Is the worst yet to come? Coup attempt quake and its aftershocks

By Ahmet Erdi Öztürk

Even a casual observer of Turkish history can argue with ease that the night of July 15 was only the beginning. The beginning of what is likely to be one of the most complex, dark and uncertain eras Turkey and its people have ever witnessed. 

Protesters defy the military curfew during the coup attempt. Source: Political Insider

Protesters defy the military curfew during the coup attempt. Source: Political Insider

Although, thankfully, the chaotic coup attempt was prevented by the masses of civilians who took to the streets to defend democracy, it has since revealed cataclysmic fissures through politics, the bureaucracy and society. Sobering up from the intoxication of the coup attempt – the unbelievable scenes of carnage and appalling loss of human life – one looks not at the destruction behind but, as per human nature, to the destruction still to come: the loss of social harmony and peace.

Spirited away by the speculation, the populism, the clamouring that followed the official declaration of a state of emergency, it becomes increasingly difficult to remain objective, to offer constructive opinions. What we appear to be left with, after the coup, after all the noise, is democracy: a condition we should all hold on to and fight for.

But what a dangerous and divisive term this can be.

Who was really behind the coup attempt?

First of all, and frankly speaking as an academic who has focused on religion and state relations and Turkish political life, I can not accuse any person or any group of organising of this bloody coup attempt without reliable evidence. I have only the duty to interpret the current situation in the light of my expertise.

On the night of July 15, but a few minutes in to this unforgivable and bloody coup, citizens and anti-coup police and military forces began to take back control of the streets. State officials, observers and political figures such as the President Erdoğan, in chorus, claimed that the coup attempt was organised by Fethullah Gülen and his supporters in the military.

This came as no great surprise to anyone following Turkish politics closely. Yet from the chaos and the confusion, before the dust had settled, came a new chorus: from over-night Twitter experts. Currently almost everyone in Turkey has been speaking about the Gülen Movement as if they are an expert of the subject. In this regard, some points have to be clarified. 

Although between 2007 and 2013, Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) seemingly enjoyed the unwavering support of Gülen’s religious and social movement, during the last few years there has been increasing conflict between the two.

Contrary to popular belief however, these two pious groups have not cooperated with each other extensively. As above, 2007 – 2013 was the height of their partnership, with some limited relations during the first term of AKP rule (2002-2007). Historically, they come from two different branches of Islam in Turkey. Gülen and his followers have never approved of – or stood close to – Necmettin Erbakan’s more radical Islamism, embodied by Milli Görüş (National Outlook): the movement from which the AKP was born.

Nevertheless, similar to the liberal democrats of Turkey, the Movement broadly stood by the AKP during its first and second terms, when the AKP was conducting consistent political reform and respecting the principles of secular democracy. Yet this conditional partnership in fact began to erode in the aftermath of the 2007 elections, finally fracturing completely in the last term of AKP rule (2011-present), when the latter developed an increasingly self-confident and authoritarian attitude in the absence of strong opposition.

This distance and distrust increased through several controversies. The most prominent of which was differing views on the Marmara Flotilla that aimed at breaking the Gaza blockade . The Mavi Marmara was attacked by Israeli forces in 2010, leaving nine Turkish citizens dead and a total freeze in diplomatic relations in its wake.

Since the summer of 2013, the two groups have been drawn into an unparalleled and vicious power struggle. The centre of growing tension in recent years has been the December corruption allegations, which targeted senior AKP members, the President and his son, spreading scandal throughout the nation.

Erdoğan blamed Gülen supporters within the police and the judiciary for the scandal, likely correctly given the security threat posed by wiretapping of government phones, and began the process of criminalising the Movement. Closing its schools and institutions: which most believe are the beating heart of the Gülen movement.

This provoked a strong reaction and the Movement began to broadcast the AKP’s authoritarian shift around the world: which, given Gülen’s extensive networks, was a potential PR disaster for the ruling party.

Although the AKP worked to discredit Gülen’s cemaat (community), trying to prove it was in actuality an armed terrorist group, at the time it appeared that the Movement had little to no effect on the AKP’s domestic political power (although not through lack of trying, as seen in the December corruption scandal).

But hereon in a new chapter has been opened. The tragic coup attempt and all that entailed has catalysed a new, and more destructive era in this conflict.

Just hours into the media frenzy – the TV stations and newspaper pages – were plastered with images and condemnations of the presumed leader of the coup: the now infamous Fethullah Gülen and his movement. On trial in the media and the public sphere long before any extradition can be organised, the world is seemingly convinced.

In addition to some intelligence resources, the Gülen-centred theories were strengthened by one core point: most of the coup plotters were brigadier generals and colonels who started their military high school education around the mid 1980’s. The significance? These years are known as the beginning of the outflow of the Gülen supporters into the military. Moreover, some of the soldiers admitted to their organic and inorganic relations with the Gülen Movement during their police testimony.

Distinct, although not antithetical to this popular theory, some experts claim that a coalition organised the coup attempt. According to them, Kemalists, anti-Erdoğanists, members of the deep state and members of the Gülen Movement worked in collaboration to take down the Erdoğan regime.

Somewhere within or between these criminological discussions may indeed be the truth. Prominent indicators from which to make deductions and predictions for the near future in Turkey. And what a future it’s shaping up to be. Although the earthquake of the attempted coup has seemingly subsided, it’s clear that it’s not over yet. The political and social aftershocks will continue to rip through the country, the fallout of which we are just beginning to see.

Political aftershocks

Although, for a long time, President Erdoğan has dominated almost all areas of political and social life, with the beginning of July 15 he reached the peak of his power and legitimacy. No longer New Turkey then, but new ‘New Turkey’ : a nation willed into being by the President’s aims and desires.

After the purge of thousands of public servants from all sectors and with a State of Emergency in place, the President has the power to bypass the parliament and issue laws which cannot be taken to the Constitutional Court. This also allows Erdoğan and the government, should they so chose: to impose curfews, to displace people, to halt education at all levels, to control all sources of media, ban or censor content, stop circulation, confiscate property and regulate transport.

Further escalation is likely as the opposition parties, largely the increasingly obsolete Republican People’s Party and the Nationalist Movement Party – already flailing – will  soon become completely non-functional in the face of these emergency conditions.

Declaring a state of emergency is of course a natural political decision following an event of this magnitude. Security and stability must of course be ensured, and many in the ruling party have referred to France in order to appease fears and criticisms of what is to come.

And yet Turkey is not France. Unlike France, Turkey strugles from a lack of institutional democratic consciousness to counter the authoritarian tendencies of such power. Freedom of speech (and thought), already suffering in recent years, will surely be crushed under the weight of such authority. And in Turkey, as in France, minorities will be adversely affected.

Opposition Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) co-chair Figen Yüksekdağ said on July19 that her party had never reconciled with the coup mentality, but would not reconcile with the political climate that fomented this mentality either.

Both the pro-Kurdish HDP and the controversial Kurdistan Worker’s Party (a declared terrorist group in Turkey and the US) have expressed concerns over the democratic deficit. They have equally drawn attention to the likely disproportionate impact, and even targeting, of the state of emergency on Kurdish populations, who had already suffered under decades-long curfews and military law prior to the rise of the AKP.

This unfortunately means that, despite some promising rhetoric regarding unity in the face of the Gülen threat, the armed conflict between Turkey and PKK will continue. Tragically, the only stable issue in Turkey these days.

That said, Kurdish people, whose voices have largely been left out of this ever spiralling debate, are predominantly calmer that most in Turkey. One main reason is that they are used to living under a constant state of emergency, which at its longest point was in force for over two decades. Moreover, they are aware the multitude of meanings of this complicated issues.

That said, without doubt they are also worried about what is increasingly being termed as a ‘witch hunt’.

Social aftershocks

Socially, Turkey was already a deeply divided country. I am afraid that this coup attempt could easily deepen those divisions further.

Although an astonishing number of people from different political perspectives have been protesting the coup attempt, from Istanbul’s historic Taksim square to the Gaza Strip, others have been watching the news with considerable apprehension. As well as the preexisting social divisions, a powerful reason for this difference is the increasingly aggressive tone rising above the din of these democratic demonstrations.

Additionally, Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım has already suggested a return of the death penalty for Turkey, despite it being abolished in 2004, answering the thousands of anti-coup protesters calling for it to be reinstated. Hate speech has (many would argue, understandably) been used against the Gülen Movement. Yet this is spreading more and more to opposition groups in general, to Kurds and Alevis, leftists and atheists. And so they wait. Apprehensively.

There is a new trend in Turkey now. People are putting each other in boxes, labeling each other as terrorist, coup supporter or democratic hero. Ordinary citizens are encouraged to inform the authorities about the suspicious activities of neighbours, relatives and friends.  Social media accounts are monitored and people are acting as informants.

These are not components of democracy. Democracy is the rule of law, freedom of thought and accountability. This makes us question: Do these people want democracy or majoritarianism?

All in all, Turkey should know that although its citizens saved their country from a bloody coup, calls for more bloodshed no matter how popular, are not democratic.

The coup attempt was very much real: an unjust and evidently unwanted attempt to overthrow a democratically elected government. And yet, elections do not a democracy make. Recent steps, both the coup quake itself and the aftershocks, indicate a concerning swing towards despotism and populism: bred on all sides of this fractured society and magnified in the echo chamber these divisions have created.

In such an environment, it does indeed seem that the worst is still to come.

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