First of all I want to say thank you. As the world’s attention last night was riveted on my back yard, an overwhelming number of you contacted me through the River Walk, facebook, messenger, whatsap, hangouts, and the like to let me know your thoughts and prayers are with me and with my beloved home, Turkey. I cannot tell you how much that means and how grateful I am for it.
Secondly, many of you know I am never one to give in to a good conspiracy theory. I am sure there will be plenty of those popping up over the next few days. I am also sure most of them will contain the typical whacky elements of insanity that make the genre such fun fiction reading. But this time around don’t dismiss them out of hand. This time I am not so sure. From everything I have seen and read here one of three things happened last night: 1) A bunch of upper mid level army personnel with delusions of grandeur tried an insane attempt to overthrow the current government and restore democracy. 2) There was a bigger and more comprehensive plot but key players either purposefully betrayed the coup or jumped ship early thus hanging the active players out to dry. 3) This was never a true coup but rather a ploy to bolster Erdogan’s tarnished global image and faltering local popularity. Even in the most likely event that this is not the case, the outcome of this failed coup could not have played out better for Erdogan. While most of the theories will likely spin some variation of 2 and 3 both would be practically impossible to prove. For now, I withhold judgment.
Now for the brass tax…
On Friday night a group within the military launched a coup aimed at toppling President Recep Erdogan’s government. A rival and US based Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen has quickly been blamed as the early scapegoat even though he himself publically condemned the coup attempt long before the outcome was certain.
Whoever the mastermind might have been, the coup leaders on the ground, who at the time claimed toan a speak for the entire Turkish Armed forces, said they had launched this coup with the intention of protecting democracy. In their public statement they said, “Turkish Armed Forces have completely taken over the administration of the country to reinstate constitutional order, human rights, and freedom.”
At first glance, this statement sounds insane. How can an armed hostile takeover of a democratically elected government claim to be restoring democracy? For one thing, the currently elected government has only a thin veneer of being democratically elected. (For more on that read Today I Weep For Turkey) For another, this claim makes a lot more sense in a Turkish context than it would for Western ears. The Turkish Republic as we know it today came to existence through the rise to power of a military dictator named Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. He famously claimed to be creating a government “for the people in spite of the people” and created a unique mix of democracy, nationalism, and secularism that we today call Kemalism. For all its faults, I personally think Kemalism is probably the closest any government in a Muslim culture can come to true democracy.
For the past ninety some odd years, the army has traditionally been the staunchest supporter of Kemalism one could find. Since 1960, it has overthrown the government four times. Each time, they staved off chaos and Islamic influence, restored order, and then turned the country back to its unique form of democracy. Since his rise to power, Turkey’s current leader has become an ever increasing threat to both democracy and secularism. He leads the AKP, a supposedly moderate party with strong Islamist leanings. Under his control, the AKP has “reformed” the schools towards a more Islamist program, they have cracked down (and at times completely taken over) on the press jailing or disappearing anyone with enough courage to voice a dissenting opinion, and they have pushed for constitutional changes that would put a dangerous amount of power into Erdogan’s hands. (For some examples of what I am talking about read Academics For Peace Initiative and A Firsthand Look)
As Turkey has been sliding down this slope at an ever increasing pace, the military has held its peace. Many in recent months have claimed this was evidence that Erdogan had cowed them into submission. This attempted coup demonstrates that, at least for some within the army, this is not true.
At this point it is quite obvious that the coup has failed even though there are some holdouts still resisting the inevitable. According to political theorists, for a coup to succeed its leaders need to convince other members of the military that its success is inevitable. Right from the start, this coup failed to do so. Almost immediately, reports on the ground suggested that large portions of the military remained with Erdogan.
Its biggest failure, however, was contained within their opening message. They told the people Marshall law had been enacted and to stay home. While this fits in line with Ataturk’s philosophy of “for the people in spite of the people”, it fails to take into account our changing times. Erdogan did not make that mistake and as soon as he was able to do so, he made an appeal to the people to take to the streets. People wanted to do something and they went with the guy who would let them do just that. Ultimately, last night, the people won. Democracy won. Far more than any military or police actions, it was the average ordinary citizens taking to the streets that won the day. When rebel elements took over CNN Turk, it was people like you and me who came in right behind them and took it back.
The biggest irony of the night is that the stated aims of this coup to restore democracy, and the unstated aims of the people to preserve democracy could both end up doing exactly the opposite. Right now Erdogan has come out of this smelling like roses. There is a very real danger that he will now have the ability to leverage his newfound popularity into ramming through those constitutional changes that will give him the power he has for so long been aiming for. We can only hope that if he does try to do so that democracy… the people will speak again.