GUEST COMMENTARY - Perhaps nothing has changed Turkey’s domestic and international trajectory since the establishment of the Turkish Republic in 1923 than the failed military coup of July 2016, which gave Erdogan an unprecedented opportunity to satisfy his insatiable lust for power.
Righting the Wrong
On July 15, Turkey’s President Erdogan “celebrated” the sixth anniversary of a failed military coup—’a major victory’ that presumably protected the Turkish constitution and its democracy. Erdogan himself characterized the coup as a “gift from God” because it provided him with the ‘justification’ to declare a national emergency; less than a year after the coup attempt, he held a referendum to transform Turkey’s parliamentary democracy into an executive presidency, which he had been seeking for more than two decades. He mercilessly used his newly-acquired, near-absolute power to ‘cleanse’ the country of its domestic enemies and rule largely by decree, with little or no opposition to stop him.
One of Erdogan’s biggest shortcomings is his sense of insecurity which led him to embark on the greatest purge in Turkey’s modern history, while promoting Islam in order to cement his power without being challenged. Although he projects himself as self-assured and publicly exhibits confidence and assertiveness, his insecurity emanates from five different concerns:
He believed the military, which was assigned at the time the new Republic was created to safeguard Turkey’s democracy, was a threat to his unrestrained rule. The military toppled three governments before Erdogan’s rise to power—in 1960, 1971, and 1980—because they deviated from the constitution, and Erdogan was determined to emasculate the military and subordinate it to his whims. It is no wonder then that following the coup, he prosecuted over 23,000 military personnel for their presumed part in the insurrection.
Political rivals have always been a major concern, and his chosen opponent is Fetullah Gülen, whom he accused of being behind the coup. He stopped short of nothing to dismiss more than 100,000 public sector workers, including nearly 4,000 judges and prosecutors, from their jobs; over 321,000 have been detained since 2016 on suspicion of being followers of Gülen. To this day, Erdogan is trying to extradite Fetullah Gülen from the US but to no avail, as he repeatedly failed to produce evidence to prove Gülen’s culpability in the coup. Gülen sternly denies the charges against him and insists his Islamic Hizmet movement promotes peace and education.
The press was and still is one of Erdogan’s main targets. He shut down just about every single newspaper that dared to question any of his policies. As a part of his purge, he arrested more than 300 journalists, accusing them of bogus offenses. Nearly 180 of them continue to languish in jail, not knowing when or if they will ever be released. Thousands of academics and lawyers who likewise had nothing to do with the coup attempt were also imprisoned.
The Kurdish community is another source of deep concern to Erdogan, which he has and continues to persecute while denying them much of their inherent right to live in accordance with their tradition. The failed coup only deepened Erdogan’s concerns over the Kurdish community, as he remained fearful that the Kurds have never given up on their drive to seek autonomy, and incarcerated thousands of them as a part of his sweeping purge. To this day he continues to wage a merciless war against the PKK, which he considers a terrorist organization, and vows to hunt every PKK member until the last one is captured or killed. He even invaded Syria in 2016 in an effort to prevent the Syrian Kurds from establishing their autonomous rule, killing hundreds of YPG militia members whom he accused of being supportive of the PKK.
Since the failed coup six years ago, Turkey continues to suffer greatly on a number of fronts:
Turkey suffers persistently from high inflation and the Turkish lira lost nearly two-thirds of its value against the US dollar in the first five years after the coup attempt. As a result, millions have joined the ranks of the very poor and the forecast for economic recovery in the foreseeable future remains dim at best.
The Turkish public remains extremely skeptical and deeply concerned about the future of the country as there seems to be no relief in sight from the pressure and the oppression that have become routine. The people are living in fear as they are being constantly watched and listened to by his intelligence and security apparatus.
The relationships between Turkey and the US and EU have not recovered as yet as the US in particular remains deeply concerned about Erdogan’s conduct, especially his unabated human right abuses and violation of the sanctions imposed on Iran. Furthermore, his purchase of the Russian S-400 air defense system remains a bone of contention between Turkey and NATO.
The public’s trust in the government, the courts, the execution of the laws, the absence of justice, the rampant corruption of top officials, the Islamic AK Party’s devolution to being simply a rubber stamp for Erdogan’s every whim, and the government’s inability to address the people’s needs, have reached its nadir.
Tens of thousands of young Turkish citizens, especially from the academia, who feel robbed of their dignity and unable to freely engage in scholarly discourse about domestic and foreign policy, are leaving the country in search of a better future.
And finally, Erdogan’s stated objective to have zero problems with neighbors ended up with Turkey having problems with just about every neighbor—from Greece and Cyprus to Israel, Armenia, Iraq, Iran, and even Georgia. He is now desperately trying to improve relations with many countries that he has alienated with very limited success, as he remains reviled for his ruthlessness at home and untrustworthiness abroad.
To be sure, given how much power Erdogan has been able to amass, it also leaves him vulnerable because much of what is going wrong now is attributed to him, as by centralizing control he has no one else to blame for the public’s suffering.
Next year, Erdogan will be presiding over the hundredth anniversary of the establishment of the Turkish Republic. He is desperately trying to portray himself as a new Atatürk (father of Turkey)—who founded the Turkish Republic in 1923 with significant Western orientation. In fact, Erdogan did not create a “new Turkey” and a sound democracy as he claims, but an autocracy that does nothing but continue to suppress the people and rob them of their dignity and future. This is the legacy of the failed coup.
Erdogan may still believe that the failed coup was a “gift from God.” I wonder how many of his countrymen share his wickedness and self-deceit. This article was originally published in KOHA Ditore as “Për Erdoganin, dështimi i puçit ishte një “dhuratë nga Zoti””.
(Dr. Alon Ben-Meir is a retired professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He taught courses on international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies for over 20 years.) [email protected] Web: www.alonben-meir.com