Coups, which are sudden and often violent seizures of political power, are inherently anti-democratic. However, it is important to understand how and why coups happen because, even in failure, they may have significant consequences for the future of a nation.
On July 15, at approximately 4:30 PM Eastern Standard Time, news of a military coup underway in Turkey shocked the world. Since Turkey is a NATO member, a key player in the fight against ISIS, and the gatekeeper in the European refugee crisis, a Turkish coup would have grave geopolitical ramifications. Reports quickly noted the deployment of Turkish military assets in Ankara, Turkey’s capital, as well as in Istanbul, its largest city.
At first it appeared that Turkish military forces were succeeding in toppling President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, but as time progressed, it became increasingly evident that the pronouncements of the coup’s success were premature. Due to the lack of credible communications, it was difficult to decipher legitimate news from propaganda, especially on social media. Indeed, social media served as a game changer during the coup: the turning point may have been when Erdoğan used FaceTime to communicate with his supporters. This creative use of technology allowed Erdoğan to rally his allies – to the surprise of the coup’s leaders, Turkish citizens heeded President Erdoğan’s call to storm the streets and protest.
Taken aback by the sudden hostility from the Turkish people, the coup’s leaders found themselves unable to hold their position of strength. Additionally, it was revealed that the coup merely contained portions of the Turkish military establishment while many military officials either remained neutral or explicitly opposed the coup. The combination of a lack of popular support and discord among the Turkish military ensured that the coup would be a failure.
So just how did we get here?
To fully understand these consequences, a brief history lesson is in order. Following the demise of the Ottoman Empire, military officer Mustafa Kemal Ataturk founded Turkey in 1923 as an explicitly secular nation-state that banned almost all public expressions of Islam. The subsequent guardian of this secular form of government was, and still is, the Turkish military establishment.
In line with their sacred charge of safeguarding secularism, the Turkish military has staged four coups since Turkey joined NATO in 1952.
The last coup by memorandum in 1997 ended with Erdoğan’s mentor, Necmettin Erbakan, being removed from his position as the first Islamic Prime Minister. This latest coup attempt and subsequent failure must be seen as a significant shift in the balance of institutional power from military to civilian government. This shift may be attributed to the work of one man: current President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
There is no doubt Erdoğan is the preeminent Turkish political figure of the past 20 years. During this time, his political achievements include tenures as Mayor of Istanbul, Prime Minister, and President. Additionally, Erdoğan was instrumental in founding the Justice and Development Party (AKP), which has dominated Turkish politics since 2002.
And starting with his election in 2014, Erdoğan has fundamentally transformed the presidency from a largely ceremonial position to a key factor in Turkish politics. The origins of the coup may be traced to Erdoğan’s recent actions as president.
Shortly after his election, Erdoğan began purging the media and government.
This was in an attempt to remove the liberal Islamic Gulenist faction from power. Erdoğan has also taken measures to increase his power as president. For instance, he has recently replaced the prime minister with someone more supportive of his agenda. Most notably, Erdoğan has engaged in a focused campaign to silence and imprison his media critics, even calling for the arrest of a German comic who publicly lampooned his increasingly authoritarian tendencies.
Another key driver of the coup is Erdoğan’s religious background. It is important to note that Erdoğan got his start in politics as a student leader in an Islamic political party in the late 1970s. Furthermore, the base of Erdoğan’s political power resides in heart of the Anatolian Peninsula. This region tends to be more Islamic and desires for conservative Islamic norms to hold greater sway in Turkey’s culture.
Nevertheless, context is key. Given that Turkey is an explicitly secular nation, Islamism within the country is significantly more benign than elsewhere in the Middle East. For instance, one of Erdoğan’s most controversial actions as Prime Minister was in 2013 when he ended a ban that forbade women in government from wearing headscarves, a major change in Turkish policy as the practice had been outlawed since 1925. Despite these seemingly nonthreatening changes, Erdoğan’s Islamic ties and rise to power concerned many in the secularist military establishment.
Arguably the greatest catalyst behind the coup is Erdoğan’s desire to bring the military under greater civilian control. In 2010, Erdoğan and the AKP amended the constitution to accomplish this goal. Erdoğan has further increased his control of the military in the name of rooting out the Gulenist faction.
In the days before the coup, rumors circulated that the annual Turkish military conference in August would feature another round of sweeping reforms and personnel changes to continue the removal of Gulenist holdouts.
In the face of these rapidly changing political circumstances along with rising Islamist power, the anti-Erdoğan elements within the Turkish military felt the need to stage a coup. Unfortunately, it is still unclear if the coup was coordinated primarily by secularist or Gulenist forces.
Regardless of the responsible party, Erdoğan is blaming Gulenists. Across Turkey, Erdoğan’s loyalists are arresting thousands of military and civilian officials on the charge of aiding the coup, and Erdoğan is expressing willingness to reenact the death penalty. By using the attempted coup as political cover, Erdoğan is taking tangible steps to solidify his power.
These events will directly impact the future of Turkey and the Middle East.
As the purging of military and civilian leadership continues, Turkey’s ability to counterbalance Iran, Russia, and ISIS power in the region will be severely hampered. Furthermore, the emergence of Erdoğan’s authoritarian government will undermine democracy and human rights within the nation, in turn directly undercutting Turkey’s desire to be accepted into the European Union.
In the end, recent events most likely indicate that Turkey may be slowly returning to its Ottoman roots by embracing more Islamic culture and strongman-style governance. As the consequences of the coup become more apparent, the coming months will drastically influence Turkey’s future as a major power in the 21st Century. It remains to be seen what type of actor Turkey will become.
Guest Writer: Nathan Carson is passionate about identifying geopolitical trends that will impact international stability and food security. He is a second-year Masters student studying Agricultural Economics at Purdue University with a specialization in Agricultural Finance. As an undergrad at the University of Florida, he served as a Scholar for the Challenge 2050 Project and presented research on the use of microloans to help address poverty, food insecurity, and water scarcity in India. Nathan also represented the United States as a delegate to the 2013 Youth Ag Summit in Calgary, Canada where he led a team of fifteen
delegates to construct, organize, and propose a global marketing plan to combat hunger worldwide.
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