Turkey - will the dream survive?

After the failure of the July 16 coup, Turkey is embroiled in another potentially destructive crisis

Turkey - will the dream survive?
It was the night of July 16, and I, like many others in the Washington area, was riveted to the CNN news as it was airing the unfolding drama of a military coup in progress in Turkey. We watched as soldiers ordered the CNN staff in Istanbul to cease broadcasting; they complied and the station quickly went off the air. The military announced that they had taken control of the government and had instituted martial law. Surprisingly, the TV station shortly came back on the air, and we watched the incredible scene of soldiers being arrested by the police and carted away to protect them from the wrath of the pro-government crowd gathering outside. Meanwhile, in Ankara some renegade air force pilots shelled the National Assembly building and protestors below. By the time the insurrection was over, some 250 people were dead, mostly as a result of fighting among members of the armed forces.

By the morning, the government of President Racep Tayyip Erdogan had fully regained its authority and rebellious army factions were being rounded up.  The world drew a sigh of relief that the specter of a military dictatorship in Turkey had been narrowly averted. The turning point in the nail-biting drama came when Erdogan, who is considered the most consequential Turkish leader since Kamal Ataturk, showed up at Istanbul’s Ataturk airport and appealed to his supporters to come out and resist the coup. The city’s numerous mosques lit up in the middle of the night as if on a cue, the Imams calling out the Adhan and urging people to come out to save the country.

Tens of thousands of ordinary people responded to the president’s call. Waving red Turkish flags, they overwhelmed the army tanks and armored vehicles. The soldiers, mostly young conscripts from Turkish villages, quickly melted away fearing for their lives. Importantly, unlike previous times, the coup was not supported by senior officers. Erdogan’s bold move showcased by his decision to fly to Istanbul in the face of grave peril also had a dramatic effect. In a remarkable show of unity, all the political parties, normally bitterly opposed to Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) – secularist, Kurds and nationalist – sided with the government.  The plotters had failed in the initial hours to arrest the prime minister, president and other high functionaries, nor did they take control of the National Assembly or the means of communication. The uprising was doomed from the beginning.
Erdogan's brave move to fly to Istanbul had a dramatic effect

The military revolt had a very different outcome in Egypt when, in July 2013, the first ever democratically elected president, Mohammed Morsi, was overthrown by the Egyptian Army General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.  Unlike Erdogan, Morsi had lost much of his public support and there were no crowds in the Tahrir Square in Cairo in support of the civilian government, as happened when President Hosni Mubarak was overthrown in 2011. Military coups are usually less successful in countries with a strong middle class and that may be one difference between Turkey and Egypt. The per capita income of Turkey ($10,971) is much higher than that of Egypt ($3,314).

Turkey, of course, is not a stranger to military interventions.  The military considers itself the guardian of secularism and upholder of the principle of separation of religion and state established by Kamal Ataturk. In the past five decades, it has directly intervened four times and ousted the civilian governments. The first military intervention in modern times occurred in May 1960 against the freely elected civilian government of Prime Minister Adnan Menderes who had openly displayed Islamic sympathies. He had won three elections with comfortable majorities. Accused of “empowering religious retrogrades” in a show trial, he was hanged in September 1961. It has been speculated that Erdogan has long been haunted by the fate of Adnan Menderes, which made a powerful impression on him as a young child as he saw his father grieving for the fallen prime minister.

The history of military intervention in Turkey has had parallels in Pakistan, where generals overthrew governments on three occasions, and in one case the civilian prime minister was hanged after a sham trial. However, there has never been a significant resistance by the public to military takeovers. Instead they were greeted with jubilation, rooted in in the forlorn hope that the military could perform miracles.

While the July 16 insurrection has been put down, Turkey is now embroiled in another potentially destructive crisis. The government has launched a rancorous crackdown on dissidents, accused of plotting the insurgency.  A wave of arrests and dismissals of thousands of military and police officers, academics, journalists and judges threaten to destabilize the country. According to official announcements, 10,000 people have been take in custody, and the process has not ended. Last week, well over 1,000 schools, 1,229 charities and numerous universities and medical facilities were closed. These large numbers suggest the government had a list of individuals and institutions prepared and was merely awaiting an opportune moment.

Most worrying is the potentially damaging effect of the purge on the military, second largest in the NATO after the US military, and one of the most venerated institution in the country. Of those arrested or dismissed in the sweep are allegedly the followers of the 75-years old reclusive Islamic cleric, Fethullah Gulen, who has been living in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania. Erdogan and Gulen, in their early days, used to be allies struggling against the secularist establishment in Turkey. Lately, they have become bitter rivals.

Gulen, as a spiritual leader, has a strong following in Turkey and his Hizmet movement runs a string of excellent educational institutions worldwide, including in Pakistan. Alleging that Gulen masterminded the recent uprising, Turkish authorities have requested the US government to extradite him, so he could be put on trial. It would be a lengthy procedure and, given its political dimensions, it seems very unlikely that he will ever be sent back to Turkey. Also, Gulen has categorically denied any involvement in the recent military coup.

The success in the 2002 election of Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party ushered in a period of high hopes for Turkey.  The government instituted many political reforms, launched an impressive program of economic development and loosened some of the oppressive anti-religion laws dating back to the early days of the Republic. The booming economy brought prosperity which, together with its successful foreign policy, made Turkey a financial powerhouse. It was touted as model for the Islamic world that showcased that democracy and Islam could coexist. Much of the luster of those heady days is gone.

The international community and the Islamic world in particular have much stake in the survival of Turkey as a democratic, secular and strong country. It is also the only Muslim-majority country that has a credible scientific and industrial base, with a per capita income approaching western countries. South Asian Muslims historically had had a great love and concern for Turkey, dating back to the days of its national struggle for survival following the First World War. They hope that it will overcome its current difficulties and a period of national reconciliation will soon follow.