Amidst the tumult causing disorder and despair the world over during the past month—think Orlando, Brexit, Baghdad, Dallas, Nice—last week’s events in Turkey were marked another tragedy for the global community. The aftermath of a failed military coup to depose the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan saw 256 deaths in clashes between civilians supporting the country’s leader and opposing factions of the military.
The news of the coup was an utter surprise for many lay observers and experts alike. Despite an ongoing crisis of refugees migrating across the Syrian border and difficulties with the Kurds, Turkey has remained an important strategic ally to the West and a bastion of stability in an otherwise volatile region. Indeed, the country did not appear to meet most of the structural preconditions that have been observed in other nations where similar uprisings have taken place.
That said, the coup was not entirely unexpected. In an opinion piece for Newsweek published in March, Michael Rubin, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, intimated the possibility of such an event occurring due to economic factors such as uncontrolled private debt, a shrinking tourism industry, and a declining Turkish Lira.
More importantly, however, the coup was also not unprecedented. In fact, there is a long history of such military intervention in Turkey; four others have been carried out since the country’s founding in 1920, the most recent occurring in 1997. In February of that year, leaders of the country’s armed forces issued an incisive chastisement against the increasingly Islamist government of then prime minister Necmettin Erbakan and his Refah, or Welfare Party. There were initially no signs that the military’s missive would lead to a dismissal of the Erbakan administration. Nevertheless, by June 18 of the same year, the prime minister stepped down under duress from the armed forces. This bloodless ousting was later distinctively typified as “postmodern.”
Turkey’s coups cannot be rightfully understood without knowledge of the military and its role in the country. As many media reports have noted in recent days, the Turkish army sees itself as a custodian of secularism, an ideology central to the vision of the country’s forefather, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, and enshrined in the country’s constitution. Past coups that the military has conducted, then, can be seen, at least for proponents of secularism, as “corrective.” Whether justifiably or not, by taking power in its own hands for a period of time, the military has sought to reign in Islamism when it has begun to impinge on the values of the country’s founding.
It would seem that the Turkish military’s attempted coup this past Friday was, at least in intention, rather congruent with this well-established paradigm. President Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, the AKP, is the latest in a long line of Islamist parties to hold power in Turkey. Many of the AKP’s predecessors have been either unseated by the military or outlawed by the constitutional court. However, Turkey’s current government has been designated by some as a model for democratic politics elsewhere in the Muslim world. Indeed, the party’s guiding platform affirms its commitment to fundamental rights and freedoms which, in its own words, “constitute the foundation of democracy.”
Erdogan himself has publicly affirmed his commitment to secularism, but in reality his presidency has signaled a marked shift in the country’s politics. The success of the AKP in recent elections appears to have stemmed from the shift in political power away from Turkey’s secular elites to the more religious majority of the country to which the president is largely responsible. Many analysts and secular Turks themselves have observed the country’s mounting Islamization, spurred in large part by government initiatives such as the introduction of religious education in public schools and tougher laws on alcohol consumption. So too has Erdogan personally engaged in the struggle against secularism, whether by supporting the criminalization of adultery or seeking to defund theater productions.
Directly parallel to this phenomenon has been a well-documented “steady march to authoritarianism” in the country, as Erdogan has suppressed protesters, jailed journalists, and sought to amend the constitution to expand his powers as president and bolster his ongoing fight against the Kurdish Workers Party.
The military likely found fault with both these trends and decided to act. Its failure to successfully topple Erdogan’s rule, however, may have even more disastrous consequences than if it had simply continued to stand by.
Some analysts suggested that in the wake of last Friday’s events, President Erdogan would continue making strides towards total consolidation of power at an increasingly alacritous pace. While still too early to determine how events will play out in the long term, it does appear that the Erdogan administration will use the attempted coup towards its advantage. By Sunday, the Erdogan’s administration had cracked down brutally on those involved, detaining some 6,000 soldiers, judges, and prosecutors. That number rose to a grand total of 60,000 by Wednesday, including many police officers, generals, admirals, and governors as well. Later Sunday, Erdogan flexed his regained control over the state security apparatus by declaring a state of emergency in Istanbul and deploying fighter jets to patrol the country’s airspace. He also hinted at his intention to reinstate the death penalty despite the fact that the practice has been banned since 2004. Wednesday night, the president declared a three-month state of emergency “to take the most efficient steps in order to remove this threat,” that is, the threat of mutinous factions in his military, “as soon as possible.” Even during the Friday maelstrom itself, Erdogan made a scapegoat of his one-time ally and exiled leader of the Hizmet movement, Fethullah Gulen, as the instigator of the insurrection.
What is abundantly clear is that the era of the “corrective” coup has ended. Turks now face a tough choice: will they seek some other form of intervention to return to a more secular, democratic past, or will they stand by as their country continues to march on its path of democratic backsliding?