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With Blood They Consecrate a New Order: Erdogan’s ‘Revolution’

[Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan participating in the [Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan participating in the "Victory Day" ceremony, 30 August 2014. Image by Ex13 via Wikimedia Commons]

On the evening of 15 July 2016, in the midst of the attempted coup d’etat, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan landed in Istanbul’s Atatürk Airport after flying in from the holiday resort of Marmaris. His flight across the country may well have been a tense one as the Associated Press (AP) reported that his jet had been tailed by rogue F-16 jets. However, once on the ground, Erdoğan was met, not by putschist soldiers ready to lead him away in handcuffs, but throngs of supporters whom he addressed in his usual bellicose and belligerent style. Perhaps most striking in his address was his description of the attempted coup, which his government blamed on the "parallel state," a code word for the supporters of exiled Turkish cleric Fethullah Gülen, as a ‘gift from god’. With Turkish soldiers still holding key points in Istanbul this was a striking choice of words. However, as the dust settled and rogue military units melted away in the face of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) supporters that the president exhorted to take to the streets, it seems that the surreal events of 15 July were indeed a "gift from God." 

At first glance, the abortive coup looked like an amateurish affair; a throwback to the days when rolling a few tanks through the streets and taking over the state broadcaster would be enough to bring down an elected government. Subsequent information, which is still difficult to verify, suggests that the affair was far more organized than first assumed, enjoying serious support in from various sections of the Turkish armed forces, most notably the air force. Indeed, it seems that one of the primary reasons for the failure of the putsch was the fact that the Turkish intelligence services uncovered the plot at the eleventh hour forcing the anti-Erdoğan officers to act before they were ready.  Thus Erdoğan was able to address the public via FaceTime on CNN Turk, calling them onto the streets to defend the government. Sporadic fighting ensued as many ordinary Turks took to the streets to face down the military. At the vanguard of this struggle, which left hundreds dead on both sides, were supporters of president pro-Erdoğan. By Saturday morning, police backed by large crowds as well as what was increasingly looking like pro-Erdoğan lynch mobs–his "greenshirts"–had ensured that the government would not be overthrown. Subsequently, the internet was inundated with picture after picture (some of which have been doctored) of ‘greenshirt’ gangs beating, garrotting and, according to some sources, decapitating Turkish conscripts who had participated in the coup. This was followed by videos and pictures of generals, admirals and other ranked officers–many of whom looked like they had also suffered a beating–being lined up and having their mugshots taken by the Turkish police.

The fate of Turkish conscripts who were forced to face the wrath of the baying mobs is a sad one, especially as many of those involved in the coup believed themselves to be involved in a military exercise. However, it is harder to feel sympathy for the generals and admirals that sought to displace Erdoğan. Not only have these men gifted Erdoğan a pretext to strike out at his opponents, many of these officers were involved in the government’s ‘dirty war’ against the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). One of those brought out for the cameras was air force General Akın Öztürk, who was responsible for the 2011 massacre of some thirty-four Kurdish civilians at Roboski. Another was General Adem Huduti; an individual responsible for the brutal assaults on the Kurdish cities Cizre and Diyarbakir, conducted over the last year as part of operations against the PKK. Thus few tears will be shed, at least amongst Kurds and pro-democracy Turks, for such men. More generally, and despite what some of the more ill-informed Turkey-watchers believe, the Turkish armed forces have never really been a force for democracy in Turkey. Although the bloody coup d’état of 1960, which resulted in the execution of Turkey’s Prime Minister Adnan Menderes, did lead to the promulgation of a more liberal constitution, this outcome was an anomaly (largely because the job of writing a new constitution was delegated to a group of left-wing orientated academics and intellectuals). However, in 1971, 1980, and most recently 1997, the same army moved to ‘roll back’ democracy, ousting governments that they disapproved of, often rounding up thousands of Kurds, Islamists, and leftists in the process. The fact of the matter is, Metin Gürcan, put it: “A military government which comes to power via undemocratic means is still worse than the worst elected government.” Such words, coming from a former military officer and security studies specialist process a certain degree of irony.  Still, there is little doubt that this sentiment was shared by the vast majority of the Turkish population, many of whom have bitter memories of the brutal punishments meted out by the junta that took power in 1980. This includes the main opposition parties who, in a faint but real silver lining to this whole affair, behaved with admirable maturity, condemning the actions of the anti-Erdoğan camarilla.

However, the 15 July putsch has to be looked at in the broader context of recent Turkish history. To borrow the terminology of the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, what the junta attempted was a "war of movement," an effort to seize the levers of power through violent insurrection. Yet, today Turkey is a complex society with a relatively strong - by Middle Eastern standards- tradition of democracy and civil society.  Gramsci would have recognised that such an insurrection would be doomed to failure in an established ‘bourgeois’ democracy like Turkey. In elaborating upon his theory of revolutionary action, recognised the need for revolutionaries in advanced democracies to go beyond a purely insurrectionist approach to seizing power. More specifically, he argued that the power of the advanced democracies of the world lay not only in their security services, but also on their ability to exercise cultural hegemony over the masses. That is to say, the ability of the ruling class to impose its culture, values, and mores on the masses. Hence he proposed that the communist movement, when operating in such sophisticate political formations adopt the tactics of a "war of position." While this tactic did not preclude the need (at some point) for revolutionaries to use violence to take control, Gramsci argued that that the communist movement had to create its own ‘counter-hegemony’ to that of the ‘bourgeoisie’ through gradually inflating the institutions of state and establishing its own organs of civil society. When one looks at the history of Turkey since the AKP’s election in 2002, it is almost as if Erdoğan and his confederates had read Gramsci’s treatise on revolutionary tactics, repurposing them for their own political ends. One by one, Turkey’s diverse centres of power, in both the state and civil society, have been subjected by Turkey’s president. Indeed, one might note that there is some irony in "war of position" tactics have not been the preserve of the Erdoğanists but were pioneered by his former allies (now arch-enemies) the Gülenists.

In 2007, Erdoğan, apparently with the help of the Gülenists with whom he shared a common cause until 2013, launched a purge of the Kemalist old-guard within the military and bureaucracy. At the time, such moves had many supporters, including those on the left as well as the liberal fringes of Turkish politics. After all, it was not only the "Islamists" of the AKP who had faced persecution at the hands of Turkey’s Kemalist elite. Sadly, in retrospect, this move did not signal the maturation of Turkish democracy but rather the beginning of a process in which Erdoğan and his supporters would replace the Kemalists as Turkey’s new authoritarian elite. Gradually, the police, judiciary and civil service were brought under partisan control. The constitution was amended to allow direct elections for the presidency, which allowed Erdoğan to move to Çankaya, Turkey’s presidential palace (one which he replace with a multi-million dollar neo-Ottoman architectural abomination known as the Ak Saray) in 2014. The press too were targeted, with opposition newspapers and TV stations being taken over by pro-Erdoğan hacks, and journalists who dared to speak up being purged from their positions. This war on journalistic freedom included a successful effort to dominate Turkey’s largest media conglomerate, the Doğan Media group, owners of CNN’s Turkish franchise, CNN Türk. Thus, when mass protests erupted in Istanbul’s Gezi Park in May of 2013, so-called news outlets ignored them. Indeed CNN Turk–the same station on which Erdoğan called his supporters on to the streets on the evening of 15 July–famously ran a documentary on penguins rather than cover the protests. While some in the United States might complain about CNN’s ‘establishment bias’, CNN America has nothing on its Turkish sister.

Since then, things have gone from bad to worse. Following his humiliation at the polls in June 2015, during which the AKP lost its overall parliamentary majority thanks to the strong showing of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) which won 13.12 percent of the national vote, Erdoğan turned on the Kurds. Up until then, negotiations with the Kurds, including with the jailed leader of the PKK Abdullah Öcalan (Turkey’s public enemy No. 1) had been carried out with the aim of resolving Turkey’s longstanding Kurdish issue. However, in a bid to shore up support amongst Turkish nationalists (always uncomfortable by what they saw as ‘pandering’ to Kurdish "terrorists"), Erdoğan launched an ‘anti-terror’ campaign in Turkey’s predominately Kurdish southeast region, a campaign which has to date killed hundreds and displaced thousands. In November 2015 a new election was held and amidst a wave of anti-Kurdish nationalism, AKP was able to regain its majority. With the country now on a war footing, no dissent was allowed. Indeed, when a group of over one thousand academics signed a petition calling for peace, the Erdoğan regime saw it as an opportunity to begin purge Turkish academia. Not even Erdoğan’s allies within the AKP have been able to avoid marginalization. Erdoğan used internal AKP party rules to purge the AKP parliamentary contingent of those deemed too independent and even old allies, such as AKP founders Abdullah Gül and Bülent Arınç were marginalized, with the latter being described as a "traitor" in the pro-Erdoğan press for daring to speak out about growing corruption and authoritarianism in 2013. Then, earlier this year, Ahmet Davutoğlu, who had served as prime minister since Erdoğan’s ascension to the presidency, was stripped of his job, most likely in response to his opposition (mild as it was) to Erdoğan’s efforts to impose a constitutional autocracy on the country. Consequently, the AKP has transformed itself from a ‘broad tent’ party for Turkish conservatives into a mobilisation tool for Turkey’s would be sultan.

Thus the events of 15 July might well be described as a desperate ‘counter-coup’, born in response to Erdoğan’s efforts to establish what looks very much like a fascist dictatorship. However, in bringing an army of conscripts onto the streets, they have provided Erdoğan with a golden opportunity to achieve total control. Little wonder he described it as a "gift from god." At the time of writing, thousands of military officers, judges and bureaucrats have been taken into custody. Worse still, hidden within the mass of anti-demonstrators, AKP gangs, Erdoğan’s ‘warriors of democracy’, are roaming the streets of Turkish cities, hunting down and attacking anyone seen as opposed to their supreme leader. This goes far beyond those implicated in the coup.  By Sunday 17 June news was circulating that pogroms are being conducted against Alevis (a non-Sunni Muslim minority) and Syrian refugees.  While to the rest of the world this might look like a Turkish ‘Kristallnacht’ and ‘Night of the Long Knives’ all rolled in one, for Erdoğan this is his "revolution."

Thus far Erdoğan’s road to power has been slow and methodical; now it seems to be reaching a dramatic climax. Erdoğan has now shown that no force in Turkey can hope to stand against him and his supporters, not even the army. With his position now secure, he is moving ahead with what seems to be a final push to establish total control. A state of emergency has been declare and a massive purge of not only the army, but also the civil service, judiciary, and education is underway, a purge which has effected more than 50,000 individuals. The sweeping nature of this purge suggests that lists of ‘undesirables’ had been drawn up long before the events of 15 July. However, the failed coup has given Turkey’s president an excuse to move against his enemies (or perceived enemies) at a pace and to an extent he may not have dared contemplate. And perhaps more importantly, the deaths of those AKP supporters who stood against the tanks (including individuals close to the president) have supplied him with martyrs. It is their blood with which Erdoğan is now consecrating a new order.

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