Turkish turmoil

Print edition : August 19, 2016

July 22: President Erdogan (second from left) inspecting damage at the damage to the Grand National Assembly, which was bombed during the coup attempt on July 15. Photo: PRESIDENTIAL PRESS SERVICE/KAYHAN OZERAFP

Demonstrators march with national flags in Istanbul on July 24 to condemn the coup attempt. Several banners also protested the post-coup state of emergency, with one proclaiming "No to the coup, no to dictatorship" and another saying "Turkey is secular and will remain so". The rally was organised by the country's biggest opposition group, the secular and centre-left Republican People's Party, but was supported by Erdogan's AKP. Photo: OZAN KOSE/AFP

After crushing the rebellion, President Erdogan is effectively in control of the executive, the legislature and the judiciary, and many Turks know that his goal is to change the character of the republic, though he insists otherwise.

THE bloody attempt by sections of the Turkish armed forces to overthrow the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the third week of July now seems destined to change the course of Turkish politics for the foreseeable future. More than 250 people were killed before the rebellion was crushed. Dramatic scenes were witnessed in Istanbul and the capital, Ankara, with military jets, helicopters and tanks in operation. Most of the violence was concentrated in Ankara, where the parliament building was attacked and civilians were strafed. The coup was crushed within hours as it became obvious that much of the top brass in the army had refused to come on board.

The failure of the coup plotters to cut off key communication links allowed Erdogan to talk directly to the people using social network tools. Once the mass base of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) was mobilised in the big cities, it was game over for the military plotters. The call to resist the coup resounded from the minarets of all the mosques in Istanbul, Ankara and other major cities. The public and the police special forces played a decisive role in crushing the coup. The police special forces are known for their fierce loyalty to Erdogan. Soldiers and the alleged ring leaders who were captured were publicly humiliated.

The Turkish military had become a weakened force much before the attempted coup d’etat. Erdogan had started selectively purging the upper echelons of the armed forces after his AKP won a resounding majority in the 2007 elections. Before the elections, the military had managed to temporarily stall the elevation of Abdullah Gul, the ruling party’s candidate, to the presidency. The army high command had sent a memorandum, which only appeared online, spelling out its objections to Gul’s candidacy. In it, the army chiefs voiced their apprehensions about the course the AKP was taking on the hot-button issue of secularism. “The problem that emerged in the presidential election process is focussed on arguments over secularism. Turkish armed forces are concerned about the recent situation—and are a party to those arguments, and are absolute defenders of secularism,” the memorandum warned. This correspondent was in Turkey at the time, and AKP cadres were fearful of an impending military coup. The threat from the military was played up in the elections, helping Erdogan mobilise his base and further broaden his support among ordinary Turks, who had unsavoury experience in the periods when the military usurped power.

The army had appropriated for itself the role of the “guardian of Turkish democracy”. The first open military intervention in Turkish politics took place in 1960. The leadership of the armed forces was not happy with Prime Minister Adnan Menderes’ tinkering with the tough laws enshrining secularism. His government was overthrown and Menderes was sent to the gallows. In 1971, the Turkish military launched a “coup by memorandum”, dismissing the democratically elected government of Suleyman Demirel. From the 1970s onwards, left-wing groups, comprising mainly working-class activists, students and intellectuals, have borne the brunt of the military’s repression. Hundreds were executed; thousands more were tortured or simply made to disappear. The army intervened again in 1980. The main targets for repression were left-wing and Kurdish groups. The last successful military coup was in 1997 after the victory of the Islamist Welfare Party, the AKP’s predecessor. Before formally taking over, the army had forced Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan to backtrack on many of his policies relating to education reforms and international affairs.

Fethullah Gulen

After 2007, Erdogan along with his erstwhile allies, supporters of the Gulen movement (known as Hizmet in Turkish), became focussed on declawing the powerful armed forces. The Gulenists owe allegiance to Fethullah Gulen, the reclusive leader of the movement, who has been residing in the United States since 1999. The Gulenists had a big role in staving off a military coup in 2007. The armed forces were part of the so-called “deep state” apparatus within Turkey, which was operating with impunity until then. The army had the support of the “White Turks”, the Europeanised section of Turkish society that comprises around 10 per cent of the population. The staunchly secular but pro-Western elites were deeply ensconced in the upper tiers of the bureaucracy and the higher echelons of the judiciary.

With their wide network of support across Turkey, the Gulenists slowly but steadily gained access to the bureaucracy, the judiciary and the security services. Importantly, they started occupying vantage positions in the media, running one of the most widely circulated newspapers and the most viewed television channel.

Although the Americans had initially tried to investigate the circumstances under which Gulen was given a “green card” residency visa, he has since become the U.S.’ favourite “moderate” Islamic leader. A former high-ranking official of the Central Intelligence Agency facilitated his green card. Gulen belongs to the Sufi school of Islam. The Gulenists have been active in encouraging inter-faith dialogue, not only in the U.S. but also in other parts of the world. They are active in India too. They have set up an “Indialogue” foundation in Delhi. The movement has set up charter schools in the U.S. and other countries where the focus is more on science and less on Islam. Gulen fled from Turkey after the staunchly anti-Islamist security establishment accused him of trying to foment a military coup. Gulen had in a sermon urged his followers “who have positions in legislative and administrative bodies”, to “learn in detail and be vigilant all the time so that they can transform it and be more fruitful on behalf of Islam in order to create a nationwide restoration”. He was later acquitted of all charges but has preferred to stay on in the U.S.

The military, starting from 2008, was slowly but surely being brought under the control of the government. The higher judiciary and even sections of the military had come under the influence of the Gulenists. Two long-running trials, known in Turkey as the “Ergenekon” and “Sledgehammer” cases, sent hundreds of military officials, including some serving generals and admirals, to prison. It was later revealed that much of the evidence against them was fabricated. After the trials, it was presumed that the military was truly tamed. The civilian government carefully vetted top military appointments.

Erdogan and Gulen fell out only three years ago. The political split came out in the open after Gulen criticised Erdogan’s decision to send a humanitarian aid flotilla to the besieged Gaza Strip. Israeli forces commandeered a Turkish ship, which resulted in the death of nine Turkish citizens. Turkey recalled its ambassador from Israel, and relations between the two countries went downhill. Israel and Turkey only recently fully restored ties and are once again close strategic partners. The final straw that broke the relationship between the two strong-willed men was the anti-corruption raids Turkish police conducted on the residences of top officials close to Erdogan. The same officials who prosecuted the military brass were involved in the investigations.

Erdogan, whose authoritarian streak was getting more and more visible, decided to hit back at the Gulenists. He first targeted the media groups they controlled. The coup attempt could have been precipitated by the ongoing attempts to weed out alleged Gulenists from all top state institutions, including the army. There are reports that the coup plotters had come to know of an imminent large-scale purge of Gulenist sympathisers and staunch secularists in the armed forces. But even as the coup attempt was ongoing, the Gulenists issued a statement condemning the military putsch. At the same time, they did not shy away from condemning the “authoritarian and corrupt rule” of Erdogan.

The military top brass seemed to be fully behind Erdogan even after he entered his authoritarian phase around five years ago and started his misadventures in Syria and the neighbourhood. The army had stood aside and watched as thousands of jehadis from all over the world streamed into Turkey to cross into Syria. Turkey’s much-vaunted claim that it had “zero problems with neighbours” was in tatters. Turkey’s key role in fomenting the civil war in Syria has led to a refugee crisis that has reverberations in the European Union (E.U.). Relations with Russia deteriorated after the Turkish Air Force shot down a Russian fighter jet. In the last one year, Turkey has been rocked by a series of suicide bombings that have claimed hundreds of lives. The perpetrators of most of the attacks were members of the Daesh (Islamic State), which the Turkish security agencies initially allowed to operate at will.

Although the anger in Ankara is ostensibly against the “devious” Gulen, Turkish officials have been saying, even on the record, that they suspect an American hand behind the coup attempt. The coup attempt came shortly after Ankara had patched up with Moscow, which Erdogan even described as a “close friend and partner”. The Turkish Air Force pilots who shot down the Russian fighter plane have been arrested for being sympathisers of the Gulenist movement. Turkey’s Prime Minster Binali Yildirim even hinted that his country was not averse to a rapprochement with Syria. Four days before the attempted coup, Erdogan said that he would be soon making an announcement that “would end differences with Turkey’s neighbouring states”.

Turkey’s Labour Minister Suleyman Soylu told a television station that the United States was behind the coup. The government ordered the cessation of American military flights from the Incerlik military base. According to the Turkish authorities, the military masterminds of the coup were operating from the base, which has a large U.S. and NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) presence. When the coup was ongoing, the U.S. embassy described it as a “people’s uprising”. President Barack Obama had to personally step in and clarify that the U.S. had had no role to play in the planning of the coup. He said that any claims that the U.S. had prior knowledge of the coup attempt were “unequivocally false”. He reiterated that the U.S. remained “entirely supportive” of Turkish democracy. The U.S. had looked the other way when the democratically elected government of Mohamed Morsi was overthrown by the military in Egypt. A U.S.-supported military junta has been in power in Thailand for the last two years. The Obama administration has no problems with the authoritarian regimes it supports in Africa. Obama has however refused to heed his Turkish counterpart’s demand to hand over Gulen to face trial in Turkey. The evidence sent to the U.S. so far by the Turkish authorities has been deemed insufficient by the American authorities to extradite Gulen. “I told President Erdogan that they should present us with evidence that they say indicates the involvement of Gulen,” Obama told the media on July 22. The American President had taken his time to call Erdogan. Russian President Vladimir Putin called Erdogan even before the coup attempt was completely crushed to show his country’s solidarity with the legitimate government. There are reports that it was Russian intelligence that actually tipped the Turkish government off about the impending coup bid. Erdogan has been unhappy with the Americans for supporting the Kurdish bid for an autonomous territory along the border with Turkey. The Obama administration has been arming and training Syrian Kurdish forces, known as the YPG. The YPG is a sister organisation of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has been fighting for an independent Kurdish state.

Turkey has also signalled its unhappiness with the sharp American criticism of the draconian security steps the Turkish authorities took after the coup was crushed. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry went to the extent of saying that Turkey ran the risk of being suspended from NATO if the mass arrests and purges continued. “NATO also has a requirement with respect to democracy and NATO will indeed measure very carefully what is happening,” Kerry said. The E.U.’s top diplomat, Frederica Mogherini, urged Turkey, which is a candidate for membership in the E.U., to show restraint and preserve the rule of law. Reacting to the criticism, Erdogan said that European countries had no reason to complain about the measures being taken as some of them had invoked emergency powers themselves after the recent terror attacks.

In the aftermath of the coup attempt, Erdogan seems determined to settle scores with all opponents, regardless of their political affiliations. He moved swiftly to purge tens of thousands of civil servants. Erdogan said that “the uprising was a gift from God to us as this will be a reason to cleanse our army”. He has talked about restoring the death penalty. Six thousand members of the military, including one third of its generals and admirals, were immediately dismissed. Comparisons are already being made to the purges that took place in neighbouring Iran in 1979 after the overthrow of the Shah. All the deans of universities have been forced to resign. Thousands of teachers have been fired, and 626 private schools have been shut and are being investigated for “crimes against the constitutional order”. All university lecturers have been banned from travelling abroad until further notice. Among the 100 judges who were arrested were two from the Constitutional Court, the country’s highest court. Another 3,000 judges were dismissed; 30 Governors and 47 local Governors have been suspended. Twenty independent Turkish news sites have been closed. It was obvious that the Turkish security services had prepared a large dossier of people to be purged on short notice in the event of an emergency situation arising. Government officials have admitted that they had a long list of army officers and members of the senior judiciary who they suspected of being disloyal to the President.

‘State of emergency’

There is little doubt that the Turkish President is using the coup attempt to target all his ideological enemies, not just the Gulenists. A leading human rights lawyer, Orhan Kemal Cengiz, was placed in detention less than a week after the coup attempt. Many of the academics who have been sacked belong to secular opposition parties that have been urging a dialogue with the Kurds and had protested against the resumption of war against them. Not satisfied with the mass purges, Erdogan announced on July 19 that he was imposing a “state of emergency” in the country for a period of three months. In a television address to the nation, the President said that the step was taken to protect democracy and the rule of law. “The aim is to rapidly and effectively take all steps needed to eliminate the threat to democracy, the rule of law and the people’s rights and freedoms,” Erdogan said.

The Turkish President is insisting that his country will never deviate from the parliamentary path of democracy. But many Turks know that Erdogan’s goal is to change the character of the republic. He is now effectively in control of the executive, the legislature and the judiciary. Erdogan had once said that he wanted “to see the growth of a religious generation” that would replace the long rule of the secularists. The failed coup can help Erdogan realise his long-cherished dream of establishing a presidential style of government based on Islamic values.