Human rights After the Failed Coup in Turkey
[Prefatory Note: This article was first published in openGlobalRights, a section of openDemocracy, on August 11, 2016. It appears here as a post in a modified form.]
The July 15th failed coup in Turkey is a momentous occurrence, with uncertain implications for the future of the country, and serious reverberations regionally and with respect to relations between Turkey and the United States and Europe. It has already been designated as a new Turkish national holiday, and the main bridge over the Bosporus has been renamed ‘15th of July.’ Although many commentators rightly point to the risk to the rule of law posed by the sweeping post-coup suspensions, dismissals, and detentions, too few qualify these criticisms with a recognition that the defeat of the coup attempt was a major unambiguous victory for human rights and democracy, undoubtedly saving the country from a revival of past militarily oppressive tutelage and likely massive civil strife that could have easily become one more devastating multi-stakeholder Middle Eastern civil war.
The US and Western government’s criticisms of post-coup excesses would also carry more weight if important political leaders in the West had shown less ambivalence at the time of the attempted coup, and indicate their acceptance of the now well established allegations that the coup was plotted by a cleric given sanctuary in the US and carried out by those affiliated with a secretive cult headed by Fetullah Gülen. For the harshest Turkish critics of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan the coup was initially actually portrayed as ‘a counter-coup’ in reaction to the President’s alleged override of the constitutional system through his extra-legal and autocratic assumption of supreme leadership. Such critics often even call the July 15th events ‘a theater coup’ staged by the government to create a favorable political climate to further satisfy Erdoğan’s grandiose ambitions. For supporters of Erdoğan the coup attempt was a confirmation of earlier accusations and anxieties that there existed deeply embedded in the Turkish bureaucracy, including its armed forces and intelligence service, a dangerous parallel political structure that was intent on seizing control of the state without recourse to democratic procedures.
Three weeks later, at least within the country, almost all Turkish citizens except those implacably hostile to the AKP government are convinced that it was a genuine military coup attempt by the Gülen movement. Further, there is agreement that its defeat is highly beneficial for the country’s immediate future, and may have created a new set of circumstances in Turkey that could produce a more responsible political atmosphere, including a less polarized political discourse, allowing the opposition parties to play a more useful role in evolving a vibrant democratic political culture.
These potentialities contain extraordinary promise if measured against the poisonous political environment that had existed in Turkey prior to July 15th, with the opposition inalterably opposed to all aspects of the AKP approach to governance and intensely distrustful of Erdoğan. During the coup attempt the three major opposition parties (including the Kurdish HDP) signed a declaration of unity denouncing the coup attempt and pledging support for democratic procedures, including the rule of law. After this, Erdoğan invited the leaders of the two main opposition parties to the Presidential Mansion (yet unfortunately excluding the HDP) for a meeting to sustain this new spirit of cooperation and also to take an active part in the great national Yenkapı demonstration of August 7th that was attended by several million enthusiastic supporters of the government.
This display of unity among politicians in Turkish society is strongly, if cautiously, backed by views prevalent among the citizenry. Despite persisting concerns about Erdoğan’s leadership, no tears are being shed for the coup plotters. A Turkish consensus exists that July 15th was the sinister work of the Hizmet movement led by Fetulllah Gülen. For years, I had heard a variety of concerns about this movement, operating in secrecy, publicly preaching a doctrine of Islamic moderation while acting with the cultic devotion of political fanatics. It was known that Hizemt was collaborating with and supportive of the AKP until at least 2009 or 2010 after which a widening split occurred, climaxing prior to the coup attempt on December 17, 2013 when the so-called attempted ‘corruption coup’ occurred. The exposure of corruption at high levels of the AKP led to the resignation of four ministers, but did not deeply shake AKP control or greatly diminish public confidence. In many ways July 15th is being interpreted as a violent Gülenist sequel to their failed hopes of December 17th.
It’s worth noting that Turkish political culture had passively reacted to prior coups in 1960, 1971, 1980, and 1997. In 2016, the citizenry with Erdoğan’s decisive and dramatic encouragement massively and courageously opposed the effort to engineer a military takeover of the Turkish state. This popular involvement in the defense of constitutionalism is a momentous shift in favor of participatory democracy (defending the elected leaders) and the rule of law (upholding the constitutional paths to political control). It is an occasion of populist empowerment that has been extended in the following period by nightly mass rallies in every medium sized and large city in Turkey.
There is an obvious, and intriguing, comparison with events in Egypt over the course of the last five years. Egypt inspired the Arab World in 2011 by the display of the power of a mobilized people to challenge an autocratic and corrupt government, and overthrow a despised, dictatorial leader. The uprising against the Mubarak regime was actually facilitated by the neutrality of the Egyptian armed forces, and its later pledge to guide the country toward constitutional democracy. However, two years later, a military coup with populist backing occurred to overthrow the elected leadership headed by Mohamed Morsi. At present, Egypt is governed by an autocratic leadership that is even more oppressive than what existed during the three decades of Mubarak’s rule. This disappointing return to Egypt’s authoritarian past did confirm the historical agency of ‘the people’ for better and for worse. This is something new in Middle East politics where prior changes in governance almost always resulted from top down challenges reflected tensions within ruling elites. One important exception was the anti-Shah mass movement of 1978-79 in Iran that gave rise to the Islamic Republic of Iran.
In Turkey, it was an expression of Erdoğan’s political genius to have recognized at a moment of national crisis that the vast majority of the Turkish people would stand with and fight for the government rather than support the coup attempt; and they did, of course, occupying key public sites on the night of July 15th, most notably at the Istanbul Airport., and persisting in many encounters as unarmed martyrs in the face of gunfire from coup supporters.
The signals are now mixed as to what will be the effects of the coup on democracy and human rights in Turkey. On the one side, is the seeming switch on Erdoğan’s part to a more inclusive style of political leadership that had been noticeably absent in recent years. It would be welcome news indeed if Erdoğan abandons the sort of majoritarian democracy that led to his defiant disregard of opposition concerns rationalized as heeding the AKP electoral mandate. Far less encouraging is the seeming over-reaction to the coup attempt expressed by dismissing as many thousands from educational institutions and continuing interference with a free and critical media, although almost all of this journalistic crackdown has been directed at outlets affiliated with the Gülen movement. Unlike the large dismissals from the armed forces and several branches of government, these attacks on the institutions of a free society, do not seem justifiable poat-coup efforts to purge public institutions of dangerous and subversive elements. However, some appreciation of the context is warranted. The Gülen movement infiltrated and transformed the educational system as a way of gaining credentials for its followers to penetrate private and public sectors in Turkey, establishing over the course of decades powerful networks of subversive influence that subordinated their activities to the hierarchical directives of the sect. They also established a large number of media outlets to disseminate their views.
There are external dimensions of the post-coup realities that also complicate the picture, especially the feeling among the Turkish public and politicians that the United States was improperly involved in the coup attempt and, at best, neutral about its defeat. This issue of external solidarity is further being tested by whether the formal request of the Turkish government that Fetulllah Gülen be extradited in accordance with treaty obligations will be honored by the United States, enabling his criminal prosecution, and possibly involving the imposition of the death penalty. Extradition faces formidable technical difficulties. The legal defense of Gülen is sure to include several contentions: that he cannot receive a fair trial in Turkey; that Gülen’s activity was ‘political,’ and as such non-extraditable; that evidence of his specific intent in relation to the coup attempt is not present in a legally satisfactory form; and that efforts to restore the death penalty in Turkey to allow a court to decree his execution would be retroactive, and thus contrary to due process.
Despite the legal difficulties of granting extradition, should it be refused or too long delayed whatever the reasons given, Turkish anger will be intense. In Turkish public opinion harboring Gülen can be understood as roughly equivalent to what Americans would have felt if Turkey had given safe haven to Osama Bin Laden after 9/11; it is helpful to recall that the US felt justified in a regime changing military attack on Afghanistan just because the Kabul government was giving sanctuary to the al-Qaeda leadership and permitting its training facilities to take place. Turkish suspicions are inflamed by the realization that Graham Fuller, former CIA bureau chef in Turkey, together with other CIA former officials, sponsored Gülen’s application for ‘a green card’ legalizing permanent residence in the United States since 1999, reportedly visited Turkey shortly before the coup attempt, and published a pro-Gülen opinion piece strongly defending the movement and Gülen’s probable innocence with respect to the July 15th events. Fuller’s portrayal of Gülen flies in the face of many seemingly reliable insider accounts of how Hizmet movement members plotted, subverted, and were obedient to orders attributed to Gülen.
As of now, despite all the uncertainties, the failure of the coup attempt should be viewed as one of the few success stories of recent Middle East history. Whether this positive impression will soon be erased by repressive developments inside Turkey is uncertain. Much depends upon whether post-coup political unity is sustained and deepened, and whether a bold initiative is taken to reach an accommodation with the Kurdish movement that has been violently engaged with the Ankara government in recent months. It seems important for outsiders to be patient and to exhibit sympathy with the efforts of the Turkish government and its leaders to rise to these daunting post-coup challenges without unduly compromising human rights and the rule of law in Turkey. The world accorded the United States the benefit of the doubt after 9/11, and it should do no less for Turkey in the aftermath of July 15th. So far the responses from the United States and Europe have been tepid at best, serving to confirm the widespread feelings here in Turkey that somehow the coup attempt was directly or indirectly related to the belief that Washington could more effectively work with Turkey if the country was led by someone other than Erdoğan. No one has speculated on Washington’s Plan B if extradition is denied spurring Turkey to realign with Russia,, Iran, and possibly China. As of now, before the coup attempt, the Turkish foreign policy reset involved moving toward equi-distance diplomacy toward Russia and Iran, offset in its adverse Western strategic perceptions by moves to normalize relations with Israel.
Finally, in this period it is probably wise to separate human rights concerns from an appraisal of Turkish constitutional democracy. It is quite possible that present tendencies toward a more inclusive democracy will continue, and at the same time, denials of human rights are almost certain to persist, and justify scrutiny and vigilance.
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