Lessons from the Failed Coup in Turkey

‘​Never wound a king,” Herodotus advised 2,450 years ago. An unsuccessful attempt to overthrow a powerful ruler ends badly for those who attempt it. Having regained control of the Turkish government, President Erdogan has rounded up 2,839 soldiers as complicit in the failed coup. Many, many more Turks are also likely to suffer as Erdogan cracks down on enemies real and perceived. In fact, this attempt to unseat him will almost certainly result in Erdogan’s becoming more authoritarian, and civil liberties in Turkey being further strangled. Yet there are some positive signs — some things to be learned from what transpired in Turkey in the past 24 hours that show a hopeful direction for the country.

First, and most importantly, is the burgeoning strength of Turkish civil society. President Erdogan has for years been targeting the half of Turkey’s people who did not vote for his AKP party or dared to defend the liberties he has been slowly suffocating. It was incredibly beautiful to see Turkish citizens willing to lay down in front of tanks to block their path and mobilize by the thousands rather than put their heads down and accept the outcome. There is an particular nobility to those who have been victims of the Erdogan government’s repression still insisting that military coups are not the means by which they would change their government. Unlike Egyptians, Turks made a distinction between the means and the end, and that is a hallmark of a free society.

The smart money  expects President Erdogan to become even more repressive after the coup attempt; it will have validated his paranoia and given justification to crack downs on presumed opponents. But the strength of civil society will not only be aimed at preserving his government, it may also be turned against the encroachments on justice and law. Turkish civil society has been finding its strength, and the coup refusal may become a watershed as it understands the breadth of its power. President Erdogan may have to learn to accommodate peaceful demands for limits on his power.

Second, the military is no longer the determiner of political outcomes in Turkey. Almost as beautiful as people risking their lives to stop tanks was Turkish soldiers’ refusing to run them over. They allowed themselves to be disarmed by citizens with sticks, surrendering themselves to their countrymen rather than firing on crowds. Only a very few among the Turkish military were willing to do violence to their fellow citizens. That is a powerful signal that the military now views itself as indistinguishable from society, rather than as “guardians of the constitution” who rule over it.

Subordination of the military to civilian control has been achieved in Turkey, something hard to imagine even 20 years ago.

Third, the coup was only supported by certain factions within the military. There was no unified military view. Leading commanders, including the Chief of Staff, were evidently taken prisoner by the coup plotters because they did not support the effort. This suggests that even with President Erdogan’s sweeping condemnation of the military in the Ergenokon trials, the military leadership was unwilling to move against an elected leader. Subordination of the military to civilian control has been achieved in Turkey, something hard to imagine even 20 years ago.

Fourth, the media President Erdogan has so determinedly tried to choke was his lifeline during the coup attempt. What an irony to see the politician who routinely arrests journalists and shuts down social-media access reliant on a phone app to appeal for support. Cell-phone videos posted on Twitter were how most journalists outside Turkey got information; the Turkish government texted its citizens to turn out for rallies of support. Repressive governments everywhere take note: Accountability is coming. Let us hope the experience turns Erdogan into less of a scourge to freedom of the press now that he has been the beneficiary of uncontrolled information.

#related#Fifth, when the coup plotters fled Turkey in a military helicopter and landed in Greece, they were arrested. Given the enmity between Turkey and Greece, there was a time that outcome could not be taken for granted. Civil authorities in Greece arrested the Turkish military officers, a powerful symbol of the progress of law in both countries. (There was once a time when Greece, too, was subject to coups.)

One caution, however. Despite disavowing involvement and calling for restoration of the elected government, President Erdogan will surely suspect orchestration of the coup by Fetullah Gulen, a disaffected Turkish power broker who has long resided in Pennsylvania. Erdogan will very likely again call for Gulen’s extradition to stand trial, creating a predicament for the U.S. Absent intelligence clearly linking Gulen to the plotters, it would be a mistake for the Obama administration to hand him over. The United States did well to support an elected government during a coup; it will do likewise well to support the restraints of law against a government using the tools of the state to repress its people.

— Kori Schake is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution.