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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 20 June 2018

Erdogan and the tragic legacy of Turkey's 2016 coup attempt

Turkey's president could have given voice to the masses, instead he is a diminished figure

Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks during an election rally of his ruling AK Party in Istanbul Murad Sezer / Reuters
Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks during an election rally of his ruling AK Party in Istanbul Murad Sezer / Reuters

Shortly after the attempted coup of July 2016, more than one million Turks gathered at a celebratory rally in Istanbul. "Each and every one of you fought for freedom and democracy," Recep Tayyip Erdogan told the crowd. "All of you are heroes." The coup had been real enough. The loyalist army chief of staff had been held captive by one of his own officers, 250 people died, the country's parliament had come under bombardment, while Mr Erdogan escaped from his holiday hotel only minutes before mutinous soldiers had arrived to capture him (or even worse).

The leaders of the two main opposition groups, Kemal Kilicdaroglu of the Republican People’s Party, and Devlet Bahceli of the Nationalist Movement Party, also addressed the rally in a show of unity. Mr Erdogan asked those attending to bring only Turkish flags, not party political banners. All Turks were to stand together to declare that the bad old days, when the army would stage a coup once a decade or so if the democratically elected government wasn’t to their taste, were over. "There is a new Turkey," said Mr Kilicdaroglu, and for a time it appeared he might be right.

Everyone knew that the Gulenist movement which had inspired, if not directly controlled, every aspect of the plot, had spent decades infiltrating the country's institutions. They had, of course, previously been Mr Erdogan's allies before becoming bitter enemies. But the Gulenist attempt to overthrow the government was seen as an attack on all, and a threat to the stability and primacy of Turkey's democracy, not just Mr Erdogan's AKP. So the Gulenists had to be rooted out. And yes, that might mean many thousands would have to be removed from positions in the armed forces, the judiciary and other agencies.

If one wanted to allow Mr Erdogan a very generous measure of doubt out of respect for the electoral victories the Turkish people have handed him time and again, one could point out that although 50,000 people have since been arrested, 48,000 have been released. One could respond to the fact that 150,000 people have been sacked or suspended in a similar vein, by suggesting that perhaps there were even more Gulenists than had been thought.

But the litany of oppression and jailings of figures whose crimes consist only of criticising Mr Erdogan, or of drawing attention to matters he doesn't like, has reached such a length that the patience of those who wish to find acceptable motives for his conduct has been exhausted. An opposition MP given 25 years in jail for “spying”. Newspaper editors and columnists detained and silenced. Other news organisation banned, and Wikipedia blocked. The list is endless.

Why make the effort to defend him? Why even be inclined to do so? Well, there are many in Europe and America, on both the left and the right, who are heavily invested in arguing that Islam and democracy are, in the end, just not compatible. However much they may say they support “brave Muslim moderates”, they believe ultimately that Islam is the problem.

Turkey's governing AKP once looked like a rejoinder to that. It was a vehicle for the views of the conservative Muslim masses who had finally been granted a fair share in the democratic process, after having been excluded by an overly strict and western-inspired secularism for so long. And having been made to wait so long, their commitment to democracy and equal rights was firm. They would not seek to impose their own version of a tyranny of the majority that had - ludicrously in a Muslim country - banned women from wearing headscarves in schools, courts and civil service premises.

There was also the view that the AKP represented a moderate end point that other Islamist parties might eventually reach, just as Ennahda in Tunisia has, as Hussein Ibish wrote recently in these pages.

Instead, the increasing authoritarianism of Mr Erdogan and the AKP (the two are now synonymous, although initially the party had been less of a one-man show) fuels the accusation that Islamist parties of any kind cannot be trusted. They are bound to start subverting the institutions and separations of power that underpin democracy, as Mohammed Morsi did in Egypt, because at heart, they don't really respect them.

That this should be the legacy of the coup, one year on, is a tragedy for Turkey, for all those who believe that Islam and democracy are entirely compatible, and for Mr Erdogan himself. He could have been the towering figure who gave voice to those who had been voiceless in Turkey for too long, but succumbing to his autocratic tendencies has diminished both him and his party. It is not too late to change course. If Mr Erdogan cares to remember it, the "new Turkey" could still be the one of last August's hopeful, inclusive and united rally.