Reflections on a failed coup d’état

This was a coup that was essentially streamed live at some of its crucial moments

Hisham Melhem
Hisham Melhem
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The botched coup attempt in Turkey will go down in history as the first military mutiny in a modern state to fail in part because of globalization, and the proliferation of social media. This was a coup that was essentially streamed live at some of its crucial moments. The demise of the coup was foretold early on when the plotters were unable to capture or kill the senior leadership they were rebelling against, or to establish control over the mass communication networks and shutting down the internet.

This was a primitive 1960’s style coup in the 21st century. The last time the Turkish military staged a classic (i.e. tanks in the streets) successful coup was in 1980, a world that all but disappeared; Turkey has changed radically, politically, culturally and demographically, and the Cold War is no more.

The tide began to turn against the coup plotters, the moment a glum but determined President Recep Tayyip Erdogan addressed the nation from an undisclosed location speaking on his smartphone’s FaceTime app through CNN Türk and calling on his supporters to take to the streets to challenge the coup.

If there was an iconic moment that distilled the power of the new media – in this case the smartphone – in the hand of a smart and cunning political leader to mobilize his formidable popular base to engage in muscular politics, it was that moment. The most consequential leader in the history of the Turkish Republic since its founder Mustafa Kemal Atatürk maybe on his way to eclipse the man from Thessaloniki, aka “Father of the Turks” and not necessarily in a positive way.

Watching some of these remarkable scenes, one could only admire the tenacity of the people in their rejection of a military coup – a rejection that was shared by non-Islamist groups, including those who are strong opponents of Erdogan

Hisham Melhem

American-Turkish falling out?

Relations between Ankara and Washington have been strained in recent years, a downturn that damaged the once warm relations between Obama and Erdogan. Differences over Syria, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, Erdogan’s repression of dissent and mostly Gulen’s presence in Pennsylvania deepened Erdogan’s doubts about America’s true intentions in the Middle East, and his paranoia led him to believe that Turkey’s problems are made by outsiders; Americans and Jews.

Watching Erdogan lashing out at Gulen on the night of the coup (I was tempted to write: the night of the bungling Generals) I tweeted: “Erdogan’s next fight will be with his former friend Obama over Gulen. Echoes of Khomeini’s fight with Carter over the Shah”. The fight over Gulen has just begun, although no one expects a repeat of the fallout between the US and Iran.

The coup has created some outlandish conspiracy theories even when it was still in its first few hours. The pro-Erdogan’s outrageous claim was that the US was somehow involved in the coup. The anti-Erdogan outrageous counter claim was that the Turkish President did in fact stage the coup to consolidate his power. It was remarkable that when Secretary of State John Kerry spoke on the phone with his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu he had to tell him “that public insinuations or claims about any role by the United States in the failed coup attempt are utterly false and harmful to our bilateral relations”.

Expecting a request for extraditing Gulen, Kerry said the US was willing to consider such request. “Obviously, we would invite the government of Turkey, as we always do, to present us with any legitimate evidence that withstands scrutiny,” Kerry said. “And the United States will accept that and look at it and make judgments about it appropriately.” But short of a Turkish smoking gun regarding Gulen’s involvement in the coup, it will be next to impossible to deport Gulen to Turkey to face Erdogan’s wrath.

An impatient Erdogan sought to send a quick and blunt message to Obama that he is willing to play hardball; he closed air operations at Incirlik Air Base, in South-East Turkey, a critical hub for US fighter jets and drones striking ISIS targets in northern Iraq and Syria. Later, there were reports that electricity and water supplies were cut off from the base.

Cooperation between the US and Turkish militaries against ISIS are crucial to both sides, and to the NATO alliance, and one would expect that American air operations would resume soon from Incirlik, but the ill feelings will linger on maybe even after the end of President Obama’s tenure.

Turkey’s choice

In the few hours after the coup attempt began I took to twitter for some quick preliminary reflections. I thought that Turkey was facing an impossible choice. If the coup is successful, it would lead to uncertainty, maybe chaos and probably civil strife, for whatever one thinks of President Erdogan – and I agree with those who view him as an autocratic populist, vindictive, paranoid and prone to megalomania – he is popular with a large strata of people, not only religious conservatives in rural areas, but also in cities like Istanbul, where he served as mayor.

He is admired particularly among those who were empowered by Turkey’s remarkable economic growth during the Erdogan era; the owners of small businesses, and among the youths and low income city dwellers to whom Muslim identity is central in their lives.

In those first uncertain hours I thought that if the coup is to fail, Erdogan will be emboldened and “will wreak vengeance and polarization”. Now that the bloody coup has failed, Erdogan is taunting his former ally turned his enemy, the cleric Fethullah Gulen to return from his exile in Pennsylvania in the United States to get his comeuppance.

“I have a message for Pennsylvania. (Gulen) You have engaged in enough treason against this nation” Erdogan said. “If you dare, come back to your country”. In fact Erdogan saw the coup attempt as giving him some sort of a divine mandate to rule Turkey. Upon arriving in Istanbul he told his supporters that the coup is “a gift from God … because this will help us claim our military from these members of this gang” in reference to the Gulenists.

In fact the new putsch against Erdogan’s real and imagined enemies in the Gulenist movement began the moment the coup collapsed. Almost 3000 military personnel were arrested, but what was more unnerving was the resumption of the war on the judicial system, when the Anadolu news agency announced that 2,745 judges have been summarily dismissed because of their perceived closeness or loyalty to the Gulen movement which Erdogan had accused of supporting terrorism.

Erdogan’s vengeful tone and actions alarmed the Obama administration which urged all parties “to act within the rule of law and to avoid actions that would lead to further violence or instability”. Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) have been gradually and methodically dismantling aspects of the Kemalist state and pushing state and society towards a more pronounced Islamic polity.

A corollary of this approach was his growing autocracy particularly in recent years and tendencies to undermine the rule of law and to silence peaceful dissent and free expression, and to wallow along with his family and cronies in corruption.

Erdogan arrested journalists and closed down newspapers critical of his autocracy, and staged trials to punish senior military officers on flimsy charges. In 2013 Turkey had the distinction, according to The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), of being the country that jailed most Journalists in the world, ahead of notorious jailors of journalists such as Iran and China.

The struggle for Turkey’s soul

The coup plotters should be condemned not only because a successful coup could have undermined what’s left of Turkey’s democratic gains, but also because the failed coup could only embolden Erdogan and entrench him deeper into autocracy. This outcome – like a successful military coup – will only lead to deeper political and cultural polarizations, uncertainty and probably civil strife.

Even before the coup some Turkish analysts were warning of civil strife, given the spillover from the Syrian wars, the destructive terror of the so-called Islamic State ISIS – a phenomenon that was aided and abated by Erdogan’s winks and nods, and the continuing tug of war between the AKP and the Islamists and the opposition “secularist’ parties over Turkey’s political orientation and its very identity.

The Erdogan era has heightened the political and cultural debates within Turkish polity and society about Turkey’s place in the region and the world. Modern Turkey kept its gazing eyes on the West, and yearned for acceptance in the European family, but Europe kept its drawbridges shut tight, not wanting a majority Muslim state as part of the gated community.

To this end Turkish governments and elites were pushed by Europe and pushed themselves to “assimilate” in the hope of eventually being stamped as a bona fide member of the European Union (EU): Capital punishment and torture in jails were banned, guaranteeing basic rights such as freedom of expression and assembly, and political parties were allowed to organize and – music to Erdogan’s ears- the military should be under civilian control.

Erdogan and the AKP initially kept knocking on the EU door to no avail. Then they discovered their neighbors to the South and East, with whom they shared a lot – a strange brew of good, bad and ugly- in the past. A decade ago Turkey was reaping the economic and political gains from its new policy of “zero problems” with neighbors.

But the season of Arab uprisings, the tumult in Iraq, growing tension between Turkey and Israel over Palestinian rights, coupled with blunders by Erdogan, Israeli and Arab leaders, led to the gradual collapse of this new Turkish construct. And until recently, Turkey had problems, some very serious, with all of its neighbors.

Given the deep polarization in Turkey, with half the population pushing for greater integration with the EU and the separation of state and Mosque, and the other half wanting to maintain the status quo and deepen their Muslim identity the country is poised for another convulsion about its political orientation and its identity as if a large country that emerged from the once mighty Ottoman Empire (which was for centuries a European/ Balkan power) that straddles the Middle East and Europe physically and culturally, can settle such complex issues in a neat and simple way.

I remember a time when thoughtful Turkish, Arab, Iranian and Israeli analysts were watching Turkey’s economic growth and political openness during the beginning of the Erdogan era and hoping to finally see a majority Muslim country develop as a full democracy and turn into a genuine modern and moderate state. But that was not meant to be. Autocratic political cultures don’t die easy and some have nine lives. When they are interrupted by cataclysmic or unforeseen events they regenerate themselves in remarkable ways; Stalin gave way to Putin, Saddam gave way to Maliki and Ataturk gave way to Erdogan.

Erdogan and the AKP loved those elections that gave them comfortable majorities, but as we know from many places and different times in the last century illiberal and autocratic characters like Erdogan were routinely elected. They like elections that give them majoritarian rule, but certainly they are not democrats, and they abjure the constraints of democratic governance.

Whither Turkey? And what should be its political orientation and how to define its regional role? These are questions only the Turks can and should grapple with. Beneath the political hyperbole and the pressing urgent, but transient problems facing Turkey today, there is a deeper struggle going on over the very soul of this pivotal country. One could only wish that the Turks would take another stock of their neighborhoods and learn from the costly blunders of their neighbors and reconcile their competing visions peacefully.


One final observation; it was breathtaking to watch angry civilians challenging the military in the streets, with some blocking the movement of tanks with their bodies. And even when some civilians roughed up soldiers, no orders were given to the soldiers to shoot and kill civilians in the streets. Watching some of these remarkable scenes, one could only admire the tenacity of the people in their rejection of a military coup – a rejection that was shared by non-Islamist groups, including those who are strong opponents of Erdogan – and how the military refrained from using force gratuitously.

I grew up watching Arab armies and police forces shooting at unarmed civilians demonstrating peacefully in the streets. I have seen it too many times, and in recent decades Arab armies, many of them designed and structured as praetorian guards, fired on their peoples in bloodied the streets and avenues of many Arab capitals and cities.

We have seen butchery perpetrated by armed Arabs against civilian Arabs during the season of Arab uprisings, and in places like Libya, Yemen and especially Syria, the non-stop killings of civilians turned them into insurgents and civil wars descended and engulfed the blood soaked lands.

Regardless of whether those Turks demonstrating in the streets are true democrats or mostly – as I suspect – loyal to a strong, albeit elected autocrat, it was important to see that with few exceptions the military and the civilians did not engage in wanton violence.

And to those Turks, who went to the streets, to defend what was left of Turkey’s democratic gains, to prevent the return of military rule, and who still believe that the best way of dispatching Erdogan to early retirement is through the ballot box, and the hard work of instilling democratic values, my boundless admiration and respect.
Hisham Melhem is a columnist and analyst for Al Arabiya News Channel in Washington, DC. Melhem has interviewed many American and international public figures, including Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, Secretaries of State Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, among others. He is also the correspondent for Annahar, the leading Lebanese daily. For four years he hosted “Across the Ocean,” a weekly current affairs program on US-Arab relations for Al Arabiya. Follow him on Twitter: @hisham_melhem

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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