Shahid M Amin
A SECTION of the Turkish armed forces attempted to seize power on the night of July 15, 2016 but the coup attempt failed within hours. Turkey has had a history of military coup d’etats, four of which actually succeeded, resulting in years of direct or indirect military rule in that country. The first military coup in 1960 led to ouster and execution of Prime Minister Adnan Menderes. Power was again seized by the military in 1971 and 1980. Another military intervention took place when Necmettin Erbekan, leader of Welfare Party, won the election in 1995 and became Prime Minister. His Islamist policies led to a tussle with the military which eventually forced him to resign in 1997 and his party was outlawed.
Recep Tayyib Erdogan was a member of Welfare Party and served as Mayor of Istanbul from 1994 to 1998, when he was removed from office and banned for his Islamist policies. He later abandoned the more openly Islamist politics and established the moderate conservative AKP (Justice and Development Party) in 2001 which swept the 2002 general elections. Erdogan became Prime Minister in 2003 after the constitutional disqualification against him was ended. He led his party to victory in the general elections in 2007 and 2011. He has remained in power for 13 years. During this period, the Turkish economy has done well. Between 2002 to 2012, the cash flow into the Turkish economy caused a growth of 64% in real GDP and a 43% increase in GDP per capita. The Turkish armed forces have long seen themselves as protector of the secular constitution imposed in the country by Ataturk, the revered founder of modern Turkey, after the collapse of the former Ottoman Empire in 1923.
However, since coming to power in 2003, Erdogan has used his popularity to whittle down the role of the military in Turkish politics. In 2012, a military conspiracy to seize power was unearthed and Erdogan took timely action to foil it. The latest coup is possibly the last desperate attempt by sections in the military to reassert its assumed role in protecting the secular constitution. In a statement, the coup leaders had announced that they had seized power with “the aim of reinstalling the constitutional order, democracy, human rights and freedoms”. The failure of the coup suggests that Erdogan has clearly reversed pattern of military takeovers, mainly because he enjoys a wide measure of public support.
The latest coup attempt shows that there are two major issues polarizing Turkey. One is the military domination versus civilian democratic rule, while the other is the issue of secularism versus Islamic ascendancy. There is no doubt that Erdogan has been seeking, in small steps, to reassert the Muslim identity of Turkey. His wife wears Hijab as do many of his party followers. He has espoused Muslim causes around the world, e.g. Palestine, more than his predecessors. His Islamism is quite moderate when judged by standards of the region, but has caused alarm to secularists in the Turkish establishment and opposition political parties, apart from military officers who regard it as their duty to uphold Ataturk’s legacy.
As more details about the abortive coup become known, it is evident that it was poorly planned and poorly executed. Firstly, the armed forces were deeply split. The army chief General Hulusi Akar, top generals and the naval chief did not support the coup. Secondly, the plotters were not able to seize the President and the Prime Minister and their respective offices. Thirdly, while the state TV was captured by the plotters, many private TV channels continued to broadcast and Erdogan and his allies used them to the maximum to carry across their message. Fourthly, the opposition parties were also opposed to a military takeover and made a common cause with the ruling party. Lastly and most importantly, the coup plotters failed to gauge the public mood and the wide popularity of Erdogan. On his call, the masses came out in the streets, surrounded the tanks and forced the surrender of the mutineers. Announcements from the mosques also helped mobilize the people, asking them to protest against coup attempt.
The Erdogan government has accused a prominent Islamist leader Fethullah Gulen, who has been living in exile in USA since 1999, as being the main plotter. Gulen was at one time an ally of Erdogan but later split. He has a large religiously-oriented following in Turkey, including some in the bureaucracy. A former Imam and a writer, Gulen is the founder of a movement “Hizmet” standing for the Arabic word “khidmat”. His movement has been described as “a moderate, pro-West brand of Sunni Islam” that appeals to many well-educated and professional Turks. NGOs founded by Hizmet operate hundreds of schools, free tutoring centres, hospitals, and relief agencies credited with addressing many of Turkey’s social problems. It also has a network of schools in more than a hundred countries.
Gulen has strongly denied any involvement in the coup attempt which he condemned. But Erdogan has long blamed Gulen of plotting against him and accused him of running a “parallel state”. Erdogan has demanded that the US government should hand over Gulen to Turkey for his alleged involvement in coup attempt. President Obama had publicly supported Erdogan after coup got going but some of Turkey’s leaders have accused US of being involved in coup attempt. This has been hotly denied by US spokesmen, and a major row could develop on this issue between Erdogan and Washington. European and other countries also expressed support for Erdogan in resisting the military takeover but are now expressing concern against harsh persecution of coup supporters and others.
In the aftermath of the aborted coup, thousands of arrests have been made in Turkey in the armed forces and the judiciary, among others. It seems that Erdogan will carry out a big purge in the government. He has clearly tamed the military but his critics argue that his success could lead to assumption of dictatorial powers which he has been seeking. The abortive coup attempt has given the Erdogan regime legitimacy to accelerate the effort to convert Turkey from a parliamentary into a presidential regime and granting more power to Erdogan.
— The writer served as Pakistan’s Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, the ex-Soviet Union, France, Nigeria and Libya.