crisis of leadership in the Arab world. Soon, he became “Wali el Amr”, a term used in Islam by some to describe the ruler as the guardian who cannot be contested. This incident marked the ascendance of Erdogan’s star in the MENA region, after Turkey had been focusing on Europe before.
Preceding this incident, Erdogan has been working relentlessly to consolidate his power in Turkey. His neoliberal economic policies saw sweeping privatization of key public sectors that resulted in refreshing the Turkish economy in the short run and gaining him the loyalty of capitalists.
He benefited from the vast social services network of Fethullah Gulen to gain popularity amongst the poor. The same Gulen that Erdogan have accused of plotting the coup. Since 2013, Gulen has been self-exiled in the United States after accusations of corruption and terrorism. The terrorist designation extended to his followers but they have not been persecuted yet; though that may change soon. Erdogan is silencing the voice of dissent within and outside of his circles. He is cracking down on free speech, Journalists are being persecuted, social media is surveilled, critical twitteratis are jailed, and media outlets are being shut down.
Politically speaking, Erdogan and his political party, the Justice and Development Party (AKP), redrew the electoral system map to favor his party’s candidates in the election. After serving the maximum number of terms possible for a Prime Minister, he started the “Putinization” of Turkish politics. As Putin had done in Russia, Erdogan has transformed the parliamentary system into a presidential one. The recent ousting of PM Ahmet Davotuglu, Erdogan’s long trusted foreign minister and successor on the helm of the executive power, is only one of the sacrifices that Erdogan is willing to make to achieve total control.
Outcomes of the coup
In the midst of this successful takeover strategy, only the Gulen movement and the military seem to be the major barriers to his version of an Islamist and neoliberal Turkey. Gulen has been partly taken care of, and with the latest accusation against his movement, his followers will be directly targeted and weakened inside Turkey. Moreover, this will put pressure on the United States to extradite Gulen.
As he did with the security forces and the intelligence, Erdogan is trying to coerce the army to submit to his will. The army is the last bastion of secularism and a pillar of Kemalist legacy that is highly regarded by the majority of the Turkish people. More so, it is the only institution that has enough power to forcefully change the rule. Erdogan has always kept an eye on the army to thwart their ever present threat. A day after the coup attempt, he vowed “to clean the military”; mass arrests have taken place with top figures in the military and judicial arrested.
Hypothetically speaking, even if it managed to bring Erdogan down, the attempted coup never had the means to succeed . It would have lacked legitimacy since it has deposed an elected government. Even with Erdogan’s cult of personality politics that is eroding democracy and seems to be moving closely to an an autocratic rule with a Sultan on the helm, military rule would be a regression for Turkey. Politics in the Middle East and North Africa region have suffered from the interference of military in politics, resulting in the instability seen today. The brave souls that took to the streets yesterday to protect democracy, not Erdogan, are the hope that is left for Turkey.
The ill-fortuned group that took part in this failed coup have inadvertently given Erdogan more reasons to weaken his opposition and restructure the army – an institution which, until yesterday, enjoyed a sacred status in Turkish society that shielded it from political meddling. By provoking strong reactions from the Turkish people, the coup intended to depose of Erdogan and his government has, in effect, stripped the army of its popularity-based powers. As such, one question begs to be answered: Will the new status-quo cement Erdogan’s plans for an uncontested presidency, or will it lead to more instability and political division in Turkey?