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Turkey's attempted coup d'état – a 'black mark on democracy'?

Politicians from the US to Egypt have fallen into chorus about holding up democracy against military usurpation following Turkey's failed coup. The reality is that democracy's ideals and procedures are being hollowed out.

Amir Heinitz
19 July 2016
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Turks light flares as they gather in Taksim Square in Istanbul, protesting against the attempted coup on 18 July 2016. Credit: Emrah Gurel / AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved. Foreign governments’ reactions to the failed coup d’état in Turkey have been diverse. When it still looked like the coup could succeed, US Secretary of State John Kerry was urging all actors to ensure “stability, peace and continuity within Turkey”. In the early morning hours, when it became clear that President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was trumping his challengers, foreign ministers fell into a chorus of holding up democracy against military usurpation.

The Egyptian government took a different approach: at first there was jubilation over the fall Erdoğan, the Islamist supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood -- so much so that newspapers celebrating his fall went into print the next morning. This was then followed by the Egyptian representative at the UN Security Council vetoing a statement to “respect the democratically elected government” of Turkey. Egypt’s argument was that the Security Council was not in a position to determine if the last elections were democratic or not. Israel, after remaining silent throughout the night, came out with a statement in the morning that it “respects the democratic process in Turkey”.

These reactions reflect the foreign policy approaches and tools at the disposal of other regimes, more than they reflect what has been happening in Turkey. They also throw a light on the internal self-conceptions and legitimisations of Western states, Egypt and Israel, which is indicative of how internal and external affairs interact. Lastly, these statements lay bare the ubiquitous, multifarious and contradictory nature of the democracy paradigm in foreign relations.

An unlikely democratic champion

Western governments see Turkey as an important bulwark on the Northern Tier of the Middle East (a highly populated region including Turkey and Iraq) against everything bad coming out of the Caucasus, from across the Black Sea or from the Fertile Crescent (Israel, Palestinian territories, Syria, Egypt, Lebanon etc), and ideally, as a stabilizer in these areas. The West cooperates with Turkey on the basis of security management in the institutional framework of NATO.

Beyond these geo-strategic considerations, there are significant economic considerations that tie Europe and Turkey together. Cultural ties must not be underestimated, but clashes arise frequently along the lines of human rights and democratic practice with Europe as the humanist disciplinarian and Turkey as the unrepentant naughty boy. Conversely, Turkey likes to see itself as the defender of Islamic values, which are either simply not understood in Europe or equated with terrorism, invasion and inherent evil. Therefore, in the eyes of the West, maintaining order and security were of the essence over the weekend, particularly given Turkey’s involvement in the ongoing refugee crisis, with Daesh, or ISIS so close in Iraq and Syria, and with the looming possibility of whatever happens next with belligerent Russia.

While the West likes democracy and prides itself on its practice and believes that it should be exported elsewhere, hard geo-strategic and economic interests take priority. Erdoğan is no democratic champion and few in the West would have been upset by his demise, but when it became clear that Erdoğan continues to rule supreme, the rhetoric of democracy spoken by other governments should be seen as mostly directed towards Western home audiences, and also as a modicum of appeasement towards Erdoğan. But the undertone is clear – Turkey is still needed and so is its president.

Egypt’s response

The early jubilation of the Egyptian government and government-friendly media is equally mirrored in the general outline of Egyptian foreign policy. Egyptian president Abdel Fatteh el-Sisi’s military government came into power following a popular coup d’état against a Muslim Brotherhood-led government, which was on particularly friendly terms with Erdoğan’s ruling AK Party. When the Muslim Brotherhood was rounded up in 2013, Turkish-Egyptian relations took a dive and have not recovered since. Rivalry also exists over influence in Gaza and its Hamas government, divergent support of the two Libyan governments, and to an extent over Syria.

Egypt’s military ineptitude limits its prospective power, and its economic deterioration means that Egypt has lost its appeal for Turkish business interests. Common challenges from Daesh and other terrorist groups, as well as similar migration issues, have not led to any significant rapprochement. The Egyptian government is unabashedly undemocratic, suppressing human rights activists, students, the press, and lawyers, all of which it justifies as a function of the abuses and instability caused by the democratic-Islamist experiment. The West grumblingly concurs. Blocking the Security Council statement was only consequential. Not only would Egypt prefer an Islamist government in Turkey that supports Sisi’s detractors gone (democratic or otherwise), but Sisi’s own raison d’être is based on a military usurpation for security and stability reasons from an Islamist government that itself claimed democratic legitimacy. A successful coup would have strengthened the Sisi model.

Neither military putsch, nor civil dictatorship. Turkey needs democracy for all

Nevertheless, elections were held in the aftermath of the popular coup in 2014, giving Sisi the democratic figleaf needed nowadays (Sisi got 97% of the vote). In a way the veto in the Security Council applies this 'on-its-head' logic to the democratic nature of Erdoğan’s regime. While only superficially democratically legitimised, the Sisi government tries to delegitimise the Erdoğan regime by doubting the legitimacy of the democratic elections which gave Erdoğan power in the first place. Overall, the Egyptian reaction was significant and coherent, even if it is likely that Sisi and Erdoğan are closer to each other in authoritarianism and Islamic inclinations than either of them would ever admit.

Israel’s response

Israel was a traditional partner of Kemalist Turkey when Arab nationalist regimes bordered both countries. Their collaboration culminated in Israel assisting Turkey in the capture of in 1999 Abdullah Öcalan, founder of the militant Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). Multi-billion business links further cemented ties, which only increased with economic growth during the early years of AK Party rule in Turkey. The growing appeal of the moderate Islamist, democratic face of Erdoğan’s Turkey and the more recent re-orientation of its foreign policy from the EU towards the Middle East led to tensions with Israel. Turkey’s new-found role as big brother to Hamas set the two countries on a collision course and led to diplomatic downgrading. While Israeli tourism to Turkey took a dip amidst virulent anti-Israeli rhetoric, economic and military links prevailed. With the Turkish economic motor stuttering in recent years and the challenge to Turkish territorial sovereignty and security by ISIS and Kurdish groups in Turkey in recent weeks, Turkey and Israel have been moving towards to a rapprochement.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has little to show for his government’s tenure and a reputation for diplomatic blunders. A more long-term peace with Gaza would allow Israel to focus on its northern borders with Lebanon and Syria. Lebanon-based Hezbollah, now otherwise occupied, is battle trained, and has potentially further developed its rocket arsenal. Intensified economic links and security collaboration would benefit both Israel and Turkey in years to come. The Israeli government often does not comment on developments in the region or does so belatedly, once it becomes clear how a situation has panned out. A coup d’état would have potentially derailed a Turkish-Israeli rapprochement. However, Israel’s relationship with Turkey is heavily rooted in geo-strategic thinking and military collaboration, and a secular military partner appears a more likely partner than an Islamist-democratic interlocutor. Israel did not demand democratic process in Turkey, but respects it as such – a somewhat ironic if realistic response to the only self-proclaimed democracy in the Middle East.

Democracy for all. Now.

Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım responded quickly to the coup underway by describing it as a “black mark on democracy”, positioning the Erdoğan government as occupying the high moral ground of democracy. The military usurpers, tellingly, claimed that they seized control “to reinstate the constitutional order, democracy, human rights and freedoms, to ensure that the rule of law once again reigns in the country”. It would be exaggerating to claim that the AK Party regime with this statement forced the hand of (pro-)democratic states internationally and repelled authoritarian regimes. Governmental and societal forms of democracy were largely insignificant in the reactions of foreign governments, whether democratic or not. The commentary on the upheaval in Turkey in terms of democracy came across as a necessity in line with home-audiences: Vigorously in the case of the democratic West, reservedly in the slippery democracy of Israel and sceptically in Sisi’s pseudo-democratic military state, after it became clear that the Erdoğan regime had prevailed.

If we accept democracy as a superior form of governance compared to aristocracy, oligarchy, timocracy and tyranny and follow the assertion that democracies do not go to war with each other, we face a dilemma. While democratic procedure and governance are by and large still functional in the West, but already limited in Israel’s timocratic democracy, and certainly absent from Egypt’s oligarchic tyranny, Turkey was just confronted with a choice between one form of “democracy” or another. The outcome is probably going to be less in line with a Western understanding of democracy or what German Green Party leader Cem Özdemir tweeted: “Neither military putsch, nor civil dictatorship. Turkey needs democracy for all. Now.” While the democratic label is applied left and right, and the democratic ideals and procedures hollowed out, the detractors of democratic participation worldwide are rubbing their hands in pleasure.

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