Phase one of the Turkish coup attempt was its surprise inception on the streets of Istanbul and Ankara. Phase two saw its almost equally surprising defeat at the hands of an odd alliance of people power and paramilitaries. The third and most crucial phase, now beginning, is whatever new normal will settle in its aftermath. So far, we are seeing a purge of public officials, including the suspension of more than 15,000 education staff.
What or who instigated the coup remains widely and wildly debated.
A long-discussed proposal for granting Turkish citizenship to Syrian refugees, contested amongst Turks fearing the mass enfranchisement of a new wave of voters indebted to Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), recently seemed to come closer to reality. Turkish national identity has defined itself as proudly distinct from Arab identity. Some argue that it was this idea that the nationalists in the military felt the idea unsavoury.
The military are also being driven by Erdoğan into a bloody and populist war against Turkey’s Kurdish population, and others suggest that this, augmented by jitters at mounting domestic terrorism, provided generals with a spur to take decisive action. A large proportion of the foot soldiers (many of them conscripts on mandatory national service) perpetrating the coup had seemingly only been told they were taking part in a training exercise. Those men – viciously beaten, shot, summarily executed by an angry mob – should be counted amongst the first victims of the failed coup.
But such hapless soldiers are only the latest in Turkey’s slide to lawlessness. The pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) has long stressed Erdoğan was already in the process of orchestrating a slow motion coup that seized for him all levers of Turkish power.
Since Friday’s events, The EU commissioner responsible for Turkey’s EU membership bid, Johannes Hahn, has gone some way to corroborating this position. Hahn has noted that more than 7,000 Turkish civil servants have now been dismissed or detained. Many appeared on a list of those the government had already sought to purge from the judiciary, military or police. If the targets had an inkling of what was to happen, this could be another reason for the hurried coup.
As in many countries, Turkish citizens back a reinstatement of the death penalty. Erdoğan has suggested that his newfound sense of democratic mission may require him to heed that popular call, something Angela Merkel has already said would spell the end of any EU accession for the country. The closure of that long-suffering option would spell trouble in what Europe might do about its Syrian refugee population, and remove a precious bargaining chip in dealings with Turkey, but would be a relief to many.
With so much unknown, many commentators are still expending considerable energy on the idea that the plot was an inside job by the AKP. It is an unfortunate, but essential, part of democracy to believe a government capable of terrible acts, deceits and intrigue. But scepticism can also be a different form of dogma. Accused by Erdoğan, the Islamist leader Fethullah Gülen pointed a finger right back at his estranged ally from his home in the United States.
The United States holds an interesting role in the affair. Its use of Turkey’s Incirlik airbase for its missions into Iraq and Syria has been contentious. Then there are the allegations from inside the AKP that the US were a possible partner in Friday night’s takeover attempt. This accusation, though it may play well on the Turkish street, won’t help Erdoğan in efforts to either extradite Gülen, or secure international support in whatever he does next. It seems unlikely that such unhelpful remarks would have been made if – as some suggest – the AKP had, from start to finish, been in complete control of events.
The personality of Erdoğan himself, long the sole custodian of any real power in Turkey anyway, will determine much of what happens next. If he deduces that he was saved from a coup by democracy then there will be cause for hope. But if his judgment is that he was saved by his own power, strength, cult of personality – then we have cause for worry. If any of those still close to him in the AKP (such as the former President Abdullah Gül) can convince him that the coup attempt was a reaction to his seeking too much power, and not from having too little, then again there could be some hope.
The early signs are not good. An intruder shot and killed the deputy mayor of the cosmopolitan Istanbul district of Sisli in his office. Istanbul residents have spoken of AKP loyalists, chanting Islamist slogans while walking the streets in search of alleged coup supporters and dissenters. These “Greenshirt” activists look likely to consolidate their nascent role as the party political footsoldiers of Erdoğan. Heartbreaking news from Ankara reports of the vandalism of a memorial to those people, Kurdish and non-Kurdish, who were killed there in a terrorist attack visited upon a demonstration in December 2015.
With a coup seemingly behind us, there should be no mistake that Islamism in Turkey has been melded closer to the aggression of populist nationalism, to create a threat that now stretches far beyond Turkish borders.