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Turkish Game Changer

Viewpoints, August 2016
Prof. Uzi Rabi

Rabi

Between 1960 and 1997, the Turkish armed forces intervened in national politics – whether by outright force or the threat of force – a total of at least four times. Each intervention was justified by the military’s self-defined mandate as the guardian of founding father Kemal Ataturk’s legacy of secularism and of the Turkish constitution.

The most recent coup attempt, which began during the evening of July 15, represented a fundamental break from past patterns. The armed forces, or a segment within them, were revealed to be acting against the constitution – and indeed against the will of the overwhelming majority of the Turkish people.

The failure of the coup can be attributed to a number of factors. While there have been some rumors suggesting the possibility that this was some sort of “false-flag” operation organized by strongman President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, this is extremely unlikely.  Instead, the fortunes of the coup rose and ultimately fell because of the bungling incompetence of its perpetrators, who seemed to have forgotten the lessons of the 20th century, and who never learned the lessons of the 21st.

First, the coupists counted on the support of the Turkish people, which was emphatically not forthcoming. Organizations, parties, and individuals from across the political spectrum – including the opposition Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) party – resolutely opposed the move, as did Erdogan’s remaining critics in the Turkish press, such as the daily Hurriyet newspaper.

Citizens rally against the July 15 attempted coup in Bağcılar, İstanbul. Credit: Maurice Flesier / Wikimedia

Citizens rally against the July 15 attempted coup in Bağcılar, İstanbul. Credit: Maurice Flesier / Wikimedia

Second, the coupists committed error after error, each more egregious than the next. They failed to secure Erdogan when he was at his hotel on vacation, and failed to shoot down his plane when it was in transit to Istanbul – even though it was allegedly “in the gunsights” of rebel F-16 fighter jets.

“There is no stomach in Turkey today for replacing a democratically-elected government, no matter how autocratic, with a military junta”

Moreover, coup leaders failed to comprehend the fundamental way that information travels in contemporary Turkey. While they seized a state-run television channel, TRT – they did not take into account social media and the Internet. Erdogan was able to mobilize citizens through the Facetime application, and protestors organized themselves and reported on events as they occurred through these channels. Attempts to block Twitter and Facebook did not affect the large portion of Turks who use VPN services to mask their location.

Though Erdogan most probably had nothing to do with the attempted coup, he was nevertheless handed a golden opportunity to rid himself of his political opposition, once and for all, and to cement his authoritarian rule – all under the guise of protecting Turkish democracy.

Whether the secretive liberal Islamist Gulen movement, designated by the government as a terrorist organization was behind the coup or not is mostly immaterial; Erdogan is now able to tar all of his enemies with this brush and is now using this excuse to purge the judiciary, the military, and the police – and thus remove all institutional opposition to his increasingly repressive moves against basic freedoms in Turkey.

It now seems as if Erdogan’s goal of transforming Turkey into a presidential state – with himself at the head – has never been closer.

Prof. Uzi Rabi is the Director of the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies, Tel Aviv University.