President Erdogan’s ongoing purge following the failed military coup could be setting the stage for further instability in Turkey, writes Muhammad Javed.
It started with reports and speculations that Istanbul’s main bridges along the Bosphorus straits connecting Europe to Asia had been closed and blocked by soldiers, and that jets had been spotted flying low over the capital city of Ankara.
A dazed and confused population began to gather in Istanbul’s Taksim Square, looking for answers. Then came a bold statement from the Turkish military declaring that it had taken over the administration of the country “to reinstall the constitutional order, democracy, human rights and freedoms, to ensure that the rule of law once again reigns in the country, for law and order to be reinstated.”
The world was in shock, and there was immediate coverage from the media providing minute-by-minute live updates. With President Erdogan being neither seen nor heard, and there being no official statement from the Turkish government, the country was in a brief state of confusion. All that followed – the awaited appearance of Erdogan, the population flooding the streets, the restraining of the soldiers by the civilians themselves, and the shooting down of the coup-led jets – led to the government reinstalling its authority.
As a result of these events, the death toll has reached over 290, with around 1,400 injured, and 6,000 arrested as part of the crackdown on any further dissent.
Turkey’s history of military coup
Despite the shock and surprise of many at the attempted putsch, it is not the first time that a military coup or intervention has been staged. Turkey has a long and frequent history of its military intervening in governmental affairs and administration.
Leaving aside those in the Ottoman period, there have been at least four incidents within the past 60 years of Turkish history: first in 1960, when the army arrested every member of the ruling Democrat Party and put them on trial; in 1971 when martial law was declared; then in 1980 when the army had to take over the country due to opposing students bringing it to the brink of civil war. The last case of military intervention came in 1997, when the army forced the resignation of Necmettin Erbakan over claims he was steering Turkey towards religious rule.
The above cases of Turkish military coups had the same traits, though – a definitive reason (whether right or wrong), a united military leadership, and a tendency towards secular rule of which the army sees itself as the guardian of. This attempted coup, on the other hand, is strikingly different.
As the images of passionate crowds of Turks parading in the streets in support of Erdogan went viral on the internet, news, and social media especially, many sympathisers – particularly Muslims around the world – clamoured with excitement. They saw the situation as the sheer force of patriotism of the people beating back the rebellion and dissent of traitors, the faithful defeating those seeking to destroy the country, and the triumph of loyalty over betrayal.
It is easy to see why they think that; it is, after all, a rare outcome and appeals to peoples’ fantasies. There is some truth in that, and those scenes do indeed show the influence of the people up to an extent, but the fact is that there is also something strange about the whole episode.
Although the exact number of soldiers involved in the plot is not known, over 3,000 have been arrested in direct involvement, putting the likely number at a few thousand.
Whoever was behind the plot would have to be either very confident or very foolish to believe that a faction of a few thousand could outnumber and overpower the rest of the Turkish army, police force, and all the other armed forces in Turkey.
The nature of the military itself, particularly a military as disciplined as Turkey’s, has a systematic and hierarchical chain of command which makes it difficult for any unit to go against, and take action without the approval of the higher chain of command. In a military coup, the whole army is involved with all high-ranking officials unilaterally agreeing on the plot, and carrying it out as has been the case in the previous coups in Turkey.
A divide between the military and government is wholly plausible, but a divide between one faction of the army and the rest in such a meticulously planned plot is an unusual phenomenon. In short, the more one looks into it, the more it bears the hallmarks of foreign intervention.
Post failed cup Turkey
So what can be expected for Turkey and how much impact has the failed coup had? It is certain that it has sent shockwaves throughout the country, and that much will change and is already changing. Erdogan is already carrying out a purge of the armed forces, administration, government, and even the education system: so far 8,000 police have been removed, 3,000 judiciary members arrested, 1,500 from the finance ministry, and the number of those fired from the education ministry, as well as teachers and university deans stand in their tens of thousands. The whole system is being cleansed, consequently affecting the economy and unemployment rates.
Along with that, Erdogan is considering legalising capital punishment for treason, which would put Turkey’s membership bid for the European Union under threat even further. There have also been reports that its current NATO membership, of which it is key member, could be threatened if it takes such an action.
The tourism industry has dropped this year by around 40% since 2014, and is expected to drop even further now after the attempted coup due to safety concerns and instability. A Turkish businessman who I met in Istanbul in November 2015 recently informed me that there has been hardly any business in the property market during the past two months, and that he has had to send his wife and children to another city altogether as a result of the increasing tension and atmosphere of violence.
This attempted coup was an overwhelming sign that Turkey – once the beacon of the Islamic world, the brief sojourn of a democracy matched with a largely Islamic society, the last stable Muslim majority country with a competent government and one of the strongest militaries in the Middle East – may well be on the brink of catastrophe, and perhaps even a civil war.
Muhammad Javed is a university politics student, who is an aspiring journalist focusing on Middle Eastern and international political affairs.