On July 15, violence shook Turkey’s two main cities, as the armed faction which tried to seize power blocked a bridge in Istanbul and strafed the headquarters of Turkish intelligence and Parliament in Ankara. But the coup attempt crumbled as President Recep Tayyip Erdogan rushed back to Istanbul from a Mediterranean holiday and urged people to take to the streets to support his government to save the democracy.
However, it would be a grave mistake to assume that the putting down of a military coup is a momentary matter after which the Turkish army will remain obedient to its sultan; and to regard at least 250 deaths and more than 2,800 detained in isolation from the collapse of the nation-states of the Middle East.
Now, with the apparent failure of the faction of the military that attempted the coup, it seems likely that Erdogan will further consolidate his power, using the event to arrogate unilateral executive authority to him, alter the constitution, and purge the military of all opposition forces. And if all that happens, Turkey is likely to lose the secular openness that made it special among Muslim-majority Middle Eastern states.
A successful overthrow of Erdogan would have marked another seismic shift in the Middle East, five years after the Arab uprisings erupted and plunged Syria into civil war. However, a failed coup attempt could still destabilise Turkey, a NATO member and major US ally, which lies between the EU and the chaos of Syria with ISIS bombers targeting Turkish cities.
It is significant to know that, on one hand Turkey has President Erdogan, a ruthless authoritarian, who was officially named Turkey’s first directly elected President in 2014. His base of support – just as with Putin in Russia, the Ayatollahs in Iran, and Republicans in the United States – comes from older rural religious and social conservatives.
Liberal and young voters generally don’t like him, but their attempts at dissent have been quashed by totalitarian moves against secular free speech.On the other hand is the Turkish military, which occupies a unique position most closely comparable to that of the military in Egypt. In theory, the Turkish military is not directly answerable to the civilian government.
Instead, it sees itself as the institution responsible for protecting Kemalism, the founding ideology of the Turkish state. Kemalism is explicitly secular and friendly to the West, with a respect for religious pluralism, equality for women.
We must not forget the victorious powers in the First World War that destroyed the Ottoman Empire – which was one of the purposes of the 1914-18 conflict after the Sublime Porte made the fatal mistake of siding with Germany – and the ruins of that empire were then chopped into bits by the Allies and handed over to brutal kings, vicious colonels, and dictators galore. President Erdogan and the bulk of the army which has decided to maintain him in power – for now – fit into this same matrix of broken states.