North Africa, West Asia

Erdogan at a crossroad: dictatorship or democracy

An interview with A.H. Banisadr, Iran’s former president, about the aftermath of the coup in Turkey.

Mahmood Delkhasteh Abolhassan Banisadr
26 August 2016

Turkey: Erdogans Gamble, 2015. Lefteris Pitarakis /Press Association. All rights reserved.Mahmood Delkhasteh (MD): Is there any difference between the 14 July coup and previous coups in Turkey?

Abolhassan Banisadr (AB): Until last month’s coup, the putsches which were conducted by the Turkish army were carried out under the pretext of defending laicite against violation. Each coup set Turkey back years, which was the main reason that all political parties and even Erdogan’s fiercest opponents condemned the coup. 

It seems that the political organizations have understood that their place is within civil society and not in the army or bureaucracy, since the latter leads to despotism, corruption and violence.

However, the coup attempt last month tells us that now there are three political forces within the Turkish army: supporters of Ataturk’s version of laicite, the supporters of President Erdogan and supporters of his former ally and present foe, Abdullah Gullen. According to the information we have, we can be fairly certain that the coup was carried out by Gullen’s supporters and failed because, unlike in previous coups, the army did not act as a unified body and (more importantly) the people poured onto the streets.

MD: Do you think that the unprecedented shake-up of the state and private institutions, from the army and judiciary to educational and media institutions, is justified? Erdogan’s second option is to do the opposite of what he is doing now, and to undertake a deep democratisation of socio-political, economical and cultural life.

AB: Obviously, after the failed coup Erdogan had to make sure that another coup is not in the making, so certain actions were necessary. However, it has become clear that president Erdogan is using this opportunity, which he has defined as ‘God sent’, to cleanse the ranks of his opponents and solidify his position within the army and other institutions, and that he intends, as he put it, to introduce fresh blood into the army. This is alarming as the politicisation of the army always endangers democracy.

Erdogan can see that in the neighbouring country of Iran how dictatorship rests upon such politicisation of the army in the form of the Revolutionary Guards (while depoliticising it makes democracy more sustainable). Furthermore, the mere fact of the coup attempt tells us that the regime is weak. The further politicisation of the army makes it weaker, and only through de-politicising the army will the danger of a coup be removed.

MD: How do you think he could have reacted differently?

AB: The fact is that the coup has put Erdogan at a historical crossroads. He only has two options. The first is to carry on what he is doing, which is the same path that Khomeini took after the 1979 revolution in Iran, when he threw away the democratic goals of the revolution and aimed at absolute power, using the Revolutionary Guards as an instrument of repression. The disastrous situation ongoing in the country, region and beyond to a large extent is an outcome of this decision.

Erdogan’s second option is to do the opposite of what he is doing now, and to undertake a deep democratisation of socio-political, economical and cultural life, liberating the free flow of information and knowledge. This is a path to a radical democracy in which all Turkish people are educated in democracy and become citizens who actively participate in advancing democracy, human rights and progress in their country. As western democracies are steadily shrinking by the year, taking this path would situate Turkey as the world’s leading democratic nation. As western democracies are steadily shrinking by the year, taking this path would situate Turkey as the world’s leading democratic nation.

President Erdogan should also not forget that his choice influences the future of the region and Islamic countries as a whole. Khomeini’s decision to forsake the democratic path of revolution, for example, affected not only Iranians but the entire Islamic world and beyond.   

The discourse in which 'Islamic' terrorists now operate, their glorification of violence and hatred and cult of death, were initiated by Khomeini. So Erdogan needs to look at the wider effects his decision may have. If he chooses the path towards dictatorship, he will significantly weaken democratic movements in Islamic countries and prolong the life of despotism in the Islamic world. The alternative path will significantly inject hope and determination into such movements.  

MD: Some might argue that he is not taking that path because he is angry with the embedded hypocrisy of western democracies. What is your view on this?

AB: Erdogan has every right to be angry with western countries. That is not just because it is hard to imagine that the best international intelligence agency, the US National Security Agency (with bases in Turkey’s military establishment), failed to intercept communications about the attempted coup. It is also because western governments maintain a double standard which legitimises dictatorship wherever it suits their 'national interest', whether it is the coup in Egypt, turning a blind eye to the atrocities of Saudi Arabia in Yemen, and arming or rewarding Saudi Arabia by offering it a place in the United Nations Human Rights Council.  

However, he needs not to become a reaction to such policies nor react to the violent methods of the coup-makers. As a Muslim, he needs to remember that the response to force and violence is not force but standing for and advocating rights. That is because the only goal compatible with force is power, and power that is destructive. Even if he wanted to become the centre of power and increase his power, the current geopolitical context will not let him become another Suleiman the Magnificent.

However, if he stands for human rights and acts through such rights, then he will lead the world towards a deep democratisation while the west gradually distances itself from such rights. Racist movements are gaining strength and America’s republican presidential candidate, Donald Trump, openly endorses racist policies and advocates torture.

I tried to suggest such a role to Khomeini, and kept telling him that the Islamic world needed such a symbol of spirituality rather than a symbol of violence. As his only goal was power, he failed to understand his historical advantage. The failed coup in Turkey has similarly provided Erdogan with a historical opportunity; whether he embraces it or rejects it is up to him. 

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