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In Turkey, the Real Coup Begins

Gershon Burstyn

The attempted coup in Turkey lasted less than 12 hours, but its failure will have repercussions for months to come

Wednesday, July 20, 2016


This is the last attempt of the secular sectors, because now Erdogan will crack down on them in a brutal way

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has arrested over 6,000 soldiers allegedly involved in the overthrow attempt, and there is talk of reinstating the death penalty to deal with them. More than 2,000 judges have been purged from their posts, though they seemingly had little to do with the armed revolt. An exiled Turkish cleric living in Pennsylvania whom Erdogan blames for the abortive putsch has raised the stakes in the conflict between Washington and Ankara. Watch for the fate of Fethullah Gülen to be a litmus test of Turkish-American relations. 

The dust has settled, but it is so far unclear exactly what happened. We know that a small faction in the military attempted to take control of state institutions and capture Erdogan at a seaside resort. We know that Erdogan made a nationwide appeal for Turkish citizens to take to the streets and resist the military takeover in large numbers, which they dutifully did. In the early hours of the crisis, some commentators even suggested that Erdogan had staged his own coup and would use the fallout to crack down on his political opponents. 

For Mordechai Kedar, an Israeli scholar of Arabic literature and a lecturer at Bar-Ilan University, that’s an unlikely scenario.

Turkey's people showed they no longer have any appetite for political instability

“I doubt it, because he wouldn’t kill people,” Kedar said. “To me it looks like something that was premature. Preparations were very bad.” He cited sources who suggested that the coup was launched now because the police had sniffed out the plotters’ plan. According to this theory, they acted when they did in a desperate gambit to accomplish something. 

But from all appearances, they failed miserably. More than 200 people were killed in a night of sporadic fighting, but the putschists did not capture any state institutions, nor did they succeed in detaining top state officials. 

Kedar believes the explanation for the coup lies in the conflict at the heart of Turkish politics, the battle between secular and religious forces. Modern Turkey was founded as a secular state, but Erdogan represents a religious reaction, one that is increasingly entrenching itself. 

“This is the last attempt of the secular sectors, because now Erdogan will crack down on them in a brutal way,” he said. “This coup attempt will give [Erdogan] legitimacy to get rid of many of those who long for the secular era of Turkey.” 

The rebels in the military did not fully appreciate that the public — even the secular public — no longer has any appetite for coups or political instability, according to Nimrod Goren, a teaching fellow in Middle Eastern Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. When Erdogan broadcasted his FaceTime message to the masses to battle the putschists in the streets, the people listened and took on the tanks. 

“This time it was made clear that the Turkish public does not accept military coups as part of the political culture anymore,” Goren said. “Everyone was against it. They don’t want to go back to the days when Turkey was ruled by the military.” 

In the days ahead, Western governments will call on Erdogan to show restraint and respect democratic institutions and mores. But Erdogan, who already has a reputation as a dictator and a cunning political operator, will likely respect more the political rules of the Middle East: consolidate power and eliminate your enemies.

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