How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
In a half-decade of extraordinary moments in the Middle East, images of citizens swarming tanks and other military vehicles have been among the most arresting. Within the emerging iconography of the era are photos from early July 2013 that capture overjoyed Egyptians celebrating that the military had emerged from its barracks to depose the country’s elected president, Mohammed Morsi, ending the Muslim Brotherhood’s year-long experiment in governance. The intervention reaffirmed the military’s prestige, influence, and authority in the Egyptian political system. Last Friday night, similar scenes played out in the streets of Istanbul and Ankara. Instead of joy, however, Turks were outraged that members of the military sought to depose President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a politician who has been winning elections as mayor of Istanbul, prime minister of Turkey, and head of state since 1994. The attempted coup failed, a purge is underway, and the Turkish armed forces—the second largest military in NATO—is in chaos. How was it that the Egyptian officers managed to do what that one faction in the Turkish military could not, especially given Turkey’s extensive history of coups? The answer lies in the interventions themselves and the underlying worldview that served as the basis of the officers’ apparent power.
As other analysts have already pointed out, a variety of technical reasons explain the failure of last Friday’s coup. The plotters couldn’t arrest Erdogan, they were unable to establish control over communications, airports remained operational, and government ministers remained at large. In Egypt, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi—then the Minister of Defense and now the country’s president—managed to handle all these tasks relatively efficiently. Unlike in Turkey, where within the first hour of troop deployment, Prime Minister Binali Yildirim appeared on television to declare that the military movements were unauthorized and vowed that those responsible would be punished, Egypt’s civilian leaders were under guard. The Egyptian officers also demonstrated a unity of purpose in contrast to a Turkish force that was, unbeknownst to most, deeply divided.
These explanations make sense, but they obscure a deeper, more important difference between Turkey’s military and its role in politics and its Egyptian counterpart. For as long as anyone can remember, academic observers and journalists have portrayed the Turkish General Staff as close to all-powerful. The commanders were adept at intimidating politicians, who were required to fall into line or fall from power. In the late 1990s, Bulent Ecevit, who would go on to serve as prime minister, signaled to Turks his fitness for office based in part on his ability to get along with the military.
To the extent that observers gave thought to Egypt’s senior commanders and their role in politics, they were believed to be relatively docile. Former President Hosni Mubarak’s dismissal of the highly charismatic Field Marshal Abdel Halim Abu Ghazala in 1989 (officially, he was promoted out of his post) was allegedly the moment in which the problem of civil-military relations were resolved in Egypt. In the decade or so before the uprising that toppled Mubarak in early 2011, Egypt’s Ministry of Interior seemed ascendant anyway. Egyptian and Western analysts began to believe that the military domination that began with Gamal Abdel Nasser and the Free Officers was giving way to a police state.
Neither the description of the General Staff nor that of the Egyptian military is inaccurate per se. Yet the image that the Turkish military was strong and that its Egyptian counterpart was passive is also false.
The Turkish military has long been politically weak, to which its four previous coups and its abortive intervention last weekend attest.Why did the Turkish military topple governments in 1960, 1971, 1980, and 1997? All these interventions were justified as protecting the republican nature of the political system and the principles of the country’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, on which it was based. In 1960, Prime Minister Adnan Menderes and his Democrat Party had, according to the colonels who deposed him, drifted from society’s values and disparaged the armed forces in the process. The 1971 “coup by memorandum” directed Turkey’s civilian leaders to alter parts of the constitution—written after the 1960 intervention—that the General Staff deemed “too liberal.” The junta that seized power on September 12, 1980, and ran the country for three years ordered up an entirely new constitution that, while endowing Turks with a variety of personal freedoms, was geared toward protecting the Turkish state from the people and the perceived depredations of civilian politicians who could not be trusted to uphold the values of Kemalism—secularism, republicanism, nationalism, statism, reformism, and populism. In 1997, the officers forced the government to agree to a set of demands—primarily related to secularism—that went unfulfilled. As such, the General Staff agitated, with the help of civil society organizations, the press, big business, academics, and politicians, to bring down the government.
One can understand why, based on that record, observers believe the military to be all powerful, but they must also understand why the military believed these interventions were necessary. Over time, increasing numbers of Turks refused to be bound by the politics that Kemalism—and the military—demanded. Had the officers and their civilian allies been successful in embedding Kemalist ideas as natural in the minds of Turks, there would have been no need to place officers on the High Audio-Visual Board and the Higher Education Board or to demand through a constitutional article that the government “give priority” to the recommendations of the officer-dominated National Security Council much less dispose of four governments over four decades.
In laymen’s terms, Turks were not buying what the General Staff was selling, so the officers were forced to keep everyone in line through coercion. The advanced weaponry and the destructive force the Turkish military can bring to bear aside, the repeated intervention in politics reveals not strength but rather manifest weakness. The military intervened because Kemalism, its guiding ideology and the wellspring of its alleged power, did not make sense to most people.
The Egyptian military provides a rather startling contrast. With the exception of 2011 and 2013, it has not needed to intervene overtly in the Egyptian political system, betraying a strength and public support for the officers who were not often seen stepping beyond the rarefied world of their barracks and clubs. Unlike their Turkish counterparts, the Egyptian military officers did not have to. The system in which they exist, which can be traced back to the moment when the Free Officers consolidated their power in April 1954, works, and the narrative about the military’s role in the of the country remains, with notable exceptions, largely uncontested. That account goes something along the following lines: In 1952, the military toppled an alien and corrupt dynasty. Four years later, the armed forces heroically defended Egypt’s independence when it repelled an Israeli, British, and French invasion. The loss of the Sinai Peninsula in 1967 was the result of Israeli aggression. The heroism of the soldiers of Egypt’s military made the Crossing of the Suez Canal possible in October 1973, successfully restoring Egypt’s national honor and ultimately its land. The Egyptian military is the guarantor of national stability and a force for modernization always in keeping with Islamic ideals.
The jubilant way in which Egyptians from across the political spectrum and up and down the socioeconomic ladder welcomed the military’s intervention that deposed Morsi speaks not only to how much they hated the incumbent president but also to how deeply favorable myths about the armed forces are held. This is why, despite the deterioration of Egyptian security, its flailing economy, and its shameful record of human rights violations, Sisi and his fellow officers know they maintain a reservoir of support.
The incompetence of Turkey’s coup plotters may have been stunning, but the failure of their putsch was not. The Turkish military has long been politically weak, to which its four previous coups and its abortive intervention last weekend attest.