Turkey’s “Anti-Modern” Coup Fiasco


Two decades ago, a Turkish admiral coined the iconic term “post-modern coup” to describe what, to date, remains Turkey’s most recent successful military coup. Back then, in 1997, the military echelons escalated an ongoing political crisis, which culminated at a National Security Council meeting where the generals presented a list of ‘recommendations’ for the government to comply with. Failure to do so would have triggered a full-fledged military intervention against the executive, the document warned.

As the executive eventually caved in, the coup earned the label of “post-modern” due to the fact that, among other things, the military obtained their objectives without resorting to tanks rolling through the streets or any other coercive tool traditionally associated with military coups, and that they had been carrying out preparatory propaganda and lobby-like activities for months before taking action.

Ten years later, in 2007, another political crisis was unfolding in Turkey. The AKP’s leadership was by then committed to put one of the party founders, Abdullah Gul, up for the Presidential seat; the secular opposition, and the military along with it, considered this both a threat to the secular nature of the State (due to Gul’s background), and to the Presidential role as a whole (as, traditionally, Presidents were strongly aligned with Kemalist views).

Once again at the peak of the crisis, the Turkish military played the “post-modern” card and published what became known as the “e-memorandum”: the General Staff website displayed a document warning politicians about the need to respect the secular nature of the Republic, and stressed the military’s determination in defending it. In the meantime, a number of associations ran by retired military officers lined up with secularist organisations and joined the rallies and other forms of political activism that were taking place across the country.

In contrast to the events of 1997 and 2007, the failed military coup attempt witnessed on Friday the 15th of July had nothing “post-modern” about it. In fact, as events were unfolding, it became progressively clearer that it was a 20th century action in the midst of the 21st century, an “anti-modern” coup attempt, carried out via “anti-modern” means, and based on an “anti-modern” understanding of Turkey’s leadership, its society, and the role of its military.

Erdogan’s Leadership

The attempted coup is “anti-modern” because it failed to understand how pervasive and widespread Erdogan’s reach is. It has taken place in a deeply divided society, and in a political spectrum overwhelmingly dominated by the AKP. Over the past few years, President Erdogan’s leadership has demonstrated in several instances its authoritarian tendencies and his determination to centralise power into his own hands. Under Erdogan’s watch, even the coup aftermath has turned into an opportunity to weed out those who are not aligned with him. While 3,000 members of the armed forces have been swiftly arrested on coup plotting allegations, about the same number of civilian judges (including two Constitutional Court judges) have been put behind bars in the span of 24 hours, under the same (albeit, in this case, much thinner) allegations; as of the 18th of July, 30 provincial governors and more than 600 Gendarmerie officers were also suspended by the Minister of Interior.

The political opposition is so weak that Erdogan perceives his main political challenge actually comes from outside Turkey’s borders. His attention is focused on Pennsylvania, where Fetullah Gulen, a cleric (and former ally of President Erdogan) leading a vast network of Turkish followers, is in voluntary exile since 1999. After their informal alliance led the AKP to eradicate secularist and ultra-secularist figures from institutions and security organisations alike, the two sides are now against one another, to the point that AKP officials refer to the network as the ‘Gulenist Terrorist Organisation’ (or FETO). Since the early stages of Friday’s coup attempt, Erdogan has been adamant in pointing at Gulen and his organisation as the culprit of the turmoil – accusations that Gulen has swiftly dismissed.

Turkey’s Society

Coup plotters also failed to take into account how widespread President Erdogan’s own network is. This goes well beyond the AKP as a party, and includes smaller organisations which possess a broad spectrum of capabilities. As soon as Erdogan managed to appear on national television before trying to reach Istanbul, his supporters mobilised. Several mosques were calling for people to leave their houses and join the fight against coup plotters on the streets, shortly after Istanbul’s Ataturk airport was ‘liberated’, so that Erdogan’s jet could land.

But more importantly, the failed coup attempt was “anti-modern” because it failed to understand how unpalatable such type of action is to today’s Turkish society. While the live television feed of tanks in the streets, TV transmissions being interrupted, journalists reading putschist statements at gunpoint brought minds to the year 1980, when a military coup brought to power general Kenan Evren’s junta, today’s Turkey is no longer the Turkey of the late-1970s. This coup was also “anti-modern” because it advanced an old solution to the old, wicked problem of a “tyranny of the majority”, which all democracies have been grappling with to different degrees, and which Turkey seems to be stuck with under Erdogan.

Political parties (together with large sections of the armed forces) swiftly condemned the coup attempt, as did Turkey’s society at large. While discontent against Erdogan’s rule is widespread and deeply rooted outside of AKP circles, Turkish civil society has been trying long and hard to claim the power to make decisions for itself, rather than seeing them imposed top-down by patronising state institutions – including the military, which has traditionally been seen as the most reputable and respectable institution in Turkey. The Gezi park protests of 2013 embodied this spirit, which coup plotters are guilty of failing to understand and respect.

The Turkish Military

Last but not least, the attempted coup is “anti-modern” because it tarnishes the reputation of the Turkish military as a whole, regardless of the condemnations expressed by the vast majority of the armed forces, and because the action will further set back Turkish civil-military relations, making them even more prone to politicisation.

If seeing an attack helicopter opening fire against the Parliament, which hosted several MPs, is an iconic all-time low in Turkish civil-military relations, especially so for a group of officers whose stated goal is to “reinstate constitutional order, human rights and freedoms, the rule of law and general security”, the shockwaves of this coup attempt will be strong.

In about two weeks, Turkey’s Supreme Military Council (YAS) will hold its annual meeting to decide on the promotion, retirement, and expulsions of military officers from all of Turkey’s services. As civilians (i.e., the Executive President Erdogan) gained the upper hand in the process over the past few years, the decision-making process still remains highly political indeed.

In 2011, the Chief of General Staff and the Commanders of Land, Naval, and Air Forces resigned to protest against Erdogan’s meddling with the military both in the promotion process and the management of the Ergenekon and Balyoz cases, which had put scores of officers behind bars.

Since then, Erdogan seamlessly managed to promote those senior officers who shared his views or who would offer their acquiescence to his decisions, while overlooking, retiring or expelling those who might have created nuisances.

The failed coup attempt, in sum, offers Erdogan a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to politically purge the military, a move that will have dire consequences both for Turkish civil-military relations and for the Turkish military’s ability to function effectively – another fundamental reason why this can be labelled as an “anti-modern” coup attempt.

The fact that Erdogan will exploit the situation to further crack down on opposition, the separation of powers, and broader Turkish institutions, makes the plotter’s actions a textbook case of an “anti-modern coup”.

Follow Dr Francesco F. Milan’s work on his website and on Twitter

Image: Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in South Korea. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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