Turkey: of coups and popular resistance

The construct of ‘the people’  thrives on and demands homogeneity of values and unity of purpose and banishes diversity and difference to the realm of the evil ‘other’.

Spyros A. Sofos
21 July 2016


Supporters of Turkish President Erdogan at a rally in Kizilay main square, in Ankara, July 20, 2016. Hussein Malla /Press Association. All rights reserved.

The morning of Saturday 16 July, the sun rose over a different Turkey. During the night, a group of armed forces officers attempted an ill-fated coup d'état. The coup involved a fairly limited but efficiently deployed number of units and military hardware. A few fighter jets and helicopters, several armoured vehicles and tanks. Although manpower and materiel came from several locations in the country, the main thrust of the military takeover was focused in Istanbul and especially Ankara, where key state institutions are located.

Targets involved the headquarters of the General Staff of the Turkish Armed Forces, the National Intelligence Organization, the Police, the Parliament, the Presidential Palace, Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport and the Bosphorus Bridges. The coup forces started arresting top military officers, and seizing TV stations. As a small number of F16s flew over the two cities, and a helicopter raid to the Marmaris hotel where President Erdoğan was spending his holidays was unfolding, the Armed Forces website featured a statement declaring that a “Peace Council” had taken control to restore democracy, human rights and “peace at home” – a reference to the founders of the Turkish Republic cornerstones of modern Turkey’s orientation.

Erdoğan who had narrowly been missed by the soldiers who raided his hotel decided to fight back as did Prime Minister Yıldırım and his cabinet. The Prime Minister acknowledged that a coup was under way from the studios of the state broadcaster just ten minutes before it was overrun by forces loyal to the coup leadership, while the President used facetime to address the public, declaring the determination of the government to resist and calling the people to get out in the streets and defy the curfew that was meanwhile declared. He then boarded a business jet towards Istanbul.

The decisive reaction of the government, combined with the fact that the chief of the General Staff, Hulusi Akar, detained together with other top commanders refused to endorse the coup statement, as did the leaderships of all political parties, constituted a blow to the coup. Because a coup d'état is a complex beast. It rests on the deployment of military force or threat thereof to attain power, on the systematic identification of targets to attack, occupy, neutralize or control. It depends on careful and efficient implementation of the plan. But even more so, it relies to a large extent on the exercise of symbolic violence. As Edward Bernays suggested in his 1928 book Propaganda, any attempt to govern depends on organising public opinion – "organising chaos" as he eloquently argues. Taking my cue from Bernays, I would suggest that the violent, disruptive act that a coup represents, requires an elaborate and convincing narrative to be woven, a story that will identify a wrong past, a future prospect and a semblance of potency that will encourage key actors to side with it.

A series of errors, bad timing, combined with the resolute expression of defiance by the government and condemnation by the opposition did not convince key players in the military and the civil service to lend their support to what they considered a potentially moribund rebellion. The government had managed to take advantage of the chaos the coup had caused and provided its own organizing narrative of the moment.

The moment of the people?

President Erdoğan appealed to the public to fill the streets and squares, while the country’s Presidency of Religious Affairs (Diyanet) issued instructions to imams to make similar calls from the mosques, and the ruling AKP party networks started mobilizing their members. Despite the rejection of the coup by major political, military and civil institutions, the government decided to base its fight back partly on mobilizing loyal military units and a heavily armed police – the product of a long, slow process of militarization of the latter under the aegis of the AKP and, partly, through the recourse to extra-institutional means, notably mobilizing the people. Soon enough, the combined determined response of military and police, and the crowds who heeded the calls of the government had sealed the fate of the coup.

Although we do not have hard evidence of who went out in the streets to defy the coup – it will take a long time to get a clear picture – I think we have sufficient indications to suggest caution when trying to make sense of the popular mobilizations that took place both during the coup and after its defeat. It is clear that the people out in the streets comprised different actors.

First, where violent clashes took place, often next to the police forces, one could discern lightly armed angry mobs that, on occasion, relished in the spilling of the blood of their opponents. Then, among the defiant crowds who came out in the streets to express their opposition to the coup through their mere physical presence one could recognize government supporters, mobilized through the appeals of the political leadership of the country, either through the AKP or the mosque networks, or merely the calls of the imams from the mosque speakers and minarets.

Claims that the people in its “entirety” filled the country’s streets and squares may sound appealing and may have a romantic quality but are only partially true. Indeed, footage and interviews from the night of the coup with participants in the demonstrations and clashes with the rebel units, but also the soundscape and visual repertoire of the post-coup celebrations indicate that the crowds that make up the people are mainly though not exclusively supporters of the governing party. Having no intention to underestimate their numbers or belittle their contribution to thwarting the coup, I would just question the use of a label as inclusive and vague as the people to describe them.

The extra-institutional legitimation of the counter-coup

If the coup reveals what was already known, the highly polarized character of Turkish society, the government’s response to it alarmingly confirms it. While the attempt by some army officers to usurp power reveals contempt for the majority of the electorate, the Allahu Ekber cries of the crowds pursuing wounded conscripts crawling on the bloodsoaked ground reveals the highly ‘tribalized’ character of these popular mobilizations.

Although, in principle there is nothing wrong with citizens rallying to support their endangered democracy, the President’s decision to appeal to the people to resist, and later to celebrate night after night in the country’s public spaces such as Ankara’s Kızılay Meydanı, İstanbul’s Taksim Meydanı and İzmir’s Konak Meydanı, to name but a few, echoes the sinister politics of the late 1980s in another southeastern European country, Yugoslavia.

There, another ambitious politician, Slobodan Milošević, used the “moral panic” which had been cultivated in Serbia and Montenegro over the sensitive issue of the alleged “Albanization” of Kosovo – a Serbian autonomous province at the time – to justify the need for constitutional reform and to launch the notorious “anti-bureaucratic revolution”, a campaign aimed to cleanse the party and the state apparatus of inefficient and “treasonous” bureaucrats. To support his anti-constitutional “reform” programme, that entailed purges and intimidation of the opposition and suppression of dissenting voices, Milošević and his collaborators encouraged a series of public rallies and demonstrations between 1987 and 1989 that became known as instances of “street democracy” (ulična demokracija).

These mass mobilizations acquired the character of impromptu plebiscites endowing Milošević with the authority to bypass legal niceties in the pursuit of his powergrab and provided cover for violent mobs to gatecrash meetings of elected authorities, demand resignations of their members or terrorise those whose opinions they disapproved of (Spyros A. Sofos, “Culture, Politics and Identity in Former Yugoslavia” in, Brian Jenkins and Spyros A. Sofos, eds. Nation and Identity in Contemporary Europe, 1996). I am in no way suggesting that history repeats itself, this time in Turkey. But I would argue that we cannot ignore the linguistic and methodological similarities between the street democracy of the 1980s and the popular happenings taking place in Turkey today.

Appeals to the people, an entity hard to define, let alone to consult, a collectivity that “speaks” with one voice hard to decipher, whose existence defies the complexity of the social and the plurality of the political, leave the door ajar for political entrepreneurs who may want to bypass institutional checks and balances, however weak these might be in the case of Turkey today. What is more, the binary logic inherent in the notion of the people whose wisdom and righteousness is exalted by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his party’s leadership will almost certainly exacerbate the already conflictual character of Turkey’s politics. Simply because the construct of the people thrives on and demands homogeneity of values and unity of purpose and banishes diversity and difference to the realm of the evil other who plots, threatens and undermines the popular will, such politics will undermine the country’s unconsolidated majoritarian democracy. It will open the way for a radical overhaul of the political system and for the total eradication of any remaining dissenting voice.

Democracy needs the development of durable yet adaptable institutions and what the late Alberto Melucci in his Challenging Codes, 1996, called “spaces of hearing”, not a leader that cultivates his misrecognition as the incarnation of the popular-national will.

As today’s declaration of a state of emergency demonstrates, at the end of the day perhaps a coup is not such a complex beast; it might not even require the use of military force after all. It might simply rely on a romantic notion – in this case, the moment of the people.

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