On Coups and Democracy

by tuftsigl
Jul 10

Patrick Hamon is a member of ALLIES and will be a sophomore this upcoming fall semester.

Update 2:

We all cannot help but draw comparisons while here in Turkey between the democratic development of this country and the current situation unfolding in Egypt. Like the largest country in the Arab world, Turkey has seen it’s fair share of military-initiated coups in the name of stabilization and the will of the people. The question for years after each coup always remains: was it worth it, and to a lesser degree, did we give the military too much power? The answers to these questions play an integral part in the development of effective civ-mil relations in these nations. Well the reviews seem to be in here in Turkey and the TSK’s guardianship of the Turkish democracy has been found wanting. This was especially the case with the last two coups in 1980 and 1997 where the military seemed to be the guardians of only one segment of society (in Turkey’s case the Kemalist secularists) instead of it as a whole.

By accounts of many Turkish intellectuals and US officials stationed here, the military’s constant need to interfere with domestic politics retarded the growth of effect democratic systems by legitimizing only one ideology and discounting the opinions of both Islamists and Kurds. While it is quite true that at many points Turkey experience profound domestic instability and much of the Turkish population desired a coup (similar to Egypt), the coups only further polarized the country and halted democratic progress. When it seems as though the country is in turmoil and new institutional checks exist to counter the current government, it is expected that people will turn to the one institution they deem worthy of trust, the military. I think this idea, however, is inherently bad for both democracy and civ-mil relations.

Anyone familiar with Samuel Huntington’s work on civ-mil is well-versed in the concept of a military subject to civilian control. Once the military breaks these bounds and become a self-interested actor vying for influence, the state is primed for militaristic and undemocratic policies. The military attains an exalted place in society and generals become untouchable. It was common to hear statements from the Chief of the General Staff on matters that did not concern him like that of the headscarf as social symbol or place of Islam in schools. Civilians then come to expect this dynamic (or it becomes normalized through socialization or political apathy) and have no influence over what primarily should just be another organ of governance. This civ-mil dysfunction is only broken when both the society and those in government are no longer willing to accept the military mindset and instead assert themselves as controllers of the armed forces.

More than just the civ-mil implications, coups are a massive problem for democratic development. In my opinion, a coup can never “right the ship” or “put a country back on track” because a military coup is simply an action initiated by a small, completely self-selected group (the hierarchy of the military filters particular people into high positions) that in no way reflects the complex political dynamics of the country they are supposedly representing. Imagine the consternation that Americans would have if flag officers, who are heavily Republican, decided domestic policy. A military coup, if initiated by public outcry, is simply democratic laziness and ineptitude on the part of opposition forces. While they get rid of their primary enemy, coups just insert another actor likely to work independently and sometimes against your own coalition. Why not beat Morsi at the polls? Or better yet, force him to call early elections with civil disobedience. There are so many options other than a coup. They are much more difficult and require a certain collective grit but are not unreachable.

So, while sitting here in a country still recovering from the effects of a coup thirty three years ago, I urge the Egyptian people and those supporting the coup to come back from the streets and perhaps study what happened here in Turkey in 1980. Hopefully we will see a quicker democratic transition in Egypt than the painfully long process that has finally ended the capacity for coups here.

Update 1:

It is an idea we have heard too many times to count during our time here; Turkish nationalism, the idea of a unified Turkish nation tied to a common ethnicity, history, and culture, permeates through every aspect of political life. Turkish flags adorn any number of buildings and vehicles in a way I have only seen in America and Turks are just obsessed with their mythology as we Americans are with ours. We stood somewhat shocked by the unfiltered mythology presented at one of the official Gallipoli museums. Though generally bemused by the rather partial presentation of history, I connected this concept from the time of Ataturk with many of the difficulties being faced by Turkey today with respect to it’s national composition.

One of the most frequent topics of discussion here is the issues of Kurdish rights and their place within a Turkish nation. As an interesting aside, we had a US official explain to us that there is no word that denotes a dual identity. You are a Turk or a Kurd and nothing can link the two concept. The concept of an ethnic nationalism is enshrined in the 1982 military constitution (a document so out of date with current Turkey that a flurry of amendments have been passed to make it viable for civilian governments) and comes up frequently in discussions of the revered Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. It is easy to understand how any minority, be they the Kurds or Shi’ia Alevis, could feel excluded from all opportunities afforded those who fit this Turkishness. The desire to protect this sacred identity extends to a number of restrictive speech laws and consistent banning of many parties representing Kurdish issues in Parliament (one can be thrown in jail for insults to Turkishness or the Turkish nation but no one is quite sure what constitutes an insult until it is said by a political enemy).

What exactly are the implications of this for Turkey? There are obvious political tensions that can and are discussed extensively in scholarly works. I believe the civ-mil implications, however, are just as fascinating. Inherently a military functions as the guarantor of safety and rights but that function is completely undermined in the situation of Turkey. When your military becomes an agent of ethnic or religious divisions you undermine the trust that facilitates good civ-mil relations and Turkey has seen the absolute worst of that in the Kurdish region during the last 20 years. There are, however signs of hope with this regard, as new negotiations with the leaders of the PKK and other Kurdish politicians are fragile but still viable. Even more promising are the accounts given about the recent demonstrations in Istanbul. By many accounts, the ethnic and religious undertones that have long dominated Turkish politics melted away as Kurds stood with Alevis who all stood with cosmopolitan Turks. It wasn’t about where you came from, it was about where you saw your nation going. To see that sort of dynamic developing gave much more optimism about the future of Turkish nationalism. Perhaps at some point we will see nationalism similar to Western Europe or the US, one not defined by a majority group but of ideals and with a military that swears to uphold those ideas instead of defending the majority while suppressing everyone else.