Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan — the most significant ruler in the republic’s history since its founder Mustapha Kemal Ataturk — is obsessed with Egypt. Three years ago, a military coup there ousted the democratically-elected President Mohamed Morsi, arrested him and his allies, ruthlessly cracked down on his Muslim Brotherhood, and installed a regime that remains in place to this day.
Morsi, an Islamist, seemed something of a kindred spirit to Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), a center-right party built on an ideology of Sunni Muslim religious nationalism. Erdogan fumed at Morsi’s removal and the brutal quashing of a government that, while unpopular, had won an electoral mandate. Many Egyptian Islamists who weren’t rounded up by the state fled to Istanbul to take sanctuary.
Last year, when the Egyptian government of President Abdel Fatah el-Sisi, the main architect of the coup, sentenced Morsi to death, Erdogan raged at both the powers-that-be in Cairo as well as the West, which had looked on at this extinguishing of Arab democracy with seeming indifference, perhaps even tacit relief.
“Egypt has given a death sentence to a president elected with 52 percent of the vote. Egypt is returning to the old Egypt,” he said, referring to its decades under dictatorship. “The West, unfortunately, still does not reveal its stance against the coup leader Sisi. While Western countries have been abolishing the death penalty, they are watching the death sentences in Egypt in complete silence.”
The echo of Egypt is important now, as Turkey reels in the grips of an attempted coup launched on Friday night against Erdogan’s rule. At the time of writing, it seemed the coup plotters weren’t blessed with an Egypt-style scenario: all of Turkey’s major opposition parties rallied around the elected government, despite their political differences. Mass protests on the streets appear to support Erdogan and AKP rule.
According to some accounts, protesters even brandished the four-finger “Rabia” salute, a direct nod to the suppressed Islamists of Egypt.
During two election campaigns last year, Erdogan spoke gloomily of dark forces working against democracy and his government — foreign conspirators, even a “crusader alliance.”
In public statements, Erdogan and other members of the government also directed their ire at the Gulen movement, anchored to the spiritual teachings of an aging cleric who lives in Pennsylvania. The Gulenists, once Erdogan’s friends, now supposedly sought to undermine the government through their proxies in various institutions of the state.
To outside observers, including this reporter, Erdogan’s paranoia seemed a deliberate political calculation, aimed at rallying conservative and nationalist Turks to his banner.
But maybe Erdogan had a point.
Turkey has a long history of military coups. Meddling officers unseated governments in 1960, 1971, and 1980 — the coup-makers then put into place Turkey’s current constitution. In 1997, the stern “recommendations” of the military initiated what was called a soft coup, forcing an Islamist party out of office.
Yet, since Erdogan and the AKP came to power in 2002, it has seemed the age of the coup was over in Turkey. The country has had steady, stable civilian rule. Elections have been held and proceeded, more or less, without too much of a fuss. The shadow of the deep state — the conspiratorial movers and schemers behind the government — seemed to have been dispelled.
As their rule brought about considerable economic and social reforms in Turkey, Erdogan and his allies built what seemed like an ironclad grip on the levers of power: A majoritarian electoral mandate aided by a dysfunctional opposition; a judiciary largely bent in its favor; a military brass cowed into submission after a series of trials against alleged conspirators.
In recent years, though, Erdogan has possibly overstepped. After a decade as prime minister, he won election for the presidency — technically a ceremonial and apolitical role — and set about refashioning the Turkish republic in his image. He sought an executive presidency with expanded powers; in Ankara, he built a vast 10,000-room palace for himself.
As myriad rights groups and opposition parties allege, Erdogan’s authoritarian style grew apace. Major opposition newspapers and TV stations were shuttered or taken over; journalists and dissenters have been arrested on various charges. Even his one-time closest political ally was sidelined.
Meanwhile, the disaster in Syria — and Turkey’s own bungled policies in the region — fueled unrest within the country. The Kurdish insurgency flared up. The Islamic State, which critics say gained ground through Turkish negligence, started attacking targets within Turkey. The assault on Istanbul airport last month, it seemed, marked a new dangerous moment of open conflict between the jihadists and the Turkish state.
And now this. It’s unclear who the coup-plotters are. Turkish government officials say they are a clutch of military officials who were Gulenist sympathizers set to lose their jobs in an upcoming purge. Few observers believed the military’s top brass, despite their schooling in the army’s particular secularist ideology, would ever contemplate a coup against Erdogan and the AKP. In March, the general staff even issued a statement denying allegations in the media that they were contemplating some kind of intervention.
But that was less true for lower-ranked officers, such as those potentially involved in Friday’s coup attempt. In a prescient piece written last year, Turkish academic Burak Kadercan suggested not to “rule out coup attempts from mid-level officers, who may act as more agile actors who can operate and organize in secrecy, especially in a political landscape marked by civil strife and chaos.”
That Turkey in chaos is in no doubt. The question remains where does it go from here. Its democracy looks set for rocky times, no matter who — Erdogan or the coup-makers — prevails.