How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
After last week’s failed coup in Turkey, observers quickly began fretting that the Recep Tayyip Erdogan government would start marching faster down the path of authoritarianism, drift further away from the Atlantic Alliance, and perhaps find itself tangled in prolonged civil strife. The authors Soner Cagaptay, Steven A. Cook, and Michael J. Koplow made such arguments in Foreign Affairs, for example, as did many others in different venues.
Although there are still many reasons to worry that Turkey could take a wrong turn, however, there is also room for hope. If the country’s political leadership seizes this opportunity, the summer of 2016 might mark a turning point for the better.
Turkey has always been a country held together by duct tape and wire. Turks might take pride in Kemal Ataturk’s founding dream of a vibrant, democratic, modern society, but Turkey today is anything but. Ankara describes itself as a bridge between civilizations but it belongs to neither East nor West. Turks champion the idea that their county is a cultural mosaic, but the government mutes the voices of those many cultures, literally and metaphorically, to keep public dialogue in monotonous harmony.
To some extent, Ankara’s insecurities are understandable. Turkey lives in a tumultuous neighborhood, the ghosts of a faded empire haunt the country’s collective memory, and its democratic culture has shallow roots. Indeed, before the founding of the Turkish Republic in 1923, Turkey had seen only 14 years of parliamentary democracy.
Had Ankara worked at that point to start building a robust democracy, it could have resolved some of these social tensions in the political arena. Instead, it erected an autocracy that kept the country together by destroying anything that risked pulling it apart. In turn, Turks united not behind a shared identity but behind shared grievances against the regime. Indeed, in the Turkish public’s collective imagination, there lurked inside the gray concrete slabs towering over Ankara’s government district an exclusive cabal of men wearing khaki uniforms and gray flannel suits, abusing the state’s power for their own profit.
The original excitement, and eventual exasperation, surrounding Erdogan’s rise in politics came from the fact that he was perhaps the first politician that openly promised to slay Ankara’s Goliath. His emergence coincided with one of Turkey’s most lurid political scandals. In November 1996, less than two years after Erdogan’s election as Istanbul’s mayor, a car crash revealed that a top police official, an ultranationalist hit man turned international drug trafficker, and a member of parliament who led a pro-government militia had been traveling in the same vehicle. What became known as the Susurluk scandal exposed a secretive network of officials and politicians working to advance their own interests. Although the true extent of this state within the state was never uncovered, the revelations stoked popular outrage against Turkey’s “deep state,” which greatly contributed to Erdogan’s political fortunes.
For his part, Erdogan pledged to clean the house in Ankara, put an end to its backdoor-dealing ways, and build a European future for Turkey. Also on his political agenda was opening up exclusive spaces, such as public employment, higher education, and roles in the business and intellectual elite, to religious conservatives. In this objective, religious orders, such as the Gulen movement, played a central role. Erdogan’s associates, many of whom sympathized with or belonged to such orders, cheered that being religious was no longer a hindrance in public life.
For secular citizens, however, his moves were the prelude to a religious takeover of the secular republic. They reminded that Erdogan once described democracy as a tram, one that you ride until you arrive at your destination, then step off. Islamists, they believed, were simply traveling toward their intended destination.
Erdogan did little to help ease such fears. He is a master opportunist who can switch from one position to another with speed. Depending on the mood of the moment, he could be a European-oriented progressive or a harsh opponent of diversity. At various times, he made common cause with seculars, social democrats, pro-European liberals, radical Islamists, Kurdish nationalists, and proto-fascists of the extreme right.
Reviewing Erdogan’s uphill climb to power, it is perhaps understandable that his instincts lay with survival, not statesmanship. In his wake, however, Turkey has been left in a place where seemingly nothing could bring people together, even for a shared moment of grief or triumph.
But now, perhaps for the first time in decades, Turkey is coming together in outrage against the failed coup and its alleged mastermind, the Pennsylvania-based cleric Fethullah Gulen.
An elusive figure, Gulen’s modern Islam movement, Hizmet, is believed to have millions of followers worldwide and billions of dollars in assets. It was also a powerful ally to Erdogan in his early years. Abroad, the Gulen movement is famous for its seemingly liberal and secular approach to Islam. At home, however, its murky past has created a deep-rooted aversion. (In a 2014 poll conducted by MetroPoll, one of Turkey’s premier polling outlets, Gulen’s favorability rating was at three percent, trailing even the Kurdish terrorist leader Abdullah Ocalan.)
Not helping matters has been the group’s apparent willingness to strike out at critics. After the 2002 assassination of Ankara University professor Necip Hablemitoglu, for example, Hablemitoglu’s family implicated Gulen, revealing that he had been working on an expose of the Gulen movement and had received death threats. The book, published posthumously, remains one of the most authoritative works on the movement. His murder remains unsolved.
Nedim Sener, the recipient of the 2010 PEN Freedom of Expression Award, was likewise arrested in 2011 after publishing a book exposing the Gulen movement’s role in the now-debunked Ergenekon and Balyoz coup plot trials. Sener, who also alleged Gulen’s involvement in the 2007 assassination of the Armenian journalist Hrant Dink, is one of many people, including former police intelligence chief Hanefi Avci and investigative journalist Ahmet Sik, who have endured similar ordeals.
The Ergenekon and Balyoz trials, in which an alliance of top military officers and secular power brokers were accused of plotting to overthrow the country’s elected government, led to the purge of thousands of secular officers and generals from the army. Even at its height, the case was widely viewed by legal and forensic experts as tainted by dubious evidence and was seen as an act of revenge carried out by Turkey’s Islamists, including the prime minister, against their former oppressors in the military. Many critics, such as Sener, Sik, and Princeton professor Dani Rodrik, whose father-in-law was one of the defendants, also argued that Gulen was running these cases from behind the scenes.
In 2014, following a slew of leaked tapes and a sweeping investigation against Erdogan’s inner circle, Erdogan, who had soured on his onetime ally, disowned the trials. One of Erdogan’s top advisers, Yalcin Akdogan, called them a “plot against their own country’s national army.” In a manner of few months, the convictions were reversed, the defendants were released, and the case collapsed.
Erdogan’s motivations are difficult to know. In retrospect, however, it seems clear that the trials paved the path for Turkey’s failed coup; many of the debacle’s leaders had risen up the ranks thanks to them. In fact, just last month, a former Ergenekon defendant, Air Force prosecutor-general Zeki Ucok, publicly accused more than a dozen generals for participating in the two conspiracies. Many of the those he named are now under arrest for their roles in the failed coup.
The most interesting part of the failed coup is that Erdogan’s worst enemies—the secular generals and the democratic opposition—helped save him from betrayal by his former friends—the Gulenists—who had thrived under his tenure. In a recent briefing, Deputy Prime Minister Mehmet Simsek gave a candid assessment of this irony. “It is true that during our time the Gulenists had a free hand. We accept that,” Simsek said. “Why? Because we didn’t have experience of running this country in the past. We did not have many people working in the Turkish bureaucracy.”
Even though the network’s secretive nature, complex structure, and long and convoluted history make it difficult to uncover the extent of its involvement, some of the evidence already points toward Gulen. In his testimony, Chief of Staff General Hulusi Akar, who was taken hostage during the coup attempts, said that one of the coup leaders offered to put Gulen on the phone to win his support. And several putschists, including Akar’s aide-de camp, confessed their allegiance to Gulen.
There is softer evidence as well. A police chief who had been removed in connection to the Gulen investigation was captured in a tank wearing military camouflage. A member of the special forces squad that raided Erdogan’s hotel had a handwritten note with religious invocations to “H.E.”—an acronym for “Hoca Efendi,” the appellation that Gulen’s disciples use for him. “He will be hanged at dawn,” tweeted a pro-Gulen journalist a day before the coup. A recent survey conducted by Turkish pollster showed that almost two-thirds of Turks believe that Gulen was behind the coup attempt.
Had the coup won the generals’ support or rallied the secular opposition behind it, it could have succeeded. Indeed, despite Gulen’s well-known disdain for Ataturk, his apparent disciples summoned all of Kemalism’s shibboleths. Their junta was ironically named Council for Peace at Home—an allusion to Ataturk’s famous mantra, “Peace at Home, Peace in the World.”
Before the coup, the government and the opposition had abandoned even the simplest gestures of goodwill, such as public handshakes. Now, however, they are talking again. In the parliament, Chief of Staff General Hulusi Akar was received with a standing ovation. Prime Minister Binali Yildirim publicly thanked all opposition parties for standing with his government. On Sunday, the secular opposition party CHP held a pro-democracy rally in Istanbul’s Taksim Square, which was the home of 2013’s Gezi Park protests and had been closed to public assemblies. Also in attendance were high-ranking pro-government figures such as Health Minister Mehmet Muezzinoglu and Istanbul’s mayor Kadir Topbas.
If Ankara can seize on this uncharacteristically conciliatory tone, the failed coup could prove to be a blessing in disguise. Instead of exploiting this crisis for political profit, Erdogan and his opponents have to start exploring common ground on controversial issues such as Erdogan’s plans for executive presidency, the rising terrorist threats from ISIS and the PKK, the Syrian refugee crisis, and the increasingly fragile economy.
Turkey defended its democracy. Now, the country needs to rebuild it, starting with a powerful parliament, a free media, impartial courts, and a healthy public dialogue that includes and respects every citizen. If Erdogan can achieve this feat, his name will enter Turkey’s political pantheon. If he doesn’t, Turkey could be torn further apart.