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Very Turkish Abduction from the Seraglio and Crocodile Tears of the ‘West’

The international "friends of Turkey" bear a great deal of responsibility for Turkey’s predicament, a fact that the crocodile tears they shed today could not easily conceal.

Turkish forces taken soldiers into custody at the Gendarmerie General Command’s building in Ankara on July 16. Turkish officials say they have detained a least 6,000 in connection to Friday’s coup attempt. (Photo: Mehmet Murat Onel/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

The whole experience was psychedelic, even for seasoned observers of Turkish politics, most of whom were first-hand witnesses or indeed victims of the periodic interventions of the “guardians of the republic” – in 1960, 1971, 1980, 1997 and, for that matter, 2007.

Fighter jets and helicopters flying over Istanbul and Ankara, dropping bombs on police headquarters and the parliament, sporadically opening fire on civilians; tanks and platoons occupying central locations, among them the two bridges on the Bosphorus, the Ataturk airport, TV stations and General Staff headquarters; a president defying the mutiny on Facetime and calling the “nation” to take to the streets; a quick denouement which left 265 dead, 1440 wounded and an even stronger “strongman” behind.

No wonder, then, that media coverage of the putsch was, and still is, in disarray, where facts are mixed with rumours and lies, making a farce out of a tragedy that has been in the making long before July 15. “Seeking what is true is not seeking what is desirable”, Albert Camus once said, but it is what needs to be done, if only to be one step closer to what is desirable. So let us try to take the bull by the horns and question some of the “truths” that have been showered on us since that fateful night.

This was a coup

Technically, it was. And a bloody one at that. Yet there was something off about this one, particularly its timing and the way it was carried out. Mutinies by lower-ranking officers are not a rare occurrence in the history of military coups (just remember the 23-F failed coup in Spain or indeed the 27 May 1960 coup in Turkey staged by a group of 38 officers outside the chain of command), but this time the orchestrators remained anonymous until it was all over, apparently relied on very limited resources, a few F16s and Sikorsky helicopters, a couple of thousands of troops led to believe they were on a military exercise, and who hardly had any plan that would lead to a regime takeover, if that was ever the intention.

Clumsy and amateurish as they are, how were they able to organize this without leaving any traces? What were Turkish Intelligence, so vigilant when it comes to keeping track of insults against the president and his family, doing while these troops were mobilized? How could the putschists abduct the Chief of the General Staff Hulusi Akar so easily, again without anybody noticing? Assuming, as the government does, that this was a small clique, why did the rest of the army remain in barracks? Why would a coup which claims to have taken over “all governmental responsibilities of the Republic of Turkey” not go after the politicians who are actually carrying out these responsibilities? (P.S. Sending 16 soldiers to the presidential palace or a helicopter to the summer resort where Erdogan was spending his holidays several hours after the coup began hardly counts as “going after” politicians.)

The coup was carried out by a Gulenist faction

Or so the government claimed, and went on to arrest military personnel (over 6000 people at the time of writing) who were accused of being the sympathizers of the Pennsylvania-based cleric Fethullah Gulen. But the Turkish army is notoriously famous for its regular purges of officers suspected of links to religious groups, including the Gulen movement – even more so after the fall-out between the movement and the AKP government over a series of corruption scandals.

In fact, information leaked the day after the so-called coup revealed that the government had a list of officers allegedly affiliated with the Gulen movement and were planning to ask for their retirement in the annual meeting of the military high command on August 1. Some even claimed that this was the reason behind the clique’s premature attempt to topple the government.

Still, how did these officers manage to get through the various purges unscathed? If they were known to the authorities, why were they left in active duty? How do we account for the fact that most of the high-ranking officers associated with the coup had been promoted to these positions by the very government they were trying to overthrow, to fill the void created by the infamous Ergenekon and Sledgehammer cases related to various alleged coup attempts?


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Even more importantly, why and how were these names leaked, hence, as the official scenario goes, prompting a coup? If the Gulen movement was so active in the army (let us note here that even Erdogan’s military aid, Colonel Ali Yazici, is among those who are arrested), why did they wait until July 2016 and not act before Erdogan took control of practically every institution in the country?

Democracy has won

The pictures of ordinary people dancing cheerfully on top of tanks led quite a few observers to declare this as a victory for Turkey’s democracy. “Defiant Turks Stood up for Democracy – But Not Necessarily for Erdogan” read the title of an article by Contanze Letsch in The Guardian. But which Turks and which democracy?

The Turks who beheaded a petty soldier upon surrender on the Bosphorus Bridge? The mobs shouting “Allahu Akbar” while attacking Syrian refugees and Alevi neighborhoods in Ankara and Istanbul after it became clear that the putsch was going to be unsuccessful? It is true that the crowds took to the streets responding to Erdogan’s call on live TV. But that was a particular crowd, the 50 per cent that the president once said he barely kept at home, not the minority concerned with the rapidly deteriorating state of the regime.

It is no coincidence that 2745 judges and prosecutors, nearly a fifth of the total, have been dismissed, two members of the Constitutional Court – the highest ranking judicial organ in the country – were taken into custody just one day after the coup, and this in a country which ranks 151 in the latest Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index among 180 countries, has recently lifted the immunity of scores of opposition MPs, and has granted immunity from prosecution to security forces fighting against “terrorism” (a blanket term under which all forms of dissidence are lumped together), all these amidst allegations of war crimes on the part of the state in the course of the ongoing conflict against the Kurdish PKK.

Needless to say, a coup is not the solution to Turkey’s slip into some form of despotism (yes, authoritarianism is no longer the appropriate term to describe the current regime), nor should it be considered as the lesser evil that would save the country from the deep abyss it has sunk itself in. This should not however skew our interpretation of what transpired during and in the wake of 15 July – the final nail on the coffin of whatever is left of Turkish democracy, as Ayse Kadioglu put it her recent openDemocracy piece.

The ‘West’ stands by democracy

The White House, the Secretary of State John Kerry said, urges all parties to “support the democratically-elected government of Turkey, show restraint, and avoid any violence or bloodshed”. Similarly, the President of the European Council, the President of the European Commission and the EU High Representative on behalf of the EU Member States expressed their support for “the democratically elected government, the institutions of the country and the rule of law” (yes, the rule of law!) during a regional summit in Mongolia. Typically, however, neither the US nor the EU condemned the coup before it became clear which side was going to win, and it would not be far-fetched to say that the ‘West’ would probably have no qualms to work with a junta – as they previously did in Turkey, Egypt, Pakistan and countless other countries – as long as the military bases remain open, the fight against ISIS is not undermined and the flow of refugees stemmed. The international “friends of Turkey”—notably Barack Obama, Angela Merkel, Jean-Claude Juncker, and Donald Tusk—bear a great deal of responsibility for Turkey’s predicament, a fact that the crocodile tears they shed today could not easily conceal.

All in all, what we have been witnessing for the last couple of years is a bloody adaptation of Mozart’s masterpiece “The Abduction from Seraglio”, of which the 15 July putsch was simply the final act. In the original plot, Pasha Selim forgives Belmonte who tries to abduct his fiancee Constanze. We will see how magnanimous Turkey’s Pasha Selim will turn out to be in the face of his enemies and detractors. Until then, however, it might be advisable to stay away from the pasha’s harem.

Umut Özkirimli

Umut Özkirimli is Professor of Political Science at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies (CMES), Lund University. He is also a Visiting Professor at The Middle East Centre (MEC), London School of Economics and The Centre for Advanced International Theory (CAIT), University of Sussex. His most recent publication is The Making of a Protest Movement in Turkey. #occupygezi (edited collection, Palgrave Macmillan, 2014). He is currently working on the 3rd edition of Theories of Nationalism: A Critical Introduction which will be published in 2017.

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