Turkey nearly underwent a complete democratic reversal in last week. In the early hours of the attempted coup last Friday, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan used an unlikely tool to galvanize his supporters when he launched a FaceTime appeal to all Turks to descend to the streets. The Turkish people heeded Erdogan's call, showing a great deal of maturity and courage in facing the military and defeating the coup. A successful coup would have been devastating to Turkey, but an unhinged post-coup Erdogan is equally detrimental, not only to Turkey, but to the whole region’s democratic progress.
The failed military putsch against democratically elected Erdoğan is a stark example that old autocratic habits die-hard in the Middle East. The coup unmasked the reality of modern day Turkey, which has long dealt with military incursions in civilian affairs which lasted until the Turkish military memorandum of 1997, which prompted the resignation of then Islamist Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan. But Turkey’s path towards democratic progress has been dealt a serious blow despite the failure of the generals in toppling the AKP leader.
When Erdoğan came to power in 2003, Turkey and the rest of the world looked at the Turkish experience as a model for Islamic democratic rule, that maybe the Kemalist secular principles could coexist with the AKP’s Islamist ethos, and that a secular-Islamist synthesis was possible under robust legal and institutional mechanisms. Erdoğan’s popularity was all the more enviable when he presided over an impressive economic growth. In the Muslim world, Erdoğan became the symbol for democratic renewal under an overtly Islamist banner and a populist pan-Islamic leader who has been a staunch critic of Israel, the rallying cry for all Arab and pan-Islamic demagogues. Erdoğan’s opposition to Sisi’s coup in Egypt, and the brutal regime of Assad made him a champion for many in the Arab world. Erdogan has also been so successful among Muslims in advancing a religious discourse that he was even compared to medieval Muslim ruler, Salah Eddine (Saladin) who conquered Jerusalem during the Crusades.
Erdoğan’s pan-Islamic popularity remained unchanged even when he started displaying a penchant towards autocratic rule. In the years preceding the coup, Erdoğan launched a relentless campaign against his opponents within the confines of Turkish democratic institutions, orchestrating sham trials known as Balyoz (Sledgehammer) whereby hundreds of high ranking officers were jailed and/or removed from the military. Using the parliamentary majority of the AKP, he steered the country towards an executive presidential system and was elected president in 2014. Erdoğan repressed all who dared to oppose his sultanistic ambitions in Turkey and appeared truly to be the only game in town. Indeed, in his interview with al-Jazeera Tuesday, Erdoğan revealed that he was utterly surprised when he first heard of the coup from his brother-in-law as he was vacationing in Marmaris. Some say he was always expecting this coup; but was not sure when this attempt would take place.
But in his state citadel, Erdoğan has always harbored a not so secret fear of one formidable opponent, a former ally turned nemesis, the Muslim preacher and scholar Fethullah Gülen. Gülen, who fled Turkey in 1999, and is in the US in a self-imposed exile, is the spiritual leader of an order that runs several organizations and some 146 charter schools in the US. The Hizmet-Gülen movement is largely known for its interfaith message of peace and tolerance around the world. But his supporters in senior bureaucratic and judicial positions in Turkey are said to constitute “a parallel structure” aiming to depose Erdogan’s government.
In the days after the failed coup, Erdoğan has notably singled out Fethullah Gülen as the main culprit behind the coup, and has started what amount to a purge of the court system and the police force, in addition to almost one-third of the military establishment.
Erdoğan’s post-coup plan is to dismantle whatever little democratic gains Turkey achieved in the past. The failed coup and Erdogan’s popularity have given him a “carte blanche” to mold the Turkish State in his image, cleanse the political establishment of the “parallel structure”, and tame the military once and for all. The scope of the purge will be devastating for Erdogan’s opponents in the state institutions, and Gülen will have to fight the narrative that he was behind a coup that most Turks, even the anti-Erdoğan crowd, opposed.
Beyond Turkey, Erdoğan’s revanchism is a setback to the cause of democratic progress in the region. Arab liberals have almost unanimously extolled the Turkish president and justified his post-coup policies. Facebook status updates and Twitter posts have almost all endorsed Erdoğan providing various rationale for his attempts at eroding Turkish democracy, ironically in the name of democratic legitimacy and street popularity. Commitment to principles of the rule of law, individual freedom, and the liberty of the press that Arab liberals so arduously fought for are deemphasized right now. In their blind support of Erdoğan, Arab liberals’ and democracy activists’ commitment to democratic principles has largely taken a backseat to retribution.
But the jubilant statements about Erdoğan and the triumph of the will of the people mask a bitter reality that Erdoğan has charted an autocratic course that will be almost as devastating to Turkish democracy as a military junta would have been. Erdoğan still has time to reverse some of his reprisals and to promote legal, measured means for prosecuting coup plotters. The failed coup should not be a “gift from God”, as Erdoğan let slip in his first appearance after the coup in Istanbul, to settle score with rivals and opponents.
The path to democracy is fraught with uncertainties, but most democratic transitions in the context of Latin America and Eastern Europe in the last two decades of the 20th century came through negotiated pacts within the political elite. This assumes that the elite class is inclusive even of those that are diametrically opposed ideologically to prevalent political or social views. The whole sale purge of Erdoğan’s rivals bodes ill for the institutional progress of Turkey and the region. Turkey used to be a model for the region, perhaps now, we should look for another model elsewhere. Maybe Tunisia still holds some of that hope for a Middle Eastern democracy.