One of the only (relatively) stable countries in the Middle East was briefly plunged into chaos late last week as a small faction of the Turkish military attempted a coup against Turkish president Erdogan. At first, the coup seemed to be going well for the rebels. Strategic locations were simultaneously captured in the capital Ankara and the largest city Istanbul by both ground and air forces. With Erdogan nowhere to be found (except via a FaceTime call on a cell phone), the takeover of Turkey's military seemed nearly complete. Yet things quickly unraveled as it became clear that only a faction of the military (and not the entire force) was attempting to revolt. With large numbers of civilians taking to the streets in support of the current government, Erdogan was quickly able to reassert his hold over the country. To many, a military coup may seem a little outdated and unexpected in 2016, but Turkey has a long history of military interventions. This week, we'll provide some context for Turkey's current political crisis.
The often strained relationship between the military and government in Turkey can be traced to the founding of modern Turkey by Mustafa Kemal (also called Ataturk). A distinguished military and political leader, Kemal quickly rose to prominence during the First World War and Turkey's independence struggle shortly thereafter. Kemal's vision for a modern Turkey was to make it as "western" and secular as possible. After the ruling Ottoman dynasty was overthrown in the early 1920s, Kemal quickly rose to become the undisputed leader of Turkey and moved swiftly to enact his vision for a modern, independent Turkish nation. Part of this vision was the traditions of secularism (no state religion), republicanism (must have democracy), and constitutionalism (rule of law, not rule of the individual). His reforms included exiling the Ottoman monarchs, abolishing the title of Caliph (previously held by the Sultan), and changing the Turkish language from the Arabic to the Latin script. To uphold his newly created secular state, Kemal entrusted the military with the task of ensuring Turkey's politicians never stray too far from the Kemalist path.
And so, as the perceived guardians of Kemal's vision for Turkey, the military has performed several coups since the 1920s. The military succeeded in either overthrowing or drastically reforming the government in 1960, 1971, 1980, and 1997. In most of these cases, some form of democracy was reinstated within a few years and the coups were relatively bloodless. They also tended to have the general support of the population as people looked to the military to provide some stability throughout the country. This time around, nearly half of the country strongly supports Erdogan and (despite his authoritarian emphasis) the country appears to be stronger economically than before his time.
So why attempt to overthrow Erdogan? Well, he has served as Prime Minister and later as President for longer than any other leader since Turkey's founding. He has always been known for attempting to consolidate power, turning the once ceremonial office of president into an increasingly authoritarian office. To make matters worse, he has spent years slowly eroding the power of the military by placing more power in the hands of the police and intelligence forces while also putting his own loyalists in top military positions. Erdogan has been accused of many human and civil rights abuses including censorship of the media and the imprisonment of journalists critical of his policies. Finally, his increasingly Islamic rhetoric has heightened fears that he is turning towards a more Islamically oriented Turkey. So with all of that in mind, it isn't too surprising in hindsight that some elements of the military would believe that Erdogan was throwing out Kemal's vision of a secular, republican Turkey.
But the coup has clearly failed. There are several reasons for this, but the main one appears to be that the military was not united in its support for overthrowing the government. Erdogan supporters also took to the streets in large numbers to support their president, while media outlets (despite Erdogan's abuses against free press) helped Erdogan spread his message and reassert his control. Conspiracy theories abound that Erdogan planned this coup or knew about it in advance, but so far the evidence of this is not substantial. Regardless, the reality of a failed coup nearly always spells trouble for the democratic process.
What's next for Turkey? We are already seeing the all-too-familiar aftermath of failed political coups taking place. Nearly 7,000 judges have been suspended, thousands of soldiers arrested, and a widespread purge of any potential dissent against Erdogan is underway. The re-introduction of the death penalty is also being considered, while further degradation of democratic freedoms and human rights is becoming increasingly likely. In short, this was exactly what Erdogan needed to finish his consolidation of power and potentially silence any lingering speculation of a military coup once and (potentially) for all. To be fair to Erdogan, he was democratically elected in the first place and still enjoys the support of about half the country due to his success in turning around Turkey's economy (among other things). Despite his democratic failings, he has proven to be a successful leader who has kept Turkey relatively afloat during very uncertain times. The only silver lining here is that a military coup would also have been disastrously destabilizing for Turkey, the Middle East, and even Europe. And in a time when most other countries in the Middle East are barely limping along, there is a lot to be said about that.