Untangling the Coup: Leadership and National Identity in Turkey

On 15 July 2016, troops entered Istanbul, seeking to take control of the capital. The army declared that the purpose of this coup was to preserve democracy from the threat of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. In response, the President encouraged the Turkish people to go out in protest against the coup attempt. As a result, thousands of people poured onto the streets to resist the attempt, ultimately ending the coup.

Military interventions are embedded in Turkey’s history; if successful, this would have been the fifth such intervention since Turkey’s founding as a modern republic. The military intervened in the 1970s and 1980s when economic issues, political polarization, and extremism threatened national security. After every coup, they returned power to the democratic process. This has led to an interesting phenomenon such that while coups are typically seen as weakening democracy, the case of Turkey shows them maintaining it. In an article in the Middle East Quarterly, David Capezza argues that ‘rather than hinder democratization, Turkey’s military remains an important component in the checks and balances that protect Turkish democracy’. Likewise, the New Yorker describes the military as a ‘firewall against encroachments on secularism and the Constitution, guarding the aspirations of its founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’.

Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff

Image courtesy of Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff, © 2016, some rights reserved.

Indeed, the concern with Ataturk’s legacy is a central one in Turkey. Many have accused Erdogan of seeking to destroy that legacy. When a new bridge across the Euphrates was to be named after Erdogan, critics reportedly complained of the creation of a cult of personality around him. His Islamic tendencies have caused anxiety in a country where Kemalism, the political ideology named after Ataturk and which includes rigid secularism, has long ruled. He has, for example, introduced compulsory religious educations to schools which many see as diametrically opposed to the secular foundation of Turkey.

Furthermore, Erdogan does have issues with authoritarianism. Peaceful anti-government demonstrations have been forcefully repressed, university professors threatened for urging peace with the Kurds, and the army purged in a series of legally questionable trials. Perhaps most strikingly, after the coup, a state of emergency was declared in which an estimated 60,000 people were arrested, or removed or suspended from their jobs in a massive state purge; over 10,000 people were held in detention centres.

Overall, Erdogan is seen as trying to create a new Turkish identity based on Islamism and the Ottoman heritage. Erdogan and Ataturk are seen as opposites; the common view of Ataturk supporters is a contrast between ‘the modernizer and the reactionary, the pro-Western secularist and the anti-Western Islamist’. Despite their significant differences, there are interesting similarities between Erdogan and Ataturk. Politico suggests that ‘the real comparison between Erdoğan and Ataturk lies in the two men’s authoritarianism’, and discusses their common disregard for democratic processes in favour of a populist, nationalist authoritarianism. Erdogan has jailed and sued critics. During Ataturk’s regime, Kurds were resettled, severely culturally restricted, and their ethnic identity denied, renamed as ‘Mountain Turks’. Continuing in this legacy, after a two year ceasefire, Erdogan is now declaring airstrikes on Kurdish PKK camps.

Likewise, they have both manipulated history to build their own narratives of what Turkey should be. Erdogan’s attacks on Ataturk resemble ‘Ataturk’s own attacks on the Ottoman sultans he overthrew in creating modern Turkey’, with both drawing on narratives of elites indifferent to the Turkish people. And now, both have overcome significant threats to Turkey’s stability: Ataturk by fighting the Western partition of Turkey after WWI, and Erdogan by surviving the military coup. Erdogan has used this to create a new image for himself, one rivalling Ataturk. The New York Times reports the coup attempt has been called Turkey’s second war of independence.

It has also led to new myth-making which has elevated Erdogan’s image and status. It is notable that it was Erdogan’s word which precipitated such a response to the coup from the populace. In a gathering in Istanbul, Erdogan’s picture was seen prominently side by side with Ataturk’s, and Erdogan ‘was hailed as the commander in chief’. A story of Erdogan narrowly escaping his hotel has been compared to a near-death experience by Ataturk. All of these serve to elevate Erdogan in the national mythos. Erdogan’s popularity ratings have also risen greatly after the coup, despite the state purge.

This has caused the coup to have uncomfortable reverberations in Turkey’s relations with the West. Erdogan has long been viewed in the West as increasingly authoritarian and anti-secular, something that has made Western leaders uncomfortable and fostered distrust.

In turn, Turkey views the West as unsupportive and potentially implicated in the coup. It is widely believed in Turkey that Fethullah Gulen, a dissident cleric living in the United States was responsible for the coup. That the United States has not extradited him provides a point of blame for Erdogan and his supporters. Further bitterness comes from Western responses to the coup. The West has criticized the purges which had led to accusations that ‘Obama and other leaders appeared more concerned about the crackdown after the coup effort than the overthrow attempt itself’. These accusations are fueled further by long-standing beliefs in Western insincerity stretching back to the Western partition of Turkey in World War I. Thus there has been a souring of relations between the West, especially the United States, and Turkey, which has further complicated the effects of the coup.

The true significance of the events of July 15 are not yet clear. The coup has presented a variety of complex issues that cannot easily be answered. Questions of national identity and governance are of prime importance; Turkey has a complicated legacy with democracy, the military, the role of leaders in national identity, and the West, which the coup has brought to the forefront. As leader, Erdogan’s actions, and reactions to them, have created the current situation. Erdogan is also at the centre of these issues as a symbol of deeper tensions around Turkish identity and belief.