January 18, 2020
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The Sultan’s Scimitar

After the failed coup, the purge. Turkey’s president, Erdogan, shows a heavy hand.

The Sultan’s Scimitar
Set against a backdrop of flag-waving supporters, Erdogan mourns at the funeral of two anti-coup Turks
Photograph by AP
The Sultan’s Scimitar

Out Of Ankara

  • A failed coup in Turkey on July 16 resulted in the death of around 300 people, including plotters, civilians and pro-government forces
  • Around 50,000 state workers—policemen, army personnel, judges and teachers—were arrested/suspended
  • Erdogan blames the coup on supporters of US-based Turkish religious leader Fethullah Gullen
  • Turkey demanded the extradition of eight army officers who fled to Greece.  A Greek court has sentenced them to two months in prison. There are also rumours of 14 missing warships under rebel command.


Recep Tayyip Erdogan is not known to be a leader who takes dissent lightly. He has earned the dubious track record of going after his critics—irrespective of age, sex or nationality—in so ruthless a manner that though he is admired by a large number of Turks, he is also despised in equal measure by people who regard him as modern Turkey’s most divisive and authoritarian leader.

In the past 13 years of Erdogan’s rule—11 of which was as prime minister and the last two as president—he has jailed a 16-year-old boy for tearing up his poster and given a suspended jail sentence to a former beauty queen for sharing a poem critical of him on Facebook. Besides, hundreds of his detractors in the army, judiciary and universities have been forced to share space in prisons with his political opponents. Erdogan has also muzzled the media by summarily dismissing respected journalists, replacing them with his own men and shutting down widely-circulated newspapers, TV stations and journals. Over 2,000 defamation cases have been filed against critics of Erdogan, who’s also the chief of Justice and Development Party (AKP), Turkey’s Islamist ruling party. His vindictiveness, at times, has travelled beyond Turkish shores to target those who have tried to embarrass him in interviews and press interactions.

But what does one make of last Friday’s attempted coup, in which a section of the military tried to capture parliament, airports and other important installations and oust Erdogan from power while he was vacationing outside the capital?

Turkey has had a long history of army int­erventions. Since 1960, there have been four occasions when the military toppled governments, or helped in their ouster, to restore the fundamental, fiercely secular principles on which modern Turkey was built. Kemal Ataturk, who built the nation from the ruins of the Ottoman Empire after the First World War, was a soldier himself and the army has enjoyed a privileged position in Turkey. But the last time it intervened was in 1997. In 2007, when the army tried to prevent a founding member of the AKP, Abdullah Gul, from becoming the president, people protested, making clear their dislike for military rule. Under Erdogan, the army has been marginalised further. The common Turk’s anger against the coup attempt is thus unsurprising.

But the episode will not end in the dra­­matic, uplifting images of Erdogan’s supporters taking to the streets to defy rebel soldiers and their subsequent hum­iliation. As is evident in the crackdown on hundreds of top army officers, and thousands of soldiers, judges and teachers, the Turkish president and his followers will now get down to the task of a brutal weeding of those deemed to have helped in the coup. Already, 50,000 state employees have been sacked or suspended, scores of educational institutes shut down, foreign travels banned for academics. The government also revoked press credentials of 34 journalists, alleging them to be close to the plotters. Evidently, the three-month period of emergency in Turkey is meant for more of this.

The single-minded ruthlessness of Erdogan’s crackdown in such a short time has surprised most observers. The Turkish president has blamed the coup attempt that claimed 300 lives on the US-based religious leader Fethullah Gullen, a for­­mer ally whose supporters run a worldwide network of schools.

Turkish soldiers involved in the coup incur public wrath in Istanbul

Photograph by Getty Images

The emergency will radically enh­a­­­nce Erdogan’s powers, enable his cab­­­­inet to enact laws bypassing parli­a­ment and the constitutional court and give him the right to restrain the media. Crucially, it also gives the state the right of extra-judicial arrests. Erd­o­gan has also hinted that he might rein­troduce the death penalty, which will hamper Turkey’s chances of joining the European Union.

“We will continue to cleanse the virus from all state institutions, because the virus has spread. Unfortunately like a cancer, this virus has enveloped the state,” the 61-year-old Erdogan told  people in Ank­ara. “This measure is in no way against democracy, the law and freedoms,” Despite that claim, there is widespread apprehension that Erdogan will utilise the situation to consolidate power, isolate critics, and thrust a divisive Islamism on Turks.

Much of the worry the outside world has about the future course of events in Turkey stems from the situation in the country, the region and in neighbouring Europe. Erdogan, once admired for bringing political stability and helping Turkey grow at an average of 4.5 per cent per annum, had started losing much of his support, with a slumping economy and mounting terror attacks by ISIS and Kurdish separatists adding to his inc­reasingly authoritarian ways of dealing with both critics and crises.

Interestingly, less than a decade back, Erdogan was a poster-boy for not only the Islamic world for championing the Palestinian cause, but also an acceptable leader to the West, under whom both Islam and democracy could coexist. His rising stocks had even promp­ted US President Barack Obama to visit Turkey and make a strong case for Turkey’s inclusion in the European Union. But his growing intransigence in the face of domestic political isolation has started worrying his NATO partners as well as his regional allies.

Gullen, who has denied involvement in the failed coup, has hinted that last week’s dra­­matic developments were per­­­­haps a stage-managed show to allow Erd­ogan to consolidate his position.

The Turkish president has the opp­­or­t­­u­­nity to ‘cleanse the system’. His main objective may be to show a staunc­hly secular army its place to strengthen his Islamic agenda. But rising INS­tability in Turkey—a gateway to Eur­ope ringed by a tumultous West Asia—can inflame anew the world’s most conflict-ridden region.

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