[Prefatory Note: This post offers a commentary of recent dramatic developments within Turkey and the largely critical international media and diplomatic responses. It compares international reactions to political ruptures in Iran (1979) and Egypt (2011, 2013), and encourages greater public attention to the importance attached by the Turkish citizenry to the defeat of the coup attempt and more sympathy with the kind of political leadership provided by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan since the coup attempt of July 15th.]
Aftermath of Political Ruptures: Iran, Egypt, Turkey
A political rupture is a sequence of events affecting essential relations between state and society, and its occurrence is neither widely anticipated nor properly interpreted after its occurrence. After a rupture there occurs a revisioning of political reality that involves a recalibration of state/society relations in ways that remain occasions of enduring historic remembrance. Often these occasions are negative happenings, as Pearl Harbor and 9/11 are for the United States, but sometimes they epitomize points of light in the past as with July 4th commemorating the issuance of the Declaration of Independence.
9/11 was the most recent American experience of a political rupture. It resecuritized state/society relations within the country and transformed foreign policy. It marginalized debates about economic globalization and enlarged the war paradigm beyond conflicts between and within sovereign states. In so doing it highlighted new features of intrastate conflict, treated the entire world as a counterterrorist battlefield, and rewrote the international law of self-defense. Instead of responding to attacks, national self-defense, understood as policy rather than right was dramatically extended to encompass remote perceived threats and even latent potential capabilities.
Another innovative feature of major conflicts in the present global setting is the preeminence of non-state actors as principal antagonists. This preeminence takes the dual form of the United States as ‘global state’ and ISIS, Al Qaeda, and other as non- or at most quasi-territorial political actors, but surely not Westphalian states as understood by the membership rules of the UN. The United States in many of its roles and activities operates as a Westphalian state that accepts limits on its sovereign rights based on internationally recognized borders and the territory thereby enclosed and respects the sovereignty of other states. What makes the United States a post-Westphalian or global state is its projection of military capabilities throughout the entire world reinforced by non-territorial patterns of security claims along with extensive global networks of diplomatic, economic, and cultural influence.
What this all mean is complex, evolving, and controversial. It does signify that war has again, as before Paris Peace Pact of 1928, become a largely discretionary domain of policy, at least for geopolitical actors. We are experiencing, in the arresting phrasing of Mary Kaldor, an era of ‘new wars.’ The rewriting of international law is being done by way of authoritative and largely uncontested state practice, mainly that of the United States. At the margins, there persists a subordinate interpretation of international law of war that clings to what is written on the books, inscribed in the politically unrevisable UN Charter, and shaped by quite divergent authoritative practices that provides a useful summary of expectations with respect to uses of force. Jurists have yet to clarify, much less codify, these new realities in a reformulated jurisprudence that to be usefully descriptive must respond conceptually and normatively to the increasingly post-Westphalian character of world order.
There are also more contained political ruptures that have their primary focus on the internal nature of state/society relations, and seem to be territorial or regional occurrences that may have global repercussions, but do not challenge the preexisting frameworks of law and security that shape world order. I have a particular interest in, undoubtedly reflecting my experienced proximity to three political ruptures that have taken place in the Middle East: Iran, 1979; Egypt, 2011/2013; Turkey 2016. In each of these instances, the issues raised touched not only on the control and reform of state structures, but also on state/society balances pertaining to security and freedom, the relations of religion and politics, the contested agency of popular social forces, and the expansion or contraction of constitutional democracy. In each of these national settings, the controversial responsibility of the United States as influential actor introduces the often problematic role of a global state as a crucial actor in the interplay of contending national political forces.
Comparing these political ruptures is instructive with respect to grasping what works and what fails when it comes to transformative politics that are variously engineered from below, from above, from without, and from within to achieve or resist fundamental changes. In some instances, there are coalitions of forces that blur these distinctions, and the interaction is dialectic rather than collaborative or antagonistic. Especially, the imagined or demonstrated relevance of external involvement gives rise to conspiracy explanations, which are denied and hidden until the whistleblowing of Wikileaks and its various collaborators exposes more of the truth, although not necessarily a coherent or widely accepted counter-narrative. The formal diplomacy of world order is still largely premised on the autonomy and legitimacy of sovereign states, the major normative premise of the European invention of the state-centric Westphalian system, but this has always been qualified to varying degrees by geopolitical ambitions and realities, and despite the collapse of colonialism, this hierarchical ordering role remains a defining feature of the contemporary world, but it tends to have become more covert and difficult to establish on the basis of open sources. Unlike the imperial past when geopolitical hierarchies were overt and transparent, post-Westphalian patterns of intervention and extra-territorial governance are largely kept as hidden from public scrutiny as possible.
My intention is to mention very briefly the experiences of Iran and Egypt, and concentrate on the unfolding situation in Turkey after the failed coup attempt of July 15, 2016. Because these developments in Turkey have yet to assume a definitive or final shape, the fluidity of the situation is illustrative of the forces in contention, and the outcome will for better and worse influence the future of Turkish democracy as well as exerting a major impact on regional and global alignments.
Iran 1979: From the perspective of 2016, it is difficult to appreciate the intensity of the political rupture brought about by the extraordinary popular uprising in Iran that brought an end to the dynastic rule of the Pahlevi Dynasty by the abdication of the Shah. What was extraordinary beyond the display of the transformative impact of a mobilized people, prepared to risk death by confronting the violent guardians of state power, to express their opposition to the established order, was the role of Ayatollah (or Imam) Ruhollah Khomeini in leading the anti-Shah movement. In its failure to perceive the threat to the Shah until it was far too late, the United States was blindsided by the emergence of political Islam as a source of resistance to its grand strategy in the Middle East that was constructed around the ideological suppositions of the Cold War, that is, being anti-Soviet with respect to international alignments and anti-Marxist, pro-capitalist with regard to internal political llfe. Islam was treated either as irrelevant or as an important ally.
Iran was a major theater of contestation throughout the Cold War. It should be remembered that the United States has somewhat admitted the CIA role in the 1953 coup against the democratically elected government of Mohammed Mosaddegh. It was claimed that Mosaddegh was opening Iran to Soviet influence, but the moves against him seem mainly prompted by his strident form of economic nationalism, climaxing with the nationalization of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. It is notable that after the Shah was put back on his throne, an early initiative was to re-privatize the oil industry, dividing ownership between European and American oil giants, thereby supplanting British corporate dominance of Iranian oil production.
The 1979 rupture was notable in several respects: the emergence of political Islam as a formidable challenge to Western interests throughout the post-colonial Middle East; the revolutionary transformation of the Iranian state, establishing an Islamic Republic governing a theocratically reformed constitutional framework and an accompanying state structure; the identification of the United States, as ‘the great dragon,’ the principal enemy of Iran and Islam, a situation further aggravated by the hostage crisis following the occupation of the American Embassy in Tehran that lasted more than a year; the inflammatory impact of the failed American-led effort to achieve counter-revolutionary goals by encouraging the Iraqi attack in 1980 and by way of various covert operations designed to destabilize the country from within.
In its enduring effects, the political rupture of 1979 produced an Islamic theocratic state establishing a limited form of democratic governance, a prolonged encounter with the West as well as with regional rivals, especially Saudi Arabia and Israel; an ebb and flow between military threats, sanctions, and challenges directed at the leadership in Iran and diplomatic initiatives seeking some degree of normalization, most notably the Iran Nuclear Agreement of 2015.
Egypt 2011 & 2013: Without any direct acknowledgement to Iran, what took place in Egypt, following a similar rupture in Tunisia, was a successful uprising that led Hosni Mubarak, whose dictatorial presence had dominated Egyptian politics for 30 years, to relinquish political power. The enduring importance of the popular uprising was to exhibit the political agency of a mobilized populace in the Arab world, as well as demonstrate that social media could serve as a potent weapon of political resistance if properly used. Yet, in retrospect, the movement associated with Tahrir Square in 2011 lacked a political understanding either of the politics of Egypt or of the extent to which the established order encompassed the armed forces and was determined to retain control of the state after sacrificing its long term leader. The lack of awareness about the true balance of political forces in Egypt soon manifested itself by way of an electoral success of Islamic political parties, especially the party associated with the Muslim Brotherhood, far beyond what had been anticipated. The failure of the Tahrir Square militants to appreciate the counter-revolutionary danger was expressed especially by their willingness to leave the former governmental bureaucracy in tact and to view the armed forces as trustworthy executors of the popular will rather than as beholden to their affiliations with the old established political and economic order as it operated in the Mubarak era and by benefitting from its close professional and political links to the United States.
For all these reasons, the political developments in Egypt after the Muslim Brotherhood candidate, Mohamed Morsi, was elected president help us grasp the strength of counter-revolutuonary response that culminated in the coup led by General Abdul Fattah al-Sisi in 2013, with huge populist backing under the slogan ‘the armed forces and the people are one’ (or fingers of the same hand’). The result of the 2013 coup was the restoration of authoritarian rule, more bloody in its oppressive tactics than under Mubarak, a crackdown directed at peaceful demonstrators and extended to the elected Muslim Brotherhood leadership of the country, and significantly, an immediate smoothing of relations with the United States, European Union, and Israel, as well as being the recipient of a major infusion of economic assistance from several Gulf country governments.
What these Egyptian events disclose is the acute vulnerability of
an extra-legal challenge to the established order that fails to take control of key state institutions after succeeding in eliminating the dictatorial ruler. Further, that popular discontent can be turned against political reformism to turn back the clock of progress, especially if the armed forces remain responsive to relevant geopolitical priorities and the new leadership fails to deliver economic gains to the population, especially the urban poor. Perhaps, the most enduring effect of the combination of the 2011 and 2013 events is to overcome the earlier impression of the deeply entrenched passivity of the Arab masses, and the related insight that populism can work either for or against secularist or Islamic agendas depending on the domestic context, and its shifting balance of forces.
Turkey 2016: The coup attempt that came close to succeeding, but failed, on the night of July 15th, was immediately converted by the Turkish government into an instant holiday commemorating those who gave their lives to save the Turkish republic against its enemies. There is little doubt in Turkey, regardless of diverging views on other issues, that the Hizmet movement headed by Fetullah Gülen bears prime responsibility for the coup attempt. And there is again wide acceptance among Turks of the related perception that the United States Government aided and abetted both the coup attempt and had been deeply involved for many years in lending various measures of support to the Gülen movement. To what extent and to what end is much discussed, but with little hard evidence, but many suspicious links between the CIA and Fetullah Gülen have been exposed, including even sponsorship of Gülen’s green card residency in the United States by such CIA notables as Graham Fuller.
It is too early to sort out the facts sufficiently to put forward a clear account of the coup attempt, its peculiar timing, its botched execution, and its political intentions. What is clear at this point is that the failure of the coup is a political rupture unlike either the Iranian Revolution or the Egyptian uprising as reversed by a populist military coup. The reactions by the Erdoğan led Turkish government centered on seizing the occasion of the aftermath as an opportunity to forge unity and national reconciliation, and this has so far had impressive results in the principal form of creating a common front among the three leading political parties in the country, culminating in the Yenikapı rally that brought several million people together on August 7th in Istanbul to listen to speeches by the heads of the Government and the heads of the two leading opposition parties. As further signs of what is being called the Yenkapı Spirit were giant portraits of Erdoğan and Kemal Ataturk on the wall behind the podium used by the speakers, and as notable, a long quote from Ataturk in the midst of Erdoğan’s speech. This positive inclusion of Ataturk is a strong indication that the governing party is making a gesture of acceptance to Kemalists and other secular oppositionists who were viewed as the staunchest critics of Erdoğan’s style and substance, as well as providing reassurance that the Turkish state will not abandon its secularist orientation as it moves toward constitutional reform and the distinctive post-coup attempt challenge of eliminating Gülenist penetration from the institutions of state and society that had long nurtured subversive intentions in their secretive leadership cadres while pretending even to their faithful adherents to be promoting nonviolence, moderation, human rights, and a moderate, flexible Islam.
After such a long period of polarization the anti-Erdoğan secularists, although at least deeply grateful that the coup failed and intensely critical of the Gülenist plot as well as convinced of America’s dirty hands, remain wary and suspicious of Erdoğan’s motives. They point out that Ataturk’s portrait was only present and of the same size as Erdoğan’s because Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, leader of the CHP (Peoples Republican Party), made it a condition of his participation and presence. They also note that Erdoğan in his speech referred to Ataturk as ‘Mustafa Kemal’ avoiding the honorific name conferred by the Turkish Parliament. Opponents of Erdoğan contend that he is using the atmosphere of heightened patriotism to carry out a government purge, detaining and purging thousands, declaring a state of emergency, whipping up popular support for restoring the death penalty, and pushing ahead with plans for a referendum that endorses his strong advocacy of constitutional reform featuring the establishment of an executive presidency with minimal checks and balances.
Tempering this skepticism of the anti-Erdoğan secularist are several considerations that lead to a more hopeful overall appraisal of the present situation. First, and foremost, Erdoğan has staked his politica future on an approach based on reconciliation that to work in the future entails a commitment to greater participatory and more inclusive democracy. This may seem expedient, but was far from predictable prior to July 15th. It would have been quite feasible in the inflamed post-coup atmosphere for Erdoğan to have strongly reaffirmed majoritarian democracy, claiming that he had received a mandate from the Turkish people to govern without constraint and to reconstruct the state along lines favored by the AKP. The reconciliation approach may not last, and depends on mutuality, but as long as it does, the stress on inclusive democracy implies a willingness to make compromises, including the reaffirmation of a secularist foundation of the proposed new constitution. True, Kılıçdaroğlu’s bargained to get Ataturk’s picture to hang at the rally, but the willingness of Erdoğan to give ground and exhibit flexibility is what gives ground for hope about the future.
As far as the mass suspensions are concerned, especially as involving journalists, the media, and educational institutions, there are reasons for concern. There are also contextual reasons to be
hesitant about voicing criticisms oblivious to the security threats that are still present and hard to assess and identify. After all, the Turkish state barely survived a coup arranged from within, and evidently reinforced by elaborate networks of Gũlen supporters that had infiltrated so widely as to make it virtually impossible to distinguish friend from foe. Part of the Gülen strategy was to gain and spread its influence through its extensive school system and the government-run military high schools. There are numerous seemingly reliable reports that entrance exam questions were given in advance to students later made subject to the cultic discipline of the Hizmet movement. What remains to be seen is whether a conscientious effort will be made to distinguish between innocence and guilt in accordance with due process and the rule of law. The state is entitled to take reasonable measures to protect itself, and this includes the declaration of a 90 day ‘state of emergency,’ but a claim of extraordinary authority is still a time to ascertain whether the rights of citizens are being respected and distinctions made between the guilty and the innocent. Again, if Erdoğan wants to sustain the Yenkapı Spirit, he has a strong incentive to avoid launching a witch hunt, and to roll back quickly excesses whenever detected.
The political rupture in Turkey, up to this point, concerns the core of state/society relations. The fact that the failure of the coup attempt is being mainly attributed to ‘the people’ is a recognition of the power and responsibility of the citizenry to defend an elected government when threatened by unlawful and violent seizures of power. As such it extends the democratic mandate beyond the ballot box, and explores a protective role for and responsibility of the Turkish populace. In the case of the populist role in Iran and Egypt, it was to mount opposition against the abuses of the state, while in Turkey it was quite opposite–the defense of the state against a hostile and unlawful enterprise of subversion led by Gülen operatives in the military.
As with the earlier ruptures in Iran and Egypt, the United States Government seems to have had a shadowy, as yet unproven, role in the events of July 15th, as well as in the buildup over the years of the vast networks of Gülen influence, not only in Turkey but by way of its educational presence in over 100 countries. The American relationship with Turkey is deeply at risk if it turns out that the CIA was actively intervening in an important NATO ally. Anger and suspicions resulted from the failure of the U.S. to show more support for the elected Turkish government as the coup events unfolded, contrasting unfavorably with an immediate response by Russia and Iran. The persistence of anti-Americanism is also dependent on how the United States handles Turkey’s formal extradition request. For technical legal reasons, as well as probable political embarrassment, it seems extremely doubtful that the request will be granted. As Erdoğan has already made clear, an American refusal to extradite, regardless of reasons given, will be viewed as unacceptable. In Turkey it will not lessen the anger if the decision is couched in standard legal reasoning (no prospect of fair trial; possible retroactive application of capital punishment; and accusation centered on non-extradictable political crime). Recall the United States refusal after 9/11 to accept the response of the Taliban-led Afghan government that it would be willing to deliver Osama Bin Laden, but only if it was given convincing evidence of his role in the attacks. Such a response was put to one side, and did not for an instant divert the Bush presidency from moving ahead with its regime-changing military intervention.
As with the Iran rupture, the developments in Turkey seem already to have had profound geopolitical effects, especially greatly strengthening Turkish moves toward establishing a close diplomatic and economic relationship with Russia, moving closer to Iran, and adopting a less zero-sum approach to the Syrian conflict. As yet neither Ankara nor Washington has mentioned these policy shifts as potential sources of tension. In fact, the U.S. Government has indicated its willingness to explore seriously the Turkish extradition request. Much is at stake, including the fight against ISIS being carried on from the major American Incirlik Airbase where 50 nuclear weapons are reportedly stored.
Post-rupture Turkey presents many uncertainties at this stage. Among the most important are the following:
–is there a continuing serious threat of a second coup attempt?
–will the current spirit of reconciliation based on participatory and inclusive democracy hold? Will it be broadened to include the pro-Kurdish political party (HDP)? Will Erdoğan revert to his earlier (2002-2009) style of moderate and pragmatic leadership, abandoning the kind of authoritarian ambitions that proved so divisive after 2010?
–what impact, if any, will Erdoğan’s Muslim devoutness have on the political future of Turkey?
–how will geopolitics be affected? A diplomacy of equi-distance as between Russia and the United States/Europe? Realignment by shifts toward Russia, Iran, maybe China and India?
How these various questions will be resolved cannot be foretold with any confidence, and depend on complex interactions within Turkey, in the region, and the world. It would encourage better future outcomes if the media in the West adopted a more evenhanded approach that empathized with the trauma generated by the coup attempt and the difficulties of restored confidence in the loyalty of public institutions, particularly the armed forces. Unfortunately, up to now, the positive aspects of the response to the Turkish rupture of July 15th have been largely ignored in Europe and North America and the problematic aspects stressed usually without even making due allowance for context.