Post-Coup Politics

The Turkish Patient

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan makes a speech during his meeting with mukhtars at the Presidential Palace in Ankara, Turkey May 4, 2016. To match Special Report EUROPE-MIGRANTS/TURKEY-CHILDREN REUTERS/Umit Bektas/File Photo
Europe is still deeply divided over how to respond to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's brutal response to an abortive military coup attempt two months ago.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    The E.U. response to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s putsch two months ago of thousands of government officials, teachers and journalists, will influence whether the nation ever joins the European Union.

  • Facts


    • Two months ago, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan ordered a brutal crackdown of an abortive coup attempt. The putsch of people who allegedly supported an exiled political leader and former Erdogan ally Fethullah Gülen, led to the arrest of thousands.
    • The putsch ignited a fierce debate in the European Union over whether to stand up to the Turkish leader, or to tolerate his drastic response to the attempt to overthrow a democratically elected government.
    • At the end of the day, the E.U. has confined its criticism to strong condemnation and has stopped short of sanctions, fearing that Turkey could back out of its deals to control the flow of Syrian and Iraqi refugees into Europe.
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Two months after the failed coup in Turkey, the country continues to suffer from its consequences. Government authorities have already raised the prospect of extending the state of emergency, initially imposed for three months. Of equal concern has the been the scale of the effort to purge the followers of the U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gülen, whose followers in state institutions are accused of organizing the coup.

Former Swedish prime minister and foreign minister Carl Bildt believes that “no one should be surprised that Turkey is now trying to purge Gülenists from positions of power.” As he puts it, “[a]ny state faced with insurrection from within would do the same.”

Yet the numbers seem wildly incommensurate with an effort to bring the mutineers and their backers to justice. “In addition to the discharge of nearly 4,000 officers, 85,000 public officials have been dismissed from their jobs since July 15 and 17,000 have been jailed,” points out Harvard’s Dani Rodrik, while “scores of journalists have been detained, including many with no links to the Gülen movement.”

Even President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has had to signal his displeasure that the net has been cast so frighteningly wide. An initiative to target the Gülen network is in danger of morphing into a plan to stifle dissent, with overzealous public prosecutors acting arbitrarily.

For many people, including me, the post-coup environment portends a turning point for Turkey’s domestic order and its relations with the West. When Mr. Erdoğan first came to power as prime minister in 2003 at the head of the Justice and Development Party (AKP), which he had helped establish just two years earlier, many observers believed that his government could be a model for reconciling modernity and democracy with Islam. Now they, and much of the world, are asking whether Mr. Erdoğan’s vision remains compatible with these aspirations.

With Friends Like These

The effort by elements of the military to topple Mr. Erdoğan, it is now clear, came as a complete surprise. It had been widely believed that he and the AKP had Turkey’s military firmly under their control. And yet a potent cross section of the Turkish military participated in the coup attempt.

The overriding belief is that the coup was orchestrated by Gülenist elements within the military. After all, the Pennsylvania-based Mr. Gülen and Mr. Erdoğan had once been close allies, and the AKP initially relied on Mr. Gülen’s Hizmet (Service) movement to populate public administration and the state’s security apparatus.

Not only did the two men appear to share the same Islamist vision, but the resources that Mr. Gülen could bring to bear were formidable. As Mr. Rodrik put it in 2013, Gülen’s followers “created what is effectively a state within the Turkish state, gaining a strong foothold in the police force, the judiciary, and the bureaucracy.”


turkey tornado sept 23 getty images anadolu agency
A tornado over Iskerun Gulf in Turkey’s Hatay province on Friday. Source: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images


But this mutually beneficial relationship soon deteriorated, evidently owing to the Gülenists’ insatiable appetite for influential positions within key institutions. The real turning point came in December 2013, when Gülen-affiliated prosecutors and judges leveled corruption charges against key government officials.

A bitter struggle ensued, described by Mr. Bildt as a “ruthless and increasingly destructive silent civil war between the AKP and its former allies in the Gülenist movement.” With the military widely seen as the last bastion of Gülenist influence, it is this struggle that appears to have culminated in the July coup attempt.

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