The Problem With Erdogan... Is Still The Problem With Erdogan, But Much Worse
There's virtually no part of Turkey I haven't visited since I was first there in 1969. I fell in love with the country, the people, the food, the history, the culture... when I was 21 and have been back over a dozen times, not just to the normal places people visit, like Istanbul, Ankara, Cappadocia, Izmir, Antalya and Bodrum, but also less-visited cities like Erdine, Trabzon, Sinop, Samsun, Kirikkale, Ezurum and Konya. On that very first trip, I drove in my VW van from one end of the country-- entering at the Bulgarian border-- all the way across Anatolia to Dogubayazit and on into Iran. Lately I may camp out at the Four Seasons Sultanahmet or the Ciragan Palace but back in those days I literally camped out, parking my van in front of some friendly family's home and sleeping in it while my passengers slept inside. I was very much an "on the ground" traveler, and my experiences were all the richer for it. (Funny what happened when you have no money.) I certainly got to know Turks more intimately and deeply than one usually does when staying at a Four Seasons.
These days, Roland and I have gotten so used to Istanbul that it does't seem odd at all for him to declare he wants to fly to Istanbul so he can do some shopping at the Grand Bazaar, the world's oldest or at least longest-lasting mall, built when Christopher Columbus was 4 years old. But it's not the same as when I was living for 2 weeks with a family in Kirikkale and they had a meal prepared for us every single time we would walk into the house. When a Turkish guy whistled at one of my passengers, a beautiful Danish girl, our host was so mortified and humiliated that he pulled out a knife and went after the whistler. Two years later when I drove back through Turkey from India, I brought them a whole set of hand-craved furniture.) Recently I was in Azerbaijan on a vacation and people were shocked I could speak so much of their language which is, basically, Turkish. The point of all this is that when I tell you that Turks have told me for 4 and a half decades that they expect the military to protect the country from political excesses, I didn't just read it in a book.
The attempted coup Friday was a bungled mess, from start to [quick] finish-- possibly even staged by Erdogan himself. From a Western perspective it had no legitimacy whatsoever-- couple: bad. Many Turks don't necessarily agree (although, significantly all the political parties, even the ones who loathe Erdogan the most, denounced the coup attempt). Right from the beginning, when soldiers were shutting down the Istanbul bridges, talking [air] heads on U.S. TV all got it wrong, seeing it through the prism of Western experience and mostly unaware that the role of the Turkish military to specifically protect a secular, non-tyrannical society is enshrined not just in Turkish tradition but in the country's foundational documents. The military takes very seriously their role as guardian of Kemal Atatürk's legacy. It didn't work out and most everyone is cheering. But this has enabled an authoritarian megalomaniac and would-be tyrant to move forward with his plans for subjugating his political rivals and transforming Turkish politics drastically.
[W]hile the bid to overthrow a democratically elected leader elicited widespread international opprobrium, many analysts fear that Erdogan will come away from the botched coup more emboldened than ever to impose his will on the country and ruthlessly root out his perceived enemies-- actions he already alluded to on Saturday.
“What is being perpetrated is a rebellion and a treason,” Erdogan told reporters at Istanbul Ataturk Airport in the wee hours of the morning. “They will pay a heavy price for their treason to Turkey.”
As of early Saturday, the number of arrested military personnel has already risen to an astonishing 2,839 people, including high-ranking officers-- and that figure is expected to keep growing. According to Turkey’s prime minister, 161 people were killed and 1,440 injured in the failed uprising. The military chief of staff, Gen. Hulusi Akar, was rescued after forces liberated him from an air base outside of Ankara. The prime minister, Binali Yildirim, has summoned lawmakers for an emergency meeting Saturday.
Though the exact rationale for the coup effort remains unclear, the Turkish military has long viewed itself as the guardian of Turkey’s secular and moderate institutions, the touchstones of the modern Turkish republic. But over the last decade, Erdogan has chipped away at those institutions by silencing dissent, expanding his grip on the judiciary, and chiseling away at the freedom of the press. Many Turkey watchers fear that Friday’s failed coup attempt will push Erdogan’s authoritarian tendencies into overdrive.
“There certainly will be blood,” Andrew Bowen, a Washington-based Middle East expert and and columnist at al Arabiya, told Foreign Policy. “Erdogan will move swiftly and ruthlessly after his perceived enemies.”
If the Turkish president views his survival as a mandate to assert greater control over the country, he’ll likely start with his long-running plan to rewrite the constitution to create an executive presidency that will give him greater power at the expense of the legislature and the prime minister.
“He could arguably make the case that it wasn’t Turkey’s democratic institutions that saved Turkey’s democracy, but him,” Bowen added. “His supporters have survived this experience and arguably have been more emboldened from this experience, giving him a stronger mandate.”
That’s troubling to a number of observers who have grimaced at the dramatic changes Erdogan has brought to Turkey in recent years.
After his bloody crackdown on Gezi Park protesters in 2013, public protest has become a heroic endeavor in and of itself. Under Erdogan’s rule, hundreds of journalists have been fired from major newspapers and magazines; several are behind bars. A 2016 report from Freedom House gave Turkey a “downward arrow” for the “intense harassment of opposition members and media outlets by the government and its supporters.”
As for Turkey’s legal system, a 2015 Human Rights Watch report warned that the government “has taken unprecedented steps to exert executive control over Turkey’s judiciary, to muzzle social media, increase media and internet censorship, and prosecute journalists.”
Although Turkey’s opposition parties took a principled stand against the coup, many of them will continue to face persecution under Erdogan, especially groups like the pro-Kurdish rights party HDP, which has opposed his pursuit of an executive presidency. Kurdish civilians have literally been caught in the crossfire, suffering curfews and worse as Erdogan has intensified his military campaign against the banned Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, a terrorist outfit.
The other question is what happens to the military. The group behind the coup called themselves the “Peace at Home Council,” a phrase coined by the founder of the country, Kemal Ataturk. After seizing television stations, the plotters quickly found themselves in a wider confrontation with crowds of loyalists and government supporters.
The bloated arrest list suggests Erdogan will oversee a significant shake-up of the army, even though he was careful to note that the attempted coup was not a reflection on the entire service.
“Turkish Armed Forces was not involved in the coup attempt in its entirety,” he said Saturday. “It was conducted by a clique within the armed forces and received a well-deserved response from our nation.”
Erdogan laid blame for the rebellion squarely on Fethullah Gulen, a reclusive Muslim cleric based in the United States whom Turkish officials routinely blame for fomenting unrest and dissent. But the government has not yet provided evidence of Gulen’s involvement, and the cleric denied any link to the uprising. In a statement, he condemned “in the strongest terms, the attempted military coup in Turkey.” Yet, according to the BBC, 2,745 judges have already been fired due to alleged connections to Gulen.
Still, Erdogan has long been suspicious, and by some accounts, paranoid, about the threat posed by the military. Friday’s botched coup attempt will only fan those fears.
“The coup attempt sought to turn Erdogan into a Morsi,” tweeted Hassan Hassan, a fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy. “He’s now poised to become a Putin.”
So far all Trump has said about Turkey is that it was all Hillary's fault. If you're expecting Herr Trumpf to start singing Erdogan's praises, you might have to wait a while. He hates Trump and two weeks ago demanded the name "Trump" be removed" from Trump Towers Istanbul. In a discussion of Islamophobia, Erdogan told a Chamber of Commerce type meeting that Trump "has no tolerance for Muslims living in the US. And on top of that they used a brand in [Istanbul] with his name. The ones who put that brand on their building should immediately remove it. That was Turkish billionaire Aydın Doğan he was calling out. It's not unlike what I saw happening more organically in Baku last month where a powerful and criminal Azerbaijani billionaire screwed himself by branding his new (now-closed down) glitzy tower with Trump's toxic name.