The “Turkish model” has been upheld as an exemplar of how democracy could come to the Middle East since 2002, when a once-banned Islamist party won free elections and took power under the wary eye of a military accustomed to calling the shots.
In the aftermath of a failed coup attempt on July 15, Turkey’s increasingly erratic and authoritarian strongman leader, President Recep Tayyep Erdogan, has been busily erasing some of the signatures of that democracy: jailing journalists, banning academics from travel, purging hundreds of thousands of civil servants from the state’s payroll.
Erdogan is at the same time under threat from dark antidemocratic forces and posing such a threat to his own nation. This conundrum, more than anything else, is the Turkish model’s contribution. In a region that hosts hardly any experiments with democracy or accountable governance at all, Turkey is still grappling with the messy, destabilizing process of transitioning from poor military dictatorship to modern, developing democracy.
Turkey’s path under Erdogan embodies far more than the megalomania of its neo-Ottoman president; it reflects a popular desire for economic prosperity as well as political rights, for security along with freedom. While fending off a military that has continually tried to reassert control over national politics, Erdogan has shifted the balance of Turkey’s republic away from secular nationalist pluralism toward majoritarian Islamism. The once-oppressed rural and religious have acquired new rights and in the process have taken away some rights from the secular and urban.
As elected Islamists gained authority, Turkey accommodated the aspirations of a socially conservative, religious, and Islamist plurality. As the country became more democratic in electoral terms, it became less so from the perspective of secular liberals and nationalists in the mold of modern Turkey’s founder, Kemal Ataturk. Secularism had been zealously protected not by courts, rule of law, or accountable institutions, but by the heavy interventionist hand of the military, which until Erdogan’s rise had simply dismissed governments it did not like.
Clearly, Turkey offers an ambiguous blueprint for democracy. Sadly, in its neighborhood, it offers one of the only blueprints. What can the rest of the Middle East, laboring under monarchs and dictators and runaway generals, learn from Erdogan’s style of government and the shaky aftermath of the latest effort by the military to cancel Turkey’s experiment with democracy?
Erdogan consciously evokes Ataturk’s creation myth with his grand sense of historical purpose. A popular mayor of Istanbul and a charismatic Islamist, he was banned from politics in 1998 for reciting a militant religious poem. He went on to cofound the Justice and Development Party, or AKP, in 2001 and led it to victory the next year.
He and his party have been in power ever since, at first governing as pragmatists with a religious background, but over the years adopting Islamist policies and dispensing with liberal niceties that got in the way of power. Erdogan even jettisoned founding figures of the AKP when he feared they could challenge his primacy.
What was most surprising about Erdogan’s rise was the absence of violence. To be sure, many have died in the conflict between the government and the Kurdish minority, and there has been some apparently government-orchestrated rioting against opposition political parties. Then there are the proven and alleged coup attempts. But until this July, there hadn’t been anything approaching widespread civil strife, and, even in this case, the coup plotters appear to have been swiftly routed.
Since the rise of a Turkish model touted as simultaneously democratic, Islamic, and Middle Eastern, its checkered history has defied easy categorization. Turkey is a lonely republic in a region ruled by dictators, kings, and ayatollahs. (The only other republic is tiny Tunisia, which exerts far less influence.) It is a country of ethnic Turks and Kurds facing a mostly Arab hinterland. Its imperial Ottoman history remains fresh in the minds of its neighbors.
Erdogan neutered the military and demonstrated that it was possible to have relations with powers like the United States and Israel without being their toady. But his methods have shown a contempt for rule of law and for Turkey’s democratic institutions. Turkey’s president has eroded the same traditions that brought him to power — Erdogan’s secular rivals in politics and the press have opposed military rule and defended electoral politics even when Erdogan has persecuted them for criticizing him.
Worried observers have been describing Erdogan as a dictator and a thug for some time, all the more vociferously since 2008, when he outflanked the military with a dazzling indictment. The ensuing Ergenekon trials defanged the military and allegedly stopped a pervasive conspiracy to overthrow the state, even if some of the evidence appeared to have been manufactured.
As with so much about Erdogan and his Turkish model, during the Ergenekon trials and the ensuing purge (which foreshadowed today’s ongoing and broader one), good and bad were both in evidence: A coup genuinely appeared to have been averted while at the same time strongman norms trumped institution-building. The republic was preserved, the republic was weakened.
This kind of yin-yang push-pull has repeated itself over and over in Turkey’s recent history, culminating with this summer’s chilling events. The military made its move late on a Friday night, attacking parliament and police stations, closing a bridge between Europe and Asia, and firing on civilians. Erdogan and his allies rallied support through the same independent news media that it has relentlessly undermined and, more crucially perhaps, through mosque loudspeakers.
Public opinion ran strongly against the coup, evinced in the great number of Erdogan supporters and detractors alike who took to the street against the military plotters. Crucially, so did official weight; the military hierarchy and rank and file did not support the coup plotters. Nor did any opposition political party or faction of the state bureaucracy.
A coup would have set back Turkey’s democratic trajectory. In a different way, some argue, so is Erdogan, with his encouragement of vigilantism against political rivals (predating the coup attempt) and his massive purge under the cover of a state of emergency since the failed putsch.
Amnesty International estimates that 45,000 government employees had been fired or suspended from their jobs, and more than 15,000 people had been detained. According to the government, 8,651 military personnel participated in the mutiny. The purges have so far affected about 1.3 percent of the entire civil service. And 131 media outlets and publishing houses have been shut down.
Surely there are criminals and coup plotters among the hundreds of thousands arrested, fired, beaten, harassed, or investigated since July 15. But just as surely, the disproportionate size of the dragnet and the speed with which it was rolled out suggest that its purpose is not merely to ferret out lawbreakers but also to stifle dissent once and for all.
It is hard to imagine how the Turkish military today, reeling from the purges (whether deserved or unjustified) will be able to effectively curtail attacks by the Islamic State or the Kurdish PKK, both of which have targeted civilians.
It’s also hard to imagine that Turkey’s overall progress and growth can continue in the wake of a government-led war against itself.
In a move that clearly went beyond the hunt for coup accomplices and metastasized into a war on any independent institution or patch of civil society, the government savaged education. It fired 1,577 university deans and rectors, revoked licenses for 21,000 teachers, and banned all academics from foreign travel. It closed more than 1,000 private schools.
“More than a decade after getting a formal invitation to begin EU membership negotiations, Turkey looks less like a liberal European democracy than a one-man autocracy that you’d find, you know, in the Middle East,” said Steven A. Cook, a Turkey expert at the Council on Foreign Relations.
The other way of looking at it is from the vantage point of Turkey’s neighbors to the south, the heartland of the former Ottoman Empire. Istanbul’s historical hinterland stretches to Egypt and the Arabian peninsula. European Union members probably aren’t taking notes on how Erdogan squares his constituents conflicting desires for economic growth, religious freedom, and civil liberties — but many people in places like Syria, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia are.
Erdogan has taken some bold stances that have had major ripple effects around the region. He has continued a lukewarm alliance with Israel marked by occasional confrontations over episodes like Israel’s catastrophic war on Gaza and its attack on a ship full of unarmed peace activists. He has supported Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and given it a welcoming exile base after the 2013 military coup ousted elected president Mohammed Morsi. He has been a partner to the United States but not a patsy — Washington still remembers with irritation his refusal to let US troops invade Iraq in 2003 from Turkish territory. Such independence is noticed in a region where despotic rulers tend to do anything to please their most important foreign backers.
On Syria, Erdogan has taken a hard-line position against Bashar Assad and Russia, costing Turkey extensively, especially after Turkey shot down a Russian jet last year and Russia retaliated with cuts to trade and the lucrative flow of Russian tourists.
Unlike any other government in the region (and virtually alone in the world), Turkey has welcome Syrian refugees — 3 million of them — and given them a clear path to citizenship.
Perhaps that is the most unique contribution of the Turkish model. For all the strains between Kurds and Turks, Islamists and secularists, and the troublesome identity politics and laws that reinforce denial of the 1915 Armenian genocide, Turkey boasts a national identity and an idea of citizenship that is flexible, open to multiple faiths and ethnicities, and has proven able to adapt and evolve far more than any of its peers in the neighborhoods.
Turkey is not an ethnocracy, or a theocracy.
And its elected leaders have bested would-be military dictators multiple times since 2002, in a region and historical period where authoritarianism in the norm and almost every state has regressed in terms of rights and freedoms.
Loss of some rights has also been the norm in Erdogan’s Turkey but not loss of all rights, or for all citizens. It’s hardly a Platonic ideal, but given the alternatives, it’s hardly a model to scoff at. Turkey’s approach, at least, offers a starting point toward two concepts in painfully short supply in the Middle East: elected civilian rule and a flexible concept of citizenship.
The one silver lining in Turkey’s attempted coup is that military dictatorship — for a change — didn’t win the day. In an era of authoritarian relapse, that’s no small matter. Even American and European politics today contain frightening doses of chauvinism, fear-mongering, and incitement to violence, reminding us that no one is immune to dangerous trends that have eroded freedom and security in places like the Middle East and former Soviet republics.
Turkey has offered a counterexample in the age of awful. Despite Erdogan’s increasingly tight grip, Turkey’s course since its last successful military coup in 1997 (dubbed the “postmodern coup” because the military managed to force a change in government without suspending the constitution or parliament) has offered an alternative to civil war, military, or sectarian dictatorship, royal or clan kleptocracy. It isn’t free or fair, but it also isn’t awful — or as bloody — as the rest of the neighborhood.
Thanassis Cambanis, a fellow at The Century Foundation, is the author of “Once Upon a Revolution: An Egyptian Story.” He is an Ideas columnist and blogs at thanassiscambanis.com.