Turkey's Last Coup

People stand on a Turkish army tank at Ataturk airport in Istanbul, Turkey July 16, 2016.    REUTERS/Huseyin Aldemir
People stand on a Turkish army tank at Ataturk airport in Istanbul, Turkey July 16, 2016. REUTERS/Huseyin Aldemir

This has not been Turkey's first military coup attempt. But it is more than likely the last.

In Turkey, the military has had a special constitutional role throughout its modern history. Ever since the establishment of the Turkish Republic after WWI by Kemal Ataturk, the military has been dominated by a Kemalist ideology that it is to be the protector of the secular and modernist vision for Turkey that its founder had for the country.

In the Turkish Republic, secularism and modernism were to be the fundamental organizing principle. Democracy was a nice, but otherwise entirely optional, extra. That is why, up until now, it has always been understood that the Army is in control of the state, not the people. The people would be given democracy and allowed to choose the direction their country should go in, just so long as it was within the bounds of the Kemalist vision. If the people elected leaders who had a problem with that, the Army would intervene and take control of the government until the people learnt better. And when they had, they could have their democracy back.

Many in Turkey and in the West credit this commitment to the Kemalist vision on the part of the Army for the steady economic and political development of Turkey in this past century, and also for the stability the country has enjoyed. Political stability is a basic pre-requisite for the development of civil society, and for economic investment, and the previous military coups in the country have ensured that Turkey has not had to cope with the upheavals that virtually all other countries in the Islamic world have had to cope with in modern history. That is why Turkey has been easily most successful Islamic country throughout the 20th century.

But the failed coup on Friday marks the end of all that. And this may very well be the end of the Kemalist Turkish Republic. The increasingly autocratic president Erdogan has learnt the lessons from previous coups. He has brought the intelligence and security apparatus mostly under his control. Obviously there are still a few factions within the military which remain independent, but almost all the top bras of the military are on side, the military police are on side, and the intelligence services are on side. This is an unprecedented achievement for a civilian leader, especially one who has gone as far as Erdogan in transforming Turkey.

What is more, it is not even obvious at this time that the coup was led by the secularist Kemalist faction in the military. Erdogan himself claimed that the instigators were aligned with his former allies in the Gulen Movement without providing much evidence. In either case, Kemalism has either just breathed its last breath, as its proponents in the military are about to be purged in the aftermath of the coup, or has long been marginalized within the Army, and nobody noticed its slow death until now.

Just what this means for Turkey in the medium to long term, it may be too early to call. But the fact that Erdogan was successful in rallying popular support against the coup plotters, while the latter have not managed to get even the students and secularists who protested in the Taksim Gezi Park in 2013 against Erdogan, probably gives us some clues.

Turkey remains a country divided in half between those who value Ataturk's modernist vision on the one hand, and Erdogan and his AK Party on the other. For now, and for the foreseeable future, the latter will remain the better organized half, and so, they will control the destiny of their country.