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Gift from God | The World Weekly

In the early hours of July 16, the future of Turkey and the wider region hung in the balance. Despite harbouring an internal conflict with Kurdish separatists and suffering a spate of recent terror attacks, Turkey has proved an oasis of stability for the five years since the upheavals of the Arab Spring, housing 2.7 million Syrian refugees and, for the past 12 months, providing a launchpad for the international coalition against Islamic State. Yet as soldiers commandeered state media outlets, fired at civilians and bombarded the Grand National Assembly in Ankara, the country suddenly teetered on the brink of civil war.

By dawn that fate had been averted. The coup was close to collapsing under the weight of popular resistance and its own ineptitude. Embers of armed opposition would flicker throughout the weekend but Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the divisive but titanic president whom the rebels planned to oust, had wrested back control. Public spaces that had resembled war zones overnight morphed into carnivals as people from across the political spectrum celebrated what they considered a victory for democracy.

“There was a crowd of hundreds if not thousands of people still there,” wrote Selim Koru, a think-tank analyst in Ankara who made his way to Parliament a few hours after sunrise. “Vans were dropping off bottles of water and Turkish flags. Having won the night’s battle, many were resting under the shades of the trees across the street from the police headquarters.”

For all the subsequent jubilation, this was a dark night in Turkey’s modern history. According to Prime Minister Binali Yildirim 232 people died – 208 civilians and loyalist police, along with 24 rebels – and over 1,400 others were wounded. Videos on social media showed tanks bulldozing civilians and supporters of the president brutally lynching soldiers in retribution. On Sunday Mr. Erdogan wept uncontrollably at the funeral of Erol Olçak, a longtime friend and ally, and his 16-year-old son, who were shot dead by soldiers as they protested the seizure of Istanbul’s Bosphorus Bridge.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan weeps at the funeral of Erol Olcak and his 16-year-old son in Istanbul on July 17

The reverberations will be felt for years to come. Mr. Erdogan launched an immediate purge of state institutions and granted himself unprecedented powers, raising fears of an accelerated crackdown on civil liberties and straining relations with Western allies that see Ankara as a vital partner in tackling the refugee crisis and resolving the conflict in Syria. Almost a century after Mustafa Kemal Ataturk dismantled the Ottoman state, the failed coup and its aftermath may sound the death knell for liberal, secular democracy.

Back by popular demand

Despite their swift capitulation, the plotters came a whisker away from unseating one of the world’s most powerful leaders. Mr. Erdogan twice slipped through the net, first in the coastal resort of Marmaris, where soldiers attacked his hotel a few hours after he cut short his holiday to return to Istanbul, and second in the air when rebel pilots declined to fire at his plane, for reasons which remain unclear. (For conspiracy theorists, this proved that the president himself was the mastermind.)

A tank guards Istanbul's police headquarters after the May 1960 coup, which overthrew Adnan Menderes

A successful coup could have been disastrous. “Although it is impossible to say, we suspect... there would have been a high probability that hundreds of thousands of Erdogan supporters would have taken to the streets of Istanbul and Ankara, potentially prompting the ‘new regime’ to crack down violently,” Yoel Sano, head of global political and security risk at BMI Research, wrote in a client note. "If Turkey’s military had split along the lines of pro- and anti-Erdogan factions, then civil war would have become a real possibility.”

Turkey is no stranger to coups, the military having deposed four separate governments, with varying degrees of violence, since World War II. Invoking the spirit of Ataturk, the 2016 crop of insurrectionists forced TRT state television to read a statement claiming they had taken over “the administration of the country, to reinstate constitutional order, human rights and freedoms, the rule of law and the general security that was damaged”.

Mr. Erdogan is a bitterly divisive figure: to his detractors an authoritarian Islamist who has undermined the secular republic; to his supporters a pious, powerful leader who ushered in a period of unprecedented economic growth. Yet Turks of all stripes rejected the military’s pitch. The tide turned at around half past midnight when the president addressed the nation through a smartphone held aloft by a presenter on CNN Turk, urging people to rally against the rebels.

New media met old as the message was amplified on Twitter and Facebook and by imams using the call to prayer to mobilise supporters. Thousands of people poured onto the streets, lying in front of tanks and confronting soldiers.

Erdogan supporters clamber onto a tank after soldiers surrender Istanbul’s Bosphorus Bridge on July 16

“These groups came out against the coup when it wasn’t clear which way it was going to go,” wrote Sinan Ülgen of Carnegie Europe, a think-tank. “It is the emergence of this strong solidarity against the military intervention that constituted the most effective bulwark against the aspirations of the military plotters. The strong will for collective action also transformed the perception of the coup, which therefore cannot be seen in the simplistic framework of a secularist military bringing down an Islamist government.”

In a rare show of unity, all the main opposition parties joined Mr. Erdogan’s Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) in condemning the revolt, as did most of the military top brass.

‘Gift from God’

Ironically, the rebels may have precipitated a much faster erosion of democracy than was already underway. On Wednesday night Mr. Erdogan declared a three-month state of emergency, allowing his cabinet to pass laws without consulting the National Assembly and to suspend rights and freedoms. "The aim… is to be able to take fast and effective steps against this threat against democracy, the rule of law and rights and freedoms of our citizens," he said, warning that a crackdown that had already seen 60,000 soldiers, police, judges, civil servants, teachers and academics suspended, detained or placed under investigation would continue. Two top judges whose decisions had previously irked the president were among those rounded up.

“The coup attempt clearly strengthens Erdogan's position. He is making a concerted attempt to consolidate this superior position and institutionalise AKP dominance,” Nathaniel Handy, an academic and Turkey analyst, told The World Weekly. “His one danger at this stage is over-reaching himself. In his desire to firm up his control of the state, he may go so far that he alienates too many important elements within society.”

The government claims to be rooting out supporters of Fethullah Gülen, a charismatic, moderate cleric who lives in self-imposed exile in the US and leads an extensive international Islamic movement known as Hizmet. Once close partners in bringing the military to heel, Mr. Gülen and Mr. Erdogan’s relationship descended into acrimony in 2013; the president has since accused Mr. Gülen of running a “parallel state” and terrorist organisation inside the military and judiciary. “They will pay a heavy price for this,” he said before the coup was even over. “This uprising is a gift from God to us because this will be a reason to cleanse our army.”

A majority of Turks appear to agree that Mr. Gülen conspired to bring down the presidency, despite protestations to the contrary. Many welcomed the purge – even those who have not traditionally supported the AKP. Yet outside observers have questioned whether the frail, reclusive cleric pulled the strings from rural Pennsylvania, although they acknowledge that the broader movement has penetrated deep into the Turkish state and that Gülenists were involved in the plot.

“In all of the years that I have been working on Turkey, have been a student of Turkey, I had long heard and learned that the Gülenists had, in fact, placed their activists throughout the bureaucracy, particularly in the Ministry of Interior, in the police services, in the prosecution’s office, in the judiciary, in the intelligence services, but I had never been told or never discovered that there were Gülenists within the military establishment,” said Steven Cook, an expert on Turkey at the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations. “In fact, the military establishment is an arch enemy of Gülen.”

Former air force commander Akin Ozturk (C) is pictured in custody in Ankara along with other suspects. Several look bruised

Mr. Handy said it was “highly unlikely that Gülen himself was directly involved, since this would not only be unnecessary but also potentially costly to him personally in the event of failure”, though he noted that “getting a clear sense of who knew what, and when, will be extremely hard in the current climate of retribution”. He added that “it is disingenuous of Erdogan to now be targeting it as a ‘parallel state’ when it was precisely this network that helped him and the AKP gain political power”.

Press, academic and political freedoms have all been squeezed since 2014, when Mr. Erdogan was elected president after 11 years as prime minister and set about transforming the ceremonial role into the true seat of power. In March this year the authorities seized Zaman, a Gülen-linked newspaper critical of the government; opposition politicians fear recent legislation stripping lawmakers of parliamentary immunity targets left-wing, pro-Kurdish members of Parliament. 

For Dr. Marina Prentoulis, a left-wing activist and political scientist at the University of East Anglia, all roads now lead to a bloody dictatorship. “The future of the Turkish democracy is very bleak,” she told TWW before the state of emergency was announced. “The attempted coup will be used by Erdogan to establish his authoritarian rule and to crack down on his opponents. In the past few years Erdogan has shown no respect of human rights, freedom of speech and democracy.”

Global tremors

Mr. Erdogan’s authoritarian tendencies have unnerved Western allies in recent years, so it was significant that they swiftly lined up to support him on the night of July 15. But the subsequent crackdown has confirmed suspicions that the president is intent on becoming a strongman. “The post-coup plot purge will… strain Turkey’s relations with the US and EU, at a very sensitive time. Turkey will be seen as a less and less reliable ally,” Mr. Sano of BMI told TWW.

The US bridled at Labour Minister Süleyman Soylu’s accusation that it was behind the plot, and tensions will crank up a notch if it refuses to hand over Mr. Gülen. Turkey has given Washington four dossiers outlining evidence of his involvement, though it remains unclear whether it has filed a formal extradition request.

The EU called “for the full observance of Turkey’s constitutional order”, underlining “the need to respect democracy, human rights and fundamental freedoms and the right of everyone to a fair trial”. Johannes Hahn, the commissioner responsible for EU enlargement, went so far as to suggest that the purge was planned in advance. “The lists are available, which indicates it was prepared and to be used at a certain stage. I’m very concerned. It is exactly what we feared.” Turkish officials denied a witch hunt.

Four Saudi jets land at Turkey's Incirlik airbase, used by the coalition against IS, on February 26

Brussels was particularly perturbed by Mr. Erdogan’s suggestion, following a rally at which supporters bayed for blood, that the death penalty could be reinstated. A spokesperson for the German chancellery said a return to capital punishment, dropped in 2004 as part of Ankara’s bid to join the EU, would effectively end membership talks. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights was similarly alarmed, saying it would “be in breach of Turkey's obligations under international human rights law – a big step in the wrong direction”.

These tensions have the potential to destabilise the wider region. Turkey wields NATO’s second most formidable army and plays a crucial role in the international fight against IS in neighbouring Syria and Iraq; if recriminations with the US spiral, this coalition could be neutered. Meanwhile, the post-coup crackdown imperils the controversial agreement that helped reduce migration into the EU from a flood to a trickle. If the deal disintegrates, a crisis that sparked visceral disputes within the bloc last year may rear its head once again.

Continental drift

Turkey’s size, heft and position straddling Europe and Asia have long made it a vital country geopolitically. It acted as a buffer between the West and the Soviet Union during the Cold War and now serves as a bulwark against chaos in the Middle East. But Mr. Sano thinks this partnership may be entering its dying days. “Turkey under Erdogan has gradually been shifting away from its traditional alignment with the West, which was solidified during the Cold War. This drift could now accelerate.”

A man reacts in pain to tear gas during the Gezi Park protests in Istanbul in July 2013

Domestically, too, the attempted coup marks a critical juncture. Soner Cagaptay opens his 2014 book ‘The Rise of Turkey’ by recalling the mass protests of May and June 2013, when millions of Turks took part in a wave of demonstrations after activists were violently evicted from Gezi Park. “Mainstream Istanbul may not have subscribed to the politics of these bohemian environmentalists, but they were prepared to passionately defend the rights of these individuals to free expression, even if it meant standing up to tear gas and water cannons,” he wrote. “More than anything else, this points to the rise of Turkey as a middle-class society with democracy at its core.”

Two years on, Mr. Cagaptay thinks the liberal, secular principles undergirding the Turkish republic may soon succumb to political Islam. “Turkey is at a pivotal point in its history following the failed coup attempt,” he wrote in the Wall Street Journal. “President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, having survived the coup plot, won fresh legitimacy and gained a new ally: religious fervour in the streets. Mr. Erdogan can use this impetus either to become an executive-style president, or he can encourage the forces of religion to take over the country, crowning himself as an Islamic leader.”

“This is Turkey’s Iran 1979 moment – will a brewing Islamic revolution overwhelm the forces of secularism?”

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