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|Turkey: A War of Two Coups
by Sungur Savran
On the night of 15-16 July, Turkey went through a cataclysm that stunned the world: a huge section of the armed forces of the country (TSK in its Turkish acronym) attempted to take power from the government of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the AKP, came very close to its objective, but was ultimately defeated. Official statements of imperialist countries celebrate the triumph of democracy. Nothing can be farther from the truth. Furthermore, many commentators, remaining captive to the official explanation of the AKP government, point to the followers of Fethullah Gülen, a powerful imam who has been residing in the US for close to two decades now, as the culprit behind the coup. This is a mystification used by the AKP for various purposes, the most important being to ostracize the Gülenists and to hide from view that a much wider array of forces within the army have taken up arms. And on the left and far left, many are filled with excitement at the sight of civilians climbing over tanks and challenging with bare hands the heavily armed soldiers of the putschist forces. This, too, is a very distorted picture.
The correct characterization of the coup is not one of democracy defeating dictatorship. Two despotic forces faced each other and the more gradualist one won. Anyone who dares to talk about the triumph of democracy in Turkey is lying and deceiving the whole world. This episode was the result of a long-drawn out civil war between the two sides of what we as DIP (Revolutionary Workers' Party) have been calling the (bloodless) civil war of the bourgeoisie. This war has now been soaked in blood and a 24-hour civil war has shaken the country. The civil war of the bourgeoisie has now gone into its 14th year and, expectably, some of the protagonists have shifted sides. This is what complicates the picture. But divested of all the complications and reduced to its kernel, this coup was a struggle unto death of, on the one hand, those forces within the Turkish ruling classes who choose to anchor Turkey strategically to the imperialist West as opposed to, on the other, the up and rising fraction of the Turkish bourgeoisie who have cast their fate with Erdoğan and are looking for a future in which Turkey rules the Sunni Islamic world. This battle, as many of the previous ones, has been won by Erdoğan and his followers. This means that the road has now been opened towards a much more repressive imposition of a new regime that would strengthen the hands of Erdoğan, creating an autocracy of unimaginable proportions, at the side of which regimes like those of Russia's Putin or Hungary's Orban would stand like shining examples of democracy. This is why the outcome of the 15 July episode was not democracy defeating despotism, but the victory of the more gradualist despotism in the face of a more abrupt repression of all democratic forms.
As opposed to the immediate ending of any semblance of democracy that the coup represented, Erdoğan's is a long-drawn-out strategy of infusing extremely anti-democratic substance into seemingly formal democratic structures. Or rather it was. Like the Reichstag fire in the case of Hitler, this incident will, in all probability, be used by Erdoğan and the AKP as an excuse for throwing away all allegiance to democratic formalities. They have already started to do so, expelling at least 50,000 public employees from their posts in a matter of three days, with utter disregard for legal niceties. This orientation has already put to shame those who were vaunting the triumph of democracy in the aftermath of the failed coup.
In what follows we will try to answer three questions only. First, what was the array of forces that confronted each other in the putsch or, in other words, how did the civil war of the bourgeoisie play out in this episode? Second, how did this civil war have its refracted impact on the currents within the TSK (the armed forces) and what kind of place did this imply for the US vis-à-vis the coup? Third, what is the real role of the masses in the defeat of the coup? If we limit ourselves to these questions alone and also treat them in almost schematic terms, that is because the extremely complex nature of the dynamics of Turkish society in the recent period makes it impossible to take up all the questions relevant to the discussion of the coup. So we will not touch upon burning questions such as the relation of this process to the overall situation in the Middle East and in particular what we have earlier called the "Syrianization" of Turkey, the position of the Kurdish movement faced to the coup, the prevarications of many leading members of the bourgeoisie in this life or death struggle, and many others.
A War of Two Futures
Historically speaking, the Turkish bourgeoisie has been firmly committed to the so-called Western alliance. After World War Two, the country took its place as the only majority Muslim country in organizations as diverse as the European Council, the OECD, and NATO and has been desperately trying its hand at accession to the European Union (EU) for a full half century. This was very much in consonance with the orientation of the Kemalist republic established in 1923, which adopted a line that almost forcibly tore Turkish society from Islamic or oriental mores, customs, and culture and tried to make it a part of what Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the strongman of Kemalism, called "contemporary civilization," i.e. the Western world. The unstoppable rise of the Islamist movement from the 1970s onwards was closely related to the profound reaction of the working masses and the poor of the country to this forcible move and the divide between them and the ways of the bourgeoisie not only socio-economically but also culturally. Having taken over the position of leadership in this movement from the historic leader Erbakan in the early 2000s, Erdoğan, a capitalist merchant of humble beginnings, seemed to the masses as "their man." This, in effect, explains an overwhelming part of his extremely charismatic popularity with half the electorate.
This, of course, is only half the story. The other part is the rise of what was a provincial bourgeoisie, aspiring to become rich and powerful like their earlier dominant Westernized class brethren, but, feeling like the underdog, produced a different kind of political movement which posed an alternative program of Islamic unity, not only politically but economically as well. This wing had grown beyond a provincial wing of the bourgeoisie into finance capital by the 1990s, and they strove for power. The AKP is the expression of this class fraction. However, since Erdoğan is an extremely strong figure and has been so successful at the polls, many from the earlier Westernized wing have also joined him over time. Yet Erdoğan's obsession of becoming the "Rais" (Chief) of the Islamic countries of the Middle East and beyond has not subsided as a result, but on the contrary reached new heights.
So the AKP is incontrovertibly a party of the newly rising fraction of the Turkish bourgeoisie that draws its strength from the support extended to it by the poor masses, long time alienated by the Westernized wing of the same class. It must be added that the AKP is extremely hostile to the organized working class and has been administering the neoliberal class assault on behalf of the Turkish bourgeoisie all along. Naturally, it is not this aspect of its political practice that the Westernized wing detests, of course. It is Erdoğan's resolute drive towards Islamizing the country, the corollary of which is, in the last analysis, Turkey's divorce from the Western alliance that gives the Westernized wing chills. That is the logic behind the "civil war of the bourgeoisie," which, despite several episodes of extreme tension, remained bloodless until 15 July.
The picture became further complicated in 2013, when from practically (though not literally) being informal coalition partners up until then, Erdoğan and Gülen fell at each other's throats. This was the "civil war within the civil war." Gülen, under the guidance of the US, moved gradually into an alliance with other bourgeois forces opposing Erdoğan and his single-handed domination of the AKP. Among these forces there are the CHP (Republican People's Party, supposedly social democratic) and the MHP (Nationalist Action Party, the home-grown fascist party of Turkey with half a century of history behind it), but also a growing wing of the former leaders of the AKP, most notably Abdullah Gül, the former president of the republic, before Erdoğan took over in August 2014.
The Westernized wing of the bourgeoisie in its day-to-day dealings with the AKP government and Erdoğan bows meekly and respectfully. However, the expression of its long-term interests is found in a coalition of the forces we have just enumerated. We at DIP have called this coalition project (no concrete expression of such a coalition has yet materialized) the "American opposition." For two reasons, at least. One, the whole idea was whispered into the ears of the actors concretely by the then US ambassador to Turkey in 2013. Two, all of these forces are principled defenders of Turkey's alliance with the US and NATO, while Erdoğan prevaricates between NATO and US protection, on the one hand, and an open break with the US in order to declare loud and clear his leadership of the Muslim world, on the other.
These are the two camps that faced each other in bloody confrontation on the night of 15 to 16 July. That battle was won politically and militarily by the Erdoğan camp. Whether it will be the last battle is another story.
Pro-American, But (Probably) Not Made in the USA
The AKP government repeats to the point of nausea that this coup is the making of the Gülenists in the TSK. Even a cursory glance at the facts of the matter at this early stage would refute this dogmatically stated "truth." An amazing figure of 102 generals and admirals have been taken under custody. This is fully one third of the entire population of generals in the TSK that head combatant units. The operations of the putschists, which for reasons of psychological warfare were presented on that night as localized to Ankara, the capital city, and Istanbul, in effect extended over the entire surface of the country, sometimes down to the smallest locality and, what is more surprising, even to Turkish Kurdistan, where, one would presume, security considerations would have overridden the struggle against Erdoğan. The coup received support from all four forces: led by the air force, with its former commander, a four-star general, being considered the mastermind behind it, closely supported by the gendarmerie, present in the navy, it also included among its ranks a four-star general, commander of one of the four armies of the land forces. In short, considering that it was not organized along the chain of command, with the top brass remaining outside, it was an extremely powerful junta that emerged.
Now, if the Gülenists had been so powerful in the TSK, then Tayyip Erdoğan would without any doubt not have been where he is currently. They would certainly have removed him from office sooner. On the other hand, the TSK itself would probably have expelled these officers from its ranks much earlier. In all likelihood, the Gülenists were a small minority of the officers who supported the putsch. Why is it, then, that Erdoğan and the AKP government insist on such an implausible claim? That is because under Erdoğan's benevolent gaze, the Gülenists had, for a full decade, settled their people in positions of power in the judiciary, the police, the education establishment, and, to a lesser extent, the armed forces. They knew the ins and outs of Erdoğan's dealings and the corruption practices of the whole government. It is they who exposed him, his ministers, and his son in December 2013, when Erdoğan came to the edge of the precipice. They have all the evidence of his culpability. So they must be crushed. A supplementary reason is to provoke the ire of secular forces, both in the TSK and society at large. After all, why would seculars support the politico-military coup of a religious fraternity, even if they are fierily fighting a government that constantly makes new moves against secularism? So the junta extended across a much broader spectrum of forces within the TSK than the sole Gülenists.
The AKP is probably only popular with the top brass in the armed forces. The TSK has been a NATO army for six decades and this is what distinguishes it from all other Muslim-majority-country armies, making the somewhat premature idea that Turkey has already undergone Pakistanization extremely shaky. (Whether it may and will in the future is a very relevant but quite distinct question.) There is one current in the TSK that stands in close alliance with Erdoğan. Strange bedfellows, one is prompted to add instantly, since this current, generally recognized under the appellation Ergenekon, are the self-same people who were persecuted at the time the Erdoğan-Gülen coalition was riding high, being tried and sent to prison pending trial. Now they have turned around to support their erstwhile executioner, since what they are after is to recapture the positions they had earlier lost to the Gülenists. In logical consistency, they stood up against the putsch. Other than the top brass, the authentic Erdoğanists, and the Ergenekon, there remains a whole gamut of sensibilities in the armed forces which could be called pro-NATO and pro-US for that is the common denominator that brings them together. These officers have been educated by the NATO army to believe that Turkey can only be secure under US protection and the NATO umbrella. It is this quintessential officer typology that, in all probability, dominated among the putchists. So, interestingly, in a country that has been torn asunder for a decade and a half between Islam and secularism, it is an alliance of the pro-US seculars and the adepts of a religious fraternity under the protection of the US that led the putsch. There is evidence to show that the defeat of the coup owes, partially, to the seeds of dissension within this alliance contre nature.
At a deeper political level, the defeat appears to be the product of the contradictions of what we have above labeled the "American opposition." Of the two foremost wings of this set of forces, the CHP (so-called social democrats) greeted the coup attempt, in the first few hours, with an extremely vague and ambiguous statement, one that could later be interpreted as either pro- or anti-coup. On the other hand, Abdullah Gül, leader of the oppositionists within the AKP and known for his earlier sympathy to Gülen, kept silent until the balance of forces changed against the coup, but did at that stage come out squarely on the side of the government. In parallel to Gül's late intervention, the foremost TV channel of the secular camp, CNN Turk, moved from a midway position to one of open support to the government. So, from this evidence, one senses a sea change in the ranks of the "American opposition" at a certain stage, which roughly corresponds to the reversal of the fortunes of the two sides on the battlefront. It is difficult to conclude with certainty that the putschists lost as a result of the fact that they were abandoned by a wing (or wings) of the "American opposition," but there seems to be a correlation, if not a causal link.
The relation of the US to the coup is, obviously, a question of utmost importance. US imperialism had supported the last big successful coup that the Turkish generals had carried out in 1980 whole-heartedly. There were even grounds, without going into extremes of conspiracy theory, to think that it was planned and organized at least within the knowledge of the long-time ally, if not with its complicity. This time around, it is perhaps too early to find evidence of the US being the accomplice or even the instigator of the coup. There is some speculation concerning the strange behavior of John Kerry, who was then in talks with Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, the former cutting short their meeting upon receipt of news from Turkey. But this is easily explicable since it was exactly around that time when Turkish intelligence (the MIT) detected bad odor and moved to warn the TSK. No one in his or her right mind would doubt that that kind of intelligence sharing is bound to reach American ears as well. Turkey being a singularly important ally in the Middle East for the US, it is only natural that Kerry should be alarmed and cut a meeting short.
More generally, Turkey under Erdoğan has been a difficult case for US policy makers. On the one hand, the US has had its share of problems with Erdoğan. On the other, although they may be happy to see him go, nonetheless they realize that he is very powerful and they have to, in their own parlance, "work with him." Moreover, these recent years have seen considerable erosion in the power that the US wields, in particular in its dealings with the Middle East. So it is perfectly reasonable to conjecture that the US sat on the fence until it became somewhat clear who would win. But the coup itself was through and through pro-NATO and pro-US, as is also made clear by the statement that was read from the occupied studios of state TV, when the putshcists were at the apogee of their power.
We cannot, however, leave this topic without mentioning the utter hypocrisy of the AKP government on the question of its relation to the US. One of the members of the government wrote a column in a mouthpiece of the AKP, explicitly accusing the US for the coup. Evidence also indicates that there was a lot of active participation in the coup on the part of Turkish officers within the Incirlik base, from which joint operations are carried out to the rest of the Middle East. So the most logical thing to do for the government would be to immediately shut down the Incirlik base. But no, it still will do no such thing. What it is trying to achieve is to consolidate the support it already receives from the people by harping on their anti-Americanism and also to raise the pressure on America for the extradition of Fethullah Gülen. For the rest, Erdoğan and the AKP are pro-American as well. At least for the time being.
Reactionary Militia Versus the People
The third question we wish to take up is the excitement caused by the image of people swarming on top of tanks, which to the eye uninitiated in the intricacies of Turkish politics may seem as a great democratic reaction on the part of the people. To pose the question in the most blunt manner, this was not "the people" at large. These people were the supporters of the AKP, supported to a large extent by the rank and file of the fascist party, the MHP. People of other sensibilities, whether the social democrats or the Kurds or the Alevis (the minority religious denomination oppressed by the Sunnis) or the militants and sympathizers of socialist parties, were, as a rule, absent. This is not because these latter are less sensitive to democracy and freedom than the rank and file of the AKP and the MHP. Quite the contrary. They have (even some social democrats) in the past been at the forefront of the fight for all kinds of rights under the most difficult circumstances. The Kurds and the left were the main forces persecuted by the 1980 coup. If they did not stand up against this coup by going out on streets, that is partly a reflection of their concern that there would no place for them among the militant forces of the AKP and the MHP, whose violence can easily turn on them although they were protesting the coup. But that is only partly the reason. The real reason is that the supporters of the AKP were really not fighting for democratic rights but for the future autocracy that Erdoğan and his followers dream of. To put it in even blunter terms, the fight being waged on the streets between the forces of the putschists and the followers of the AKP was not a struggle between democracy and dictatorship but one between military despotism and fundamentalist Islamist-sectarian despotism. The social democrats, the Kurds, the socialists, let alone the Alevis, who are directly targeted by that sectarian despotism, have no place in those crowds. Not everyone who climbs atop a tank is a democrat. One should remember Boris Yeltsin, for instance, who fought a military coup in person, but then amply proved in his capacity of the president of the Russian Federation that he was no democrat.
We should also look into the composition of the AKP crowd. A sizeable minority of these people were armed. All men, they had come to "assist the police" according to their own statements. In many buildings that had earlier been taken over by the putschist forces, the fight to drive them out was waged by a combination of police officers and these civilians. Their activity is in our opinion akin to the activity of the paramilitary branch of a political party, such as Mussolini's or Hitler's armed militia. This has to be situated within the context of a new orientation on the part of Erdoğan. Ever since the Gezi uprising Erdoğan has systematically been building an array of paramilitary forces, ranging from the so-called "Ottoman corps" through reactionary Kurdish forces being prepared to fight the Kurdish movement to hardly disguised relations with notorious figures of the crime world. The coup pushed these paramilitary currents to test themselves unexpectedly early. The results show that the years of preparation were not in vain. The foot soldiers inside putschist troops, absolutely bearing no responsibility in the planning of the coup and largely helpless in the face of their superiors' directions, were in some localities subjected to blatant torture and in some cases to lynching, suffering death at the hands of these murderers of the AKP.
It is true that there was a larger component of the AKP crowd that did not display characteristics of a paramilitary force. But they were totally committed to a program that is ideologically and politically reactionary through and through. We are of the opinion that masses almost brainwashed by reactionary or fascist movements cannot be characterized as "people" or "the masses" without further specification. The latter can only be invoked when there is an element of spontaneity in the movement one is looking at (irrespective of whether some may belong to different organizations). The AKP masses were tightly disciplined partisans.
It is also important to note that the outpour of people was, at least partially, a result of imams calling out from mosques to the people to summon them, in the name of religion and fatherland, to the hotspots of action. The unusual experience of imams calling Muslims to the fight must have acted, in all probability, to increase considerably the numbers participating. Again, this shows that the crowds on the squares were not "the people" at large, but the militants of a political party. To speak in the abstract of "the people," ignoring the many determinations that shape each particular group of people, is not in order. It cannot be forgotten that these were the very same people who surrounded Erdoğan when he arrived in Istanbul in the midst of the Gezi uprising to chant "Tell us to kill and we will/Tell us to die and we will!" They are the sworn enemies of freedom!
We do not for a moment forget that a majority of the people were against the coup, even among those who have suffered so much under Erdoğan. In that sense, what has happened has ironically set a precedent for the future. Never before in Turkish history had this happened. Thus, contradictorily, it will serve as an example to more noble causes for resistance to forces trampling on democracy.
The Coup Is Dead, Long Live the Coup!
The reactionary nature of what has been salvaged from the coup attempt of 15 July is evident from what has been going on since that day. At the very moment when these lines are being written, the National Security Council, a body that brings together government members and the top brass, has finished an extraordinary meeting, to be seconded by a Council of Ministers, all to decide on extraordinary measures. Among the measures mentioned is the imposition of a state of emergency, although the final decision has not been made public yet.
The state of emergency gives the government and, in particular, the president of the republic such extensive powers that it is difficult to imagine any method of open and legal opposition to the AKP government in the foreseeable future. The provisions of the constitution in effect, a legacy of the military regime of 1980-83, stipulates the limitation or even the stoppage of the enjoyment of fundamental rights and freedoms, with barely exceptions for the right to life and the presumption of innocence. The section on the state of emergency, as many other parts of the constitution, was arranged so as to extend the powers of the head of the junta, who also had himself elected president of the republic in plebiscitary manner during the popular vote on the constitution in 1982. This fits Erdoğan's ambitions perfectly well. It will mean ruling as an executive president even before circumstances permit a change of the constitution -- Erdoğan's main objective will thus be fulfilled.
Thus the defeat of the coup has created a situation in which the AKP and Erdoğan are finally succeeding to impose their will on the peoples of Turkey. One coup may be dead, but the other one is well, alive, and kicking.
Sungur Savran is based in Istanbul and is one of the editors of the newspaper Gercek (Truth) and the theoretical journal Devrimci Marksizm (Revolutionary Marxism), both published in Turkish, and of the web site RedMed. This article was first published by RedMed on 20 July 2016; it is reproduced here for non-profit educational purposes.