The Sultan Wins for Now
By Nayyer Ali MD
In an absolutely stunning development, senior leadership and rank and file Turkish military attempted a coup that would have ended the rule of the AKP after more than a decade in power. The modern Turkish state was created by the victorious general Kemal Ataturk, who defeated an attempt to dismember Turkey after the First World War by outside powers. Since then, the Turkish army has played a major role in Turkish politics, seizing power in coups in 1962, 1980, and again in 1997. It has been the bastion of secular Turkish nationalism that was the basis of the state Ataturk created.
But Turkey was still a Muslim country, in fact its population is over 98% Muslim. In previous decades, religious political parties were essentially outlawed and banned by the military and the Turkish state. But a religious party won the elections in 1997, only to have itself turned out of office and banned by the military.
Out of the ashes of previous Islamist movements, Reccep Erdogan, who rose to prominence as the mayor of Istanbul, led his Islamist party, the AKP, to victory in 2002, just one year after it was founded. The AKP rejects the label “Islamist” and defines itself as a conservative democratic party. But in Turkish politics it clearly sides with those who would like Islam to have a greater role in public life, and its strongest opponents have been the staunch secularists in the military and government.
Erdogan in his first 10 years was wildly successful. He pursued a pro-market economic policy that worked wonders for Turkey, raising millions out of poverty and creating a massive Turkish middle class. He opened negotiations to join the EU, and he kept Turkey out of the Iraq War. In order to become eligible to join the EU, Erdogan enacted a number of liberalizing reforms.
Because he was so successful at running the country, his popularity shielded him from those in the military who wanted to get rid of the AKP. Erdogan even arrested and convicted a number of generals for allegedly plotting to overthrow the government. That he was able to get away with that showed that civilian dominance over the military in Turkey had finally been achieved, even if the evidence against many of those convicted was considered flimsy by outside observers.
Which is why this pathetic coup attempt came as such a shock. Most observers were certain that Turkey’s army would never again attempt a coup. And in fact, it was not the senior generals behind this move. A group within the army was able to plot and plan without being detected. The problem was that without the full support of the military command system, the coup operation turned into a farce. A commando group failed to grab Erdogan and hold him at the outset, allowing him to fly back to Istanbul and rally the people. The coup-makers did not seize full control of the media and internet. Without that, Erdogan was able to declare the coup a failure from the start. There was not enough military force to control Ankara and Istanbul.
But most importantly, the coup-makers did not consider how much Turkey itself had changed. Turkey was now a democracy, and the people themselves were not going to allow the army to just seize power. Massive demonstrations brought about the swift collapse of the coup as the soldiers were not prepared to shoot into crowds.
So who was behind this coup? That is still the puzzle. About 100 of Turkey’s 300 generals have been arrested, and several thousand others in the army and judiciary and government have been sacked or arrested. Erdogan blames the follower of a Turkish preacher named Fethullah Gulen, who lives in exile in Pennsylvania, but has a vast network of supporters in Turkey. Gulen espouses a tolerant moderate strain of Islam, and for many years was a major supporter of Erdogan and the AKP. But the two fell out a few years ago, and now Erdogan blames this coup attempt as the last gasp of Gulen’s followers. Gulen himself denies all these charges and states his support for democracy.
Erdogan has won a great political victory. But what will he do with it? Does he realize it was the liberals that came out to defend democracy against the army? That it was the free press that allowed him to get his message out to the people? In the last few years, despite winning elections, Erdogan has taken the AKP in an authoritarian direction. He has been muzzling the press, and wants to amend the constitution to allow himself even greater power as President. Does Erdogan see himself as merely the elected leader of a democratic Turkey, or is he a latter-day Ottoman Sultan, ruling without question his empire?