For a leader already prone to authoritarian excess, the military’s abortive putsch plays right into his hands.
- By John HudsonJohn Hudson is a senior reporter at Foreign Policy, where he covers diplomacy and national security issues in Washington. He has reported from several geopolitical hotspots, including Ukraine, Pakistan, Malaysia, China, and Georgia. Prior to joining FP, John covered politics and global affairs for the Atlantic magazine’s news blog, the Atlantic Wire. In 2008, he covered the August war between Russia and Georgia from Tbilisi and the breakaway region of Abkhazia. He has appeared on CNN, MSNBC, BBC, C-SPAN, Fox News radio, Al Jazeera, and other broadcast outlets. He has been with the magazine since 2013.
If Recep Tayyip Erdogan had authoritarian tendencies before Friday’s surprise coup attempt, wait for what comes next.
As the sun rose Saturday, the Turkish president emerged victorious after tens of thousands of supporters answered his call to take to the streets in defiance of the military units that flew warplanes and helicopters over Ankara, sealed off the bridge over the Bosphorus, and ordered a state television anchor to declare that they had taken over the country.
“We are in charge, and we will continue exercising our powers until the end,” Erdogan said in Istanbul on Saturday as security forces loyal to him rounded up suspected ringleaders of the failed putsch.
Sporadic gunfire and explosions still echoed across Istanbul and Ankara, according to local reports, and at least 150 rebel troops remain holed up at army headquarters in Ankara. But Erdogan appeared to have weathered the worst of the storm and quickly won the support of an array of world leaders, including Secretary of State John Kerry, who expressed his support for “Turkey’s democratically elected civilian government and democratic institutions.”
The immediate expression of solidarity from Kerry stands in stark contrast to the Obama administration’s delayed and obfuscating response to the 2013 ouster of another democratically elected leader, then-Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi.
Still, while the bid to overthrow a democratically elected leader elicited widespread international opprobrium, many analysts fear that Erdogan will come away from the botched coup more emboldened than ever to impose his will on the country and ruthlessly root out his perceived enemies — actions he already alluded to on Saturday.
“What is being perpetrated is a rebellion and a treason,” Erdogan told reporters at Istanbul Ataturk Airport in the wee hours of the morning. “They will pay a heavy price for their treason to Turkey.”
As of early Saturday, the number of arrested military personnel has already risen to an astonishing 2,839 people, including high-ranking officers — and that figure is expected to keep growing. According to Turkey’s prime minister, 161 people were killed and 1,440 injured in the failed uprising. The military chief of staff, Gen. Hulusi Akar, was rescued after forces liberated him from an air base outside of Ankara. The prime minister, Binali Yildirim, has summoned lawmakers for an emergency meeting Saturday.
Though the exact rationale for the coup effort remains unclear, the Turkish military has long viewed itself as the guardian of Turkey’s secular and moderate institutions, the touchstones of the modern Turkish republic. But over the last decade, Erdogan has chipped away at those institutions by silencing dissent, expanding his grip on the judiciary, and chiseling away at the freedom of the press. Many Turkey watchers fear that Friday’s failed coup attempt will push Erdogan’s authoritarian tendencies into overdrive.
“There certainly will be blood,” Andrew Bowen, a Washington-based Middle East expert and and columnist at al Arabiya, told Foreign Policy. “Erdogan will move swiftly and ruthlessly after his perceived enemies.”
If the Turkish president views his survival as a mandate to assert greater control over the country, he’ll likely start with his long-running plan to rewrite the constitution to create an executive presidency that will give him greater power at the expense of the legislature and the prime minister.
“He could arguably make the case that it wasn’t Turkey’s democratic institutions that saved Turkey’s democracy, but him,” Bowen added. “His supporters have survived this experience and arguably have been more emboldened from this experience, giving him a stronger mandate.”
That’s troubling to a number of observers who have grimaced at the dramatic changes Erdogan has brought to Turkey in recent years.
After his bloody crackdown on Gezi Park protesters in 2013, public protest has become a heroic endeavor in and of itself. Under Erdogan’s rule, hundreds of journalists have been fired from major newspapers and magazines; several are behind bars. A 2016 report from Freedom House gave Turkey a “downward arrow” for the “intense harassment of opposition members and media outlets by the government and its supporters.”
As for Turkey’s legal system, a 2015 Human Rights Watch report warned that the government “has taken unprecedented steps to exert executive control over Turkey’s judiciary, to muzzle social media, increase media and internet censorship, and prosecute journalists.”
Although Turkey’s opposition parties took a principled stand against the coup, many of them will continue to face persecution under Erdogan, especially groups like the pro-Kurdish rights party HDP, which has opposed his pursuit of an executive presidency. Kurdish civilians have literally been caught in the crossfire, suffering curfews and worse as Erdogan has intensified his military campaign against the banned Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, a terrorist outfit.
The other question is what happens to the military. The group behind the coup called themselves the “Peace at Home Council,” a phrase coined by the founder of the country, Kemal Ataturk. After seizing television stations, the plotters quickly found themselves in a wider confrontation with crowds of loyalists and government supporters.
According to CNN Turk, the coup escalated quickly in Ankara after two busloads of military personnel stormed the headquarters of the state-run TRT news agency. Other reports said a military helicopter shot at a government building housing Turkey’s special forces in Ankara, killing 17 police officers, and that a loyalist F-16 shot down a Sikorsky helicopter used by members of the coup forces.
The bloated arrest list suggests Erdogan will oversee a significant shake-up of the army, even though he was careful to note that the attempted coup was not a reflection on the entire service.
“Turkish Armed Forces was not involved in the coup attempt in its entirety,” he said Saturday. “It was conducted by a clique within the armed forces and received a well-deserved response from our nation.”
Erdogan laid blame for the rebellion squarely on Fethullah Gulen, a reclusive Muslim cleric based in the United States whom Turkish officials routinely blame for fomenting unrest and dissent. But the government has not yet provided evidence of Gulen’s involvement, and the cleric denied any link to the uprising. In a statement, he condemned “in the strongest terms, the attempted military coup in Turkey.” Yet, according to the BBC, 2,745 judges have already been fired due to alleged connections to Gulen.
Still, Erdogan has long been suspicious, and by some accounts, paranoid, about the threat posed by the military. Friday’s botched coup attempt will only fan those fears.
“The coup attempt sought to turn Erdogan into a Morsi,” tweeted Hassan Hassan, a fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy. “He’s now poised to become a Putin.”