When Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in 2002, it was soon heralded as the potential ‘Turkish model’ for the wider Middle East to emulate and follow. Who wouldn’t admire the great success of the AKP in turning the once coup-ridden and economically stagnant country into a regional economic hub with successive and peaceful elections? Riding on the success of his economic policies, Erdogan repeatedly continued to win at the polls. Self-referencing itself as a conservative, rather than an Islamist party allowed the AKP to comply with Turkish constitutional requirements, but it was clear that the Islamists had successfully become a political power in a competitive democratic process.
Despite AKP’s increasing Islamization of Turkish policies and the growing influence of the religious establishment, many Turks continued to support the party because the government delivered on economic growth, employment and visible infrastructural investments. Across Turkey, once-quiet cities became modern cosmopolitan centers with European-like infrastructure boasting excellent roads, sophisticated transportation networks, modern shopping centers, better housing and excellent airports. During the height of the Turkish economic success, even xenophobic Europe had to entertain the possibility that Turkey could join its coveted economic club. There was no denying that Turkey had become an economic giant in the wider region. International financial organizations heralded the country as an emerging market economy for its successes, along with strong fiscal and monetary policy management. The AKP rightfully took credit for helping Turkey cross over from hyperinflation and stagnation into the modern era; and with every successive electoral win, Erdogan grew increasingly more confident and worryingly more bellicose.
Turkey’s blatant religious turn raised the ire of many Turkish secularists still skeptical of AKP’s Islamist leanings. They idolized the republic’s founding father, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, and his coveted principle of creating a secular Turkey that would be more Westernized and less Muslim or Eastern. After all, it was Ataturk and his bottom-up social re-engineering of Turkish life that ended the Ottoman Empire and its Islamic legacy once and for all. From banning the Arabic alphabet in the Turkish language to prohibiting Islamic attire in public, Ataturk’s legacy was to prevent the rise of the religious establishment and to contain the faithful. Perhaps there was no institution more committed to Ataturk’s principles of secularism than that of the military. After all, it was the military that had forced the disbanding of AKP’s predecessor for using Islam in its platform. And with Erdogan’s rising economic and political influence, a clash was sure to transpire between the guarantors of Ataturk’s vision of the state and the confident Islamist who continued to consolidate his grip on power.
Erdogan has accused the military of attempting a coup d’état, one that has been in the works from the initial days of his taking office. Working with his onetime ally, Fethullah Gulen, and a network of loyalists from the highest echelons of the judiciary and the police force, Erdogan managed to fire and defang the top brass. But soon the president would set his eyes on Gulen himself, after his followers became so elusive and powerful that Erdogan called them a ‘parallel state.’ Few will know for sure, but when audiotapes of Erdogan, his sons, and his inner circle were leaked to show damning evidence of AKP’s corruption, Erdogan turned on the Gulenists and accusations of an attempted coup surfaced again. The allies had turned into foes. Now Erdogan’s mission was to crush Gulen’s powerful network of professionals and technocrats, believed to be found throughout the country. Erdogan’s personal vendetta against Gulen, the reclusive cleric in self-imposed exile in the United Sates, was plain to see and the mass firing, arrests and demotions of perceived enemies in the military, judiciary, media and civil service were at full speed. It seemed that few could stop Erdogan, and with every repressive sweep of the ‘parallel state,’ new enemies, both real and perceived, would emerge according to him.
As Turkey became impacted by the global economic slowdown and regional instability, Erdogan lost more of his gleam. And as the government became increasingly suspicious of its own citizens, the repression and oppression of political dissent continued to grow. The list of Erdogan’s enemies seemed endless; and some were of his own making, from yuppie environmentalists, to young Turks wanting to enjoy the interconnected world of social media, to political insiders within his own party. Yet, each time Erdogan stood for elections, rural and conservative Turks, including many of the new business elite that benefited from his economic policies, supported him. Winning through democratic means, alienating the 48 percent who did not vote for him and adopting increasingly autocratic policies, made Erdogan seem invincible and unstoppable. He had successfully consolidated his power, removed potential competitors within his own party and poised himself as the new Sultan of Turkey.
The threat posed by Erdogan, especially his proposals for constitutional changes that would further disempower the military, was likely the motivation behind the latest attempted coup d’état. Military factions feared this would be their last opportunity to stop Erdogan. This junta group likely calculated that the president had lost much of his popularity owing to the country’s economic woes, the wide perception that his Syria policy was implicit in the rise of Daesh’s threat within Turkey and the sense that he had created new political enemies who would welcome a coup. Moreover, the military’s ultra-nationalist ideology and training meant that it was likely appalled at Erdogan’s follies in dealing with the Syrian crisis, his government’s flirtations with Syrian rebel groups and his general welcoming of over two million Syrians into Turkey. The establishment was further dismayed by Erdogan’s failure to convince American and NATO allies of the dangers of empowering Kurdish rebels in Syria and Iraq. From the perspective of the military coup plotters, Erdogan had become a security threat to the Ataturk state from within and without.
The coup failed because the military faction did not bank on the people heeding Erdogan’s calls to take to the streets and defend democracy, a step criticized by many considering his crackdown on demonstrations in the past.
It did not expect a popular uprising favoring democracy, nor did they expect the lack of will among conscripted soldiers to fight against their own people. After all, Erdogan’s list of enemies was long and surely the people would support the military in rescuing the state. Yet, those who stood against the idea of turning the clock back to the 1980s were none other than the people, including all opposition leaders who loathed Erdogan for his oppressive policies. From the right to the left wing of the political spectrum, leaders denounced the coup. Ironically, Erdogan used social media and technology to call on people to stop the coup; yet, it was only a few years ago that he had shut down those same means of communication. While Erdogan will relish in the thought that those who opposed the coup were his admirers; the fact of the matter is Turks despise the idea of returning to the archaic form of military rule that seems incompatible with modern times. Erdogan’s authoritarian ways are far from ideal in the eyes of most Turks, and so the clash of societal expectations and his impulsive desire for consolidating power is foreshadowed.
Erdogan will surely go after his perceived enemies, under the guise of calling them Gulenists, to further consolidate his own lust for uncontested power; and the international community will continue to watch him do so. Erdogan will also not forget that his international allies, from the United States to the European Union, waited before making proclamations of support until after it appeared that the coup had failed. Erdogan knows that he could have been the next Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s fallen Islamist that few world leaders had shed tears for.
Erdogan now feels like he has a license to go after all remaining elements of the ‘parallel state.’ In the hours after the failed coup, Erdogan had already clamped down on the military and judiciary. It is the judiciary that had been one of the remaining organs of the state to challenge his constitutional reforms that would further cement his grip on power. They are the next to be defanged in a new witch-hunt that Erdogan has taken on personally. But, with the median age of the Turkish population being 28 years old, he should not assume he is loved by the masses. The Turkish model is no longer. Thanks to Erdogan, and in spite of its democratic system, Turkey is more likely to resemble many of the same Arab governments before the Arab Spring; autocratic, crony capitalist, and out of touch with its young and modern society. Coups d’états are often leaps backwards away from democracy, but Erdogan also continues to take his country steps back with every day he is in power.
Bessma Momani is Professor at the University of Waterloo and Non-Resident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Doha Center and the Centre for International Governance and Innovation.