Stomping the Embers of Turkey’s Democracy

Whatever motivated Turkey’s failed coup, President Erdogan is exploiting the outcome to round up his political enemies and consolidate his dictatorial style rule, a challenge to the U.S. and E.U., as Alon Ben-Meir describes.

By Alon Ben-Meir

Even before the failed military coup, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan governed like a dictator who had the last word on all state matters. The botched coup was nothing but, as he put it, “a gift from God” to purge what is left of Turkey’s democracy and cleanse the army and judiciary in order to ensure the total subordination of all institutions to his whims.

For Erdogan, being elected was akin to being granted a license to trample and dismantle all democratic tenets to consolidate his powers and promote his Islamic agenda. As a shrewd and highly skilled politician, Erdogan painted the coup as an assault on democracy, a claim that was supported by a chorus of Western powers knowing full well that Turkey under Erdogan is anything but a democracy.

Today’s Turkey blends the ancient with the modern.

Today’s Turkey blends the ancient with the modern.

His staying power, however, is attributed to his uncanny ability to appeal to the underclass and his success in delivering the “goods” that nearly half of the population was in dire need of, including access to health care, improved infrastructure, job opportunities, and the promotion of Islamic values (in a manner that was unacceptable in the past) with which ordinary Turks could identify.

The nearly 50 percent of the population who benefited directly from these reforms and became ardent supporters of Erdogan were not concerned about the trampling of democratic rule, even though he has systematically robbed them of any rights that a democracy provides. Nevertheless, tens of thousands heeded his call to go out to the streets to confront the military, and did so at grave risk to their lives.

In fact, one of the main reasons behind the coup was to stop Erdogan from completely destroying Turkey’s remaining secular and democratic pillars, which were established by Turkey’s founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in 1923. Ataturk sought to establish a Western-style secular democracy and made the military the custodian of Turkey’s constitution.

The armed forces exercised that prerogative four times before to prevent the country from sliding into disorder. The first coup, in 1960, led to the overthrow and execution of Prime Minister Adnan Menderes due to his increasing Islamization of the country; the fourth coup in 1997 ended with the forced resignation and banishment from politics of Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan, also because of his degradation of secular principles of the country.

Pillaging Democracy

While affecting regime change through a military coup is certainly not the preferred method, given how Erdogan gradually and successfully pillaged the country of all its democratic substance, a segment of the military felt it had little choice but to stage a coup to change the perilous path that Erdogan is pursuing.

This entire tragic episode could have been prevented had Western powers, led by the U.S., been more vociferous in condemning the unruly way in which Erdogan exercised his power, especially in the past several years; instead, they kept emphasizing Turkey’s strategic importance, which Erdogan fully exploited to his advantage.

Turkey’s role in hosting nearly 2.5 million Syrian refugees and its ability to either stem the flow, or open up the gates to allow refugees to flood European cities further strengthened Erdogan’s hand. He successfully exploited the European Union’s deep concerns over the refugee crisis by making a deal that provides Turkey several major benefits that outweighed its obligations.

The keystone of the deal is that migrants crossing from Turkey into Greece will be sent back, and for each Syrian returned to Turkey, a Syrian refugee will be resettled in the E.U. In return, Turkish nationals would have access to the Schengen passport-free zone while the E.U. fast-tracked the allocation of €6 billion ($6.6 billion) in aid to Turkey to help migrants, and to “energize” Ankara’s bid to join the E.U.

Although thus far the E.U. resisted Erdogan’s threat to cancel the deal if it were to renege on its agreement on visa-free entry due to his post-coup threat to restore the death penalty, Erdogan remained defiant, believing that he can bully the West with impunity.

Moreover, Erdogan presumed Turkey’s significant role in fighting ISIS and his consent to allow the U.S. Air Force to use Turkey’s Incirlik Air Base to strike ISIS targets gave him increased leverage against the U.S., which further muted any criticism for his continuing gross violation of human rights.

Those who had hopes that Erdogan might just take heed of the coup and show some restraint in dealing with those suspected of being involved in it had those hopes quickly dashed. He wasted no time in initiating a massive witch-hunt — nearly 9,500 are currently facing legal proceedings, and around 50,000 soldiers, judges, civil servants, and teachers have been suspended or detained.

Hundreds if not thousands will languish in jail under emergency laws that permit indefinite administrative detention without formal charges. More ominously, Erdogan “raided” higher learning institutions by barring all academics from any foreign travel even for scholarly purposes, while the state education council demanded the resignation of over 1,500 university deans.

Prepared Blacklists

The vast number of people rounded up so quickly raises suspicions that these individuals had already been blacklisted; Erdogan was able to do so with a nearly 200,000-strong internal police force and intelligence units, who are extremely loyal to him.

President Barack Obama walks along the Colonnade at the White House with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, Dec. 7, 2009.  (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

President Barack Obama walks along the Colonnade at the White House with then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, Dec. 7, 2009. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Leave it now to Erdogan, who has emerged stronger than before the coup, to further intensify his brutal war against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the Syrian Kurds, who are the U.S.’s allies no less, and continue to refuse to resume negotiations with Turkey’s significant Kurdish community.

Perhaps the time has come for the E.U. and the U.S. to reassess their relations with Turkey and stop enabling Erdogan to exercise free reign, when in fact his behavior has a direct and indirect impact on Western interests, both domestically and in the Middle East.

The U.S. cannot afford any member of NATO to squash all democratic rules with no consequences. Moreover, Erdogan has demonstrated time and again a lack of loyalty and commitment as a NATO member.

Turkey should be put on notice, as Secretary of State John Kerry recently stated, that NATO has a “requirement with respect to democracy. … Obviously, a lot of people have been arrested very quickly.” He grimly added, “Hopefully we can work in a constructive way to prevent backsliding.”

Moreover, Erdogan should be warned that Turkey’s prospect of becoming an E.U. member will be a thing of the past if he continues to grossly undermine the principles of democratic governance, including the complete subordination of the judiciary to his political agenda. Though the U.S. and the E.U. need Turkey in the fight against ISIS, Erdogan should be reminded that ISIS constitutes an even greater threat to Turkey than to Western interests.

Finally, Turkey should be pressured to resume negotiations with its Kurdish minority and bring an end to the war against the PKK, which is further destabilizing the region at a time when the focus must be on defeating ISIS. In that regard, Erdogan must understand that there will be serious consequences if he does not end his assault against the Syrian Kurds under the pretext of fighting terrorism (he conveniently accuses their military wing, the PYD, of working in conjunction with the PKK).

Whereas Erdogan viewed the failed coup as a God-sent opportunity to wipe out whoever is perceived to be his enemy, the U.S. and the E.U. must use this occasion to put Erdogan on notice that history has shown time and again that totalitarian regimes come to a bitter end, and that he too will not be spared his day in court.

Dr. Alon Ben-Meir is a professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches courses on international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies.           Web:

8 comments for “Stomping the Embers of Turkey’s Democracy

  1. Alexander Contis
    July 24, 2016 at 11:09

    TYPO CORRECTION : The 2006 EU grant allotted to the illegal Turkish occupation of Cyprus stated in my reply above, should read: 250,000,000 Euros, rather than 250,000,000,000 Euros.

  2. Alexander Contis
    July 23, 2016 at 20:42

    Your main charge against Erdogan, in the words of your title, “Stomping on The Embers of Turkey’s Democracy” omits a lot of essential historical context. However scurrilous Erdogan’s current anti-democratic “stomping”, it is no worse than many such committed by every Turkish government that proceeded him, whether secular or otherwise, “stompings” regularly whitewashed and rewarded by NATO .

    One continuing anti-democratic Turkish “stomping” is also a very big and bad Turkish war crime, the enormity of which should explicitly provoke at least equal outrage from not only Erdogan critics, but from EU and NATO shakers and movers who have the power to halt and cure it. Those who do not do so, should be justly labeled Turkish war crime collaborators.

    Have you forgotten the Turkish military invasion, the 42 years long Turkish occupation, the barbaric Turkish property plunder, and the brutal ethnic cleansing by Turkey of 450,000 native Greek Cypriots from 40% of their nation, Cyprus, a sovereign member of the European Union, forcing them to flee as permanent refugees in their own land?

    Have you forgotten the fact that during their brutish occupation, Turkey, in gross violation of the 4th Geneva Convention, illegally settled 160,000 Turks from Turkey in stolen Greek Cypriot homes on stolen Greek Cypriot land, an international war crime rigorously and militarily enforced by 40,000 Turkish soldiers? Do you know that in 2006 the EU actually allotted a grant of 250,000,000,000 Euros in direct aid to the illegally occupied area of Cyprus, essentially and directly aiding the illegal Turkish occupation and their illegal Turkish settlers?

    This continuing illegal Turkish occupation, plunder and population settlement of Cyprus is now either hypocritically ignored or cynically treated by Erdogan critics and international officials with conjured, highly immoral equivalencies between the Greek and Turkish Cypriot positions, pretending it to be an ethnic “dispute” between the “parties” that requires “resolution” or, a “problem” that needs a “solution”. Such deceptions are flimsy fig leafs to cover up their hypocritical submission to NATO blackmail, making them participants in Turkey’s war crimes. What’s really going on is beyond a “stomping” of Turkish democracy, it is a choking, obstructing Turkish bone in the throat of Western democracy, secret, silent and deadly.

  3. Andrew Nichols
    July 21, 2016 at 22:55

    Moreover, Erdogan should be warned that Turkey’s prospect of becoming an E.U. member will be a thing of the past if he continues to grossly undermine the principles of democratic governance, including the complete subordination of the judiciary to his political agenda.
    Not really a problem. After all – the Euros are bending over backwards to admit fascist Ukraine.

  4. July 21, 2016 at 12:05

    The fingers of Fethullah Gülen and his CIA handlers are easy to distinguish. Their motives not so much. I tend to think this was a setup of the democracy movement and a sacrificial animal for Erdogan to feed on from his friends, the Neocon faction at Defense and State, chiefly led by Petraeus, but also Allen, Keane, and Breedlove.

    The other main faction resists this kind of support for Erdogan and his pet project ISIS, of whom his son is the fence for their stolen oil.

    Gülen has been the Mindszenty of Turkey in the US under the CIA’s protection for decades, planting madrassas in the US but also all over Central Asia, a Gladio version of the surrounding of Russia, the ultimate prize.

  5. Zachary Smith
    July 21, 2016 at 11:51

    Thanks to Alon Ben-Meir for Israel’s view of the coup in Turkey. It was a bit of a disaster for the murderous and thieving little apartheid state. At least, that’s sure how it looks at first glance.

    Now it’s the job of the U.S. and the E.U. to get him back into line.

    • Dr. Ibrahim Soudy
      July 21, 2016 at 19:00

      Thanks much, Zachary, for your incisive point…………… It looks very obvious what some are here for……

    • Brad Benson
      July 22, 2016 at 06:57

      Exactly. The US and the EU are not in any position to tell anyone about democracy so long as they continue to support Israel and this author is clearly a professional propagandist.

    • Dube
      July 22, 2016 at 08:45

      The U.S. and the E.U. have no means of getting Erdogan back into line: they are now toothless bulldogs so far as he is concerned.
      Unless they try other dirty tricks, like promoting Kurdish separatism… However, this would only slow Erdogan down in his pursuit. All it would achieve would be an unleashing of Grey Wolves’ terrorist attacks on US and EU territories.
      The only thing that would really work is for the West to team up with Iran, Russia and China to frustrate Erdogan’s Panturkic dream. But the West is now too far down the pit of idiocy to see the usefulness of such a policy – and the dangers involved in not pursuing it.

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