Coups are nothing new for the armed forces of the Republic of Turkey. Mustafa Kemal Pasha, later known as Ataturk, joined with other officers to found the country through a coup in the 1920s. Ataturk set the pattern of a militantly secular and nationalist authoritarian ruler, a benign dictator whose slogan was “Peace at Home, Peace in the World.”
Down to the 1990s, the officer corps of the Turkish army repeatedly defended this position, by coups, beginning in 1960, when it deemed it necessary.
Then came Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the popular and congenial mayor of Istanbul from 1994 to 1998. Far from being a secularist, Erdogan opened the way for a return to public religiosity. When his popularity and piety vaulted him to Prime Minister in 2003, a military move to unseat him in the name of secularism seemed like just a matter of time.
But despite questionable evidence of a coup plot that landed many top officers in jail, no coup attempt materialized until now. Why?
Six factors converged over the recent month to finally trigger a coup:
First, Erdogan initially made good progress toward gaining Turkish membership in the European Union. The military, who also wanted to be part of Europe, realized that a coup would have torpedoed EU accession. So they held off.
Over the last year, however, the prospects of EU accession have dimmed. Greece was already opposed, but things like the Brexit vote, which was fueled in part by warnings of potential Turkish EU immigrants, made abundantly apparent a broad-based popular hostility to a Muslim state as part of Europe.
Second, Erdogan made good initial progress in negotiating with Turkey’s Kurds, who had long been denied recognition as an ethnic minority entitled to respect. Violence diminished, and a Kurdish political party found representation in parliament.
However, the material success of the quasi-autonomous Kurdish state in Iraq encouraged the revival of a militant separatist movement. Fighting resumed and Turkish army attacks extended into Syria, where Kurds were an effective force against both President Assad and ISIS. Over the past year, separatists have been accused of terrorist bombings in Turkey, and Erdogan has threatened Kurdish parliament members with prosecution as traitors.
Third, Fethullah Gulen went from being a friend and supporter of Erdogan to being denounced as a terrorist leader. A Sunni religious leader with a worldwide program ostensibly based on modern education and non-involvement in politics, Gulen has innumerable followers in Turkey, particularly in the business community.
Apparently in response to accusations in Gulen-owned media that Erdogan’s family was financially corrupt, over the past year Erdogan has anathematized the Hizmet, as the group is called in Turkey. The government has seized their media assets, including the country’s largest newspaper. The Hizmet has been labeled a terrorist movement undermining the state, and many Gulen followers in the police and judiciary have been replaced by Erdogan loyalists.
Fourth, the rise of ISIS has brought criticism of Turkey for having a porous southern border across which recruits from around the world have reached Syria, and Syrian refugees have reached Turkey and moved on to an unwelcoming Europe. Though Erdogan granted the American air force permission to launch missions against ISIS from the giant Incirlik airbase, the Turkish army has refrained from joining the anti-ISIS campaign.
Fifth, when Erdogan moved from being Prime Minister in 2014, he decided that that ceremonial post should be turned into something like the American presidency. He lobbied for a change in the constitution to grant him the additional powers, but he did not have a parliamentary majority.
Sixth, Erdogan’s personal trajectory over the past three years has suggested a Putinesque lust for absolute power. In Istanbul in 2013, his plan to transform popular Gezi Park in the heart of Istanbul into a development project with Islamist overtones provoked a massive popular mobilization. It seemed to many Turks to be a step too far on a path toward sultan-like authoritarianism. A giant presidential residence and grandiose mosque projects furthered a fear of presidential megalomania.
Why the officers who started Friday’s coup took the decision when they did will not be known for a while. But despite Erdogan’s vote-getting against dramatically weak opponents, the officers surely saw that a growing number of citizens—Kurds, Hizmet loyalists, secular Gezi Park demonstrators, people frightened by terrorist bombings, and soldiers who do not understand their leader’s Syria policy—thought that their president was becoming unglued. It was time to act. Perhaps it was too late.
Richard W. Bulliet is professor emeritus of history at Columbia University.
Copyright ©2016 Richard Bulliet — distributed by Agence Global
Released: 16 July 2016
Word Count: 746
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