Thursday, July 21, 2016

Drôle de Coup

“More than 50,000 state employees have been rounded up, sacked or suspended in the days since the coup attempt. On Wednesday, 99 top military officers were charged in connection with the events of the weekend. Officials continued to take action against university and school employees, shutting down educational establishments, banning foreign travel for academics and forcing university heads of faculty to resign.”
—BBC News report, today
It is hard to get away from seeing the world and politics through the prism of Game of Thrones, as I alluded to a couple of weeks ago. More and more—and like a lot of people, I suspect—I find myself looking around and not even finding a choice between bad and worse. It is more of a choice between different kinds of worsts. As so often happens while watching the celebrated HBO series, I find myself disinterested in taking sides. As some U.S. government official was reported to have quipped during the protracted Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, are we allowed to root against both sides? You may think I am speaking primarily of the current American presidential campaign—and that is definitely on my mind—but at the moment I am thinking about Turkey.

It has been a while since we have had such a classic military coup d’état (or attempt at one) in such a strategic country. As we watched it unfold in real time on satellite news channels, I could not help but travel back in time to the coup with which I am most familiar.

In 1973 there was not the 24/7 live coverage of the golpe de estado that unseated and resulted in the death of Salvador Allende in Chile. In those days I learned about it by word of mouth on the campus in France where I was studying and eventually by reading news articles days after the fact. It all seemed very far away and remote from my own personal life. Little did I dream that, three and a half years later, I would be living in Chile and well on my way to having a personally comprehensive understanding of the details of the event and its aftermath. (I have written several blog posts about my time in Chile, beginning with this one.) I heard many first-hand accounts of the coup—mainly from coup supporters at first but increasingly from others as I managed to gain their trust. And I have read quite a bit about it in the years since.

The recent Turkish coup makes interesting comparison to the 1973 Chilean one. It is easy—probably too easy—to imagine that Chile’s history is what Turkey would have experienced if the July 15 coup attempt had succeeded. Conversely, I cannot help but wonder if what Turkey is experiencing today is an indicator of what Chile would have gone through if Allende had prevailed against the military.

The political left’s narrative about Allende and Chile has always highlighted the fact that he was democratically elected. The narrative further posits that he was working arduously to alleviate poverty and to improve people’s lives generally. This version conveniently skips over the fact that he was increasingly ignoring the country’s constitution, was arming a private force controlled by his Socialist Party and was working closely with the repressive Castro regime in Cuba. It is a fair question whether he would have relinquished power at the end of his term. Still, when it comes to taking sides, the principled position is to condemn the overthrow of a democratically elected government.

The same is true in Turkey. Western governments have been unanimous in condemning the Turkish coup attempt and supporting President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. He was the clear popular choice of Turkish voters during his eleven years as prime minister and in the 2014 presidential election. How could a principled observer not support him? And yet. The coup was carried out with so much incompetence that it defies credulity. Every armchair coup observer knows the first thing you do to take over a government is to capture the head of the government. In this case the vacationing president was left free to go on the net and airwaves to rally his followers. The military uprising was so incompetent that many people are asking seriously if Erdogan himself was behind it to give himself an excuse to assume dictatorial powers. He even called it “a gift from God.”

Sorting out the Turkish situation is complicated by the country’s history. It was actually a military commander, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, who founded the Turkish republic, after the Ottoman Empire fell during World War I, and made the country a more or less functioning democracy. Erdogan in recent years has increasingly cracked down on his political opponents and been criticized internationally for human rights violations. Even before the coup attempt, he had been limiting the independence of the judiciary. Now he is actually having large numbers of judges arrested.

All of this would be easier to ignore if Turkey were not a member of NATO and a prospective—though probably not anymore—member of the European Union. It also has one of the most formidable militaries in the always volatile Middle East region.

Like so many things we see on TV these days, it is just so difficult to find someone to root for.

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