Erdoğan After The Coup

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan prays during a funeral service for a victim of the thwarted coup in Istanbul, Turkey,
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan prays during a funeral service for a victim of the thwarted coup in Istanbul, Turkey, July 17, 2016. REUTERS/Murad Sezer

ATHENS, Greece -- "Did it ever cross your mind that something similar to Adnan Menderes can happen to you?" I asked the sacrilegious question without thinking much, the interpreter looked awestruck, but translated it. Erdogan smiled and responded quickly, as if he had thought about the answer many times: "My difference with Menderes is that he first became prime minister and he went to jail after that, while I first went to prison and then became prime minister!"

It was March of 2003. Tayyip Erdogan had won the elections in November 2002, but had not been elected to Parliament and was not sworn in as Prime Minister. He was under judicial ban. He was convicted in 1998, while he was mayor of Istanbul, and was led to prison because of one instance when at a gathering he had recited a poem that the court thought challenged the secular character of the Turkish state. In February 2003 the ban was lifted, Erdogan was elected in runoff elections in Siirt and sworn in as Prime Minister. I met with him a few days later, at home in the city for a conference that ended with the question on Menderes, whose fate had emerged in the minds of many in Turkey at that time.

A quick flashback: Since its inception in 1922, the Turkish Republic was a democracy of one party, Kemal Ataturk's CHP. Any opposition parties that attempted to emerge, were banned and dissolved. After the war, however, as Turkey became a bastion of the West in its Cold War with the Soviet Union and was preparing to join NATO, the country got a taste of a multiparty democracy for the first time.

The Democratic Party of Menderes was an exponent of a Turkey that was left out of the violent Kemalist modernization and europeanization -- conservative, rural, traditional and religious. Established in 1946, triumphed in the elections of 1950 and won three successive election victories until overthrown in 1960 by a coup formed by younger officers. Menderes was arrested by the coup, tried, sentenced to death and executed by hanging on the infamous island Imrali. Since then and until the rise of Erdogan, three other coups had taken place. The last one, in 1997, was made to overturn the first government of a non-Kemalist Islamic party, after the Menderes, the Erbakan government. After that, came Erdogan.

Erdogan arrived as a liberator. Not only for the religious, conservative, "black" Turkey or the newly rich of the "Protestant Islam" in Kayseri and Konya, but also for a liberal Turkey that was bored of living in the shadow of an increasingly authoritarian "deep state." Despite initial suspicion that Erdogan had a hidden Islamist agenda, liberal European-like Turkey supported him in the early years of his rule, when he battled against conspiracies, machinations and coup plans. The economy had taken off, the IMF had completed its presence with praise, the European dream seemed to be alive, the government gave reconciliation signs with the Kurdish population and the recognition of their rights, and the army seemed to have finally returned to the barracks, after the failed attempt to block the election of Abdullah Gül for the Presidency, in the summer of 2007.

The turning point came in 2012. The Arab Spring created dreams of a postmodern caliphate, with Erdogan as the leader of the new Sunni world. With the influence of Gül's moderates marginalized, Erdogan's environment collided with its main ally, the imam Fethullah Gülen, with whom he refused to share power. A new dream was born -- the dream of a President Erdogan, a-la-Putin, with unlimited power.

The dream quickly festered. The violent suppression of demonstrations in Gezi Park in May 2013; the clumsy and 'dirty' involvement in the Syrian civil war, in which Turkey at first sided with Islamist opponents of Assad; then the "revenge" of Islamic terrorists when Ankara abandoned its position; the shift in the Kurdish matter and the reopening of that bloody front; the systematic persecution against freedom of the Press, etc. All of this, in just two years, has transformed the liberator into a ruler.

Turkey is a divided country, a country in deep crisis, with its links to the world around her dangerously loose.

bosphorus bridge Turkish citizens celebrated on the Bosphorus bridge after an attempted military coup was defeated.

And then came the attempted coup on Friday night, which looked like a remake of the 1960 coup against Menderes. The coup failed. Perhaps because, quite simply, the time of coups is long gone. Certainly because the people responsible failed trifold: failed to take Erdogan out of the game. They failed to monitor social networks and private channels. They failed to be accepted as "liberators" from a part of the Turkish public (as had, albeit minor, the coup leaders of 1960). Erdogan survived thanks to the media which he has long attacked and attempted to subdue.

The coup, fortunately, failed. But the Turkish drama did not end. The bloody night leaves behind a deeper crisis. The scene where AKP followers invaded the CNN Turk studio and the Dogan group offices that Erdogan had forcibly tried to silence, is as emblematic of the night, as the scenes of disarmament of soldiers by unarmed citizens on the Bosphorus bridges.

Soon after this coup, Turkey will discover that it is even more divided than before. It all depends on the answer to the question of the day: Will the victory over the tanks draw Turkey in a new cycle of violence and authoritarianism? Or will it become the wakeup call the moderate forces of his party who were marginalized needed, to restore Erdogan, who confirmed his great strength and his weakness, to the sensible route?

This post first appeared on HuffPost Greece. It has been translated into English and edited for clarity.