What we saw this weekend

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

At first it seemed like a joke. What do you mean, the Turkish military couldn't pull off a coup? Since when? It's like when the Big 3 in Detroit started turning out lemons or when Team USA lost in men's basketball in the 2004 Olympics. What is the world coming to when the Turkish military is no longer capable of executing a successful military intervention? 

Was this the Ford Pinto of military coups?

But then the humor lost force pretty quickly in the face of what we all were watching. I was glued to my computer, watching live streams of people's television sets in Istanbul. Of course, it always looks worse from outside. I was in Istanbul during the earthquake of August 1999 and the Gezi protests, and I knew that certain striking images taken in often remote locales could quickly become generalized to form a sort of intellectual shorthand for people. But if you're there, you can see that in many ways life carried on as always. In America, we just proved this point by hosting yet another mass shooting. Everything's getting back to normal, right?

I'm not so sure. I've seen those videos--and I realize that, as usual, there are a lot of doctored photographs being disseminated. Nevertheless, from the tranquil vantage point  of the northern Rockies some of this looks rather alarming. I've seen the pictures taken, allegedly, of soldiers. They're stripped down, beaten, terrified. In some shots, police are looking on while civilian-clothed men administer mob justice. I can't vouch for the authenticity of these photos, but they're very disturbing. I've also seen videos like this one, in which folks demand the death penalty for coup plotters. I wonder where they got that idea?

And what more can we expect from these groups as the post-coup reality of Turkey settles in?  

Is it Miller time yet or is there more to come?

"People power" 

Looking at all this stuff, I frankly find myself wondering if RTE, having asked people into the streets, might ultimately lose control of the energy he's helped unleash. After all, they saved his ass--right? Isn't that the narrative that Ankara itself is providing: this was people power. But what if those people end up expecting something in return for their loyalty? Did they risk their lives defending democracy just to watch their political leaders live in palaces? 

It might be hard to put the genie back in the bottle

You know: if you empower people by giving them the impression that they are responsible for your victory, there is a chance that they'll actually start thinking that they can hold you accountable for things. Yes, even those people who are your supporters today. Those dudes manning the barricades last weekend now feel a sense of ownership--they brought democracy back to Turkey, after all. 

On the one hand, it's great that so many people came out against the coup. I liked this article, which pointed out the fact that the political parties, the opposition media--lots of people spoke out against the takeover even when the outcome still seemed in doubt. That, I think, is something that people should feel good about. 

But as always with Erdogan, we get back to this: the "people's will" is great, but what about the people who happen to be in the minority? Does the system just turn into one of mob rule now, with the police and the government looking the other way? And if it does, will Erdogan still be able to control things? 

Video allegedly shows clashes between AKP supporters and Kurds/Alevis.     
Hundreds of people have already died in this mess, and traumas like the one Turkey experienced this weekend can shift a country's political spectrum drastically. The war in Syria has also destabilized Turkey--as it did eastern Europe last summer and in western Europe this year--in a long-term way and to a degree that I don't think anyone has really acknowledged yet. The conflict in Syria is creating problems all over the world, but Turkey has got to be one of the most seriously impacted places outside of Syria itself. 

I've got Barış on my mind these days

When I see events of the sort that were broadcast for Turkey this past weekend, I find myself wondering if, five years from now, Erdogan might be the one we consider the "moderate" party in Turkey. Some people in the AKP might like to embrace the radical chic of Daesh and other organizations fighting in the Middle East right now, but ultimately Erdogan & Co. are tie-wearing politicians who give speeches in front of big portraits of Ataturk. If it comes down to proving your radical bona-fides, they'll always just look like a bunch of triangulating poseurs. The idea that they could end up igniting something they can't control frightens me, to tell you the truth. 

Theater for the Criminally Insane

As I mentioned imy post from Saturday, I don't think the coup attempt was a hoax--although some people no doubt disagree with me on that count.  

Many details from the weekend are admittedly odd. For one thing, it seems unlikely that the whole plan was to occupy Istanbul airport, a couple of bridges (while the metro beneath them ran all night), a handful (out of dozens) of television stations, and then call it a night. Nobody expected to take power based just on that, right? 

Were the coup-plotters incompetent, or incomplete? Because if they honestly thought that they could take over the country this way, then they are definitely a candidate for worst would-be ruling junta ever. But my sense is that they were waiting for some other people to show up that night. If so, then what happened to those other people? Did they get cold feet? Or did they never intend to take part in the first place? 

And why destroy the parliament building? This seems almost like a deliberate reference to the Reichstag fire. 

Turkey's parliament building in Ankara

Another question: why, in the wee hours of Saturday morning, would RTE travel to Istanbul's Ataturk Airport, one of the few places in the country that had been under rebel control?

And: oh yeah. Isn't it a little odd that Erdogan would be so sure, even as the coup was still going on, that Mr. Pennsylvania was behind it all? 

I realize that these are totally rhetorical questions, of course. I don't expect that they'll ever be answered by anyone in a position to know. 

Now the real coup begins

Real or fake--I'm almost inclined to say that it doesn't make much difference at this point. However we got here, the result will be the same. The real coup began the moment that the first one fell apart. 

The unofficial tally so far...

Where are we at this point? Let me check my watch....if it's Monday evening, then we must be at...6000 people detained so far. Another 9000 civil servants fired with more on the way. Just today it was announced that the government was demanding the resignation of 1557 deans at public and private universities around the country. 

It's interesting. A couple of years ago I was in Istanbul having drinks with a graduate student who was working on modern Egypt and we got to talking about contemporary politics in Turkey. After I mentioned that it looked like the generals were now, for the most part, Erdogan's men, she shook her head quickly back at me. What about the junior officers? she asked. I had to admit to her that I hadn't really thought about that before. Silly me. 

I guess in the weeks ahead we'll get a better sense--maybe--if this is what actually transpired this past weekend. 


Turkish coup attempt: my hot take

Turkish Politics and the News Trilogy 

Isyanbol/Gezi Park articles

Long NYT piece on Gulen schools in USA

Turkey: On to the next crusade

Menderes thesis: still around today

Erdogan's interview with Charlie Rose

Pass the Kleenex

Erdogan vs. Putin: the streetfighter and the agent face off

190 librarians can't be wrong. Order a copy of Turks Across Empires today. 

More commentary, photos, and links can be found at the Borderlands Lounge

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