Erdogan's Turkey Is the Real Turkey

Erdogan's Turkey Is the Real Turkey

The days of secular Kemalism were over long before last week's failed coup.


In the aftermath of the failed military coup against the government of Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, many observers have been wondering whether the defeat of the plotters will allow the president to expand his already significant control of the country, or whether the coup, even if it failed, has weakened his authority. There is little about which to wonder. Erdogan has a golden opportunity to tighten his control over Turkey, and he is unlikely to let it slip by.

Turkey is no longer the country that joined NATO, or that was a close ally of the United States until the end of the last century. It is an increasingly Islamic state, with a shrinking secular minority that is having ever greater difficulty keeping the Kemalist flame alive. Because that minority happens to be Westernized and to speak Western languages (especially English), it tends to be the source of interviews and analyses by Western journalists and to mix most freely and often with Western elites. As a result, many in the west continue to believe that Erdogan’s authoritarian, indeed repressive policies, and his witch-hunts against both journalistic critics of his regime and suspected supporters of the exiled cleric Fethullah Gulen, do not reflect the “real” Turkey. In fact they do.


As the George W. Bush administration, particularly its senior officials who had dealt with Turkey during the Cold War, learned to their surprise and regret in 2003 when they failed to obtain parliamentary permission to deploy the 4th Infantry from Anatolia into northern Iraq, Turkey is not the ally it once was. This is even more the case today. A visitor to Turkey, even to the supposedly Westernized Istanbul, will find far more women wearing headscarves or veils than was the case as little as two decades ago. More men attend Friday prayers. Imams are more powerful than they have been in years, indeed, since the fall of the Ottoman Empire. And it was all of these people who spearheaded the resistance to the coup plotters.

The contrast between the defeat of the coup in Turkey and the successful counter-revolution against Mohammed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt is striking. In Egypt, the Islamist government pursued an authoritarian course not much different, though far less subtle, and in far greater haste, than Erdogan. When the Egyptian military could no longer tolerate the Islamicization of their country, they rose in revolt. The majority of Egyptians, themselves highly traditional, indeed religiously conservative, stood behind them. In Turkey, however, it was the people, spurred on by the calls from the mosques, who formed the vanguard of opposition against a military that clearly was determined to restore the fading Kemalist legacy of a secular Turkey where headscarves were banned and children were brought up in total ignorance of their own religion.

The officers that supported the coup were not drawn solely from the lower ranks. They included flag and general officers, men who no doubt were proteges of those of their predecessors whom Erdogan had successfully purged from the military over the past ten years. Thousands have now been arrested, as have thousands of civil servants, who, like the military, were likely proteges of the many secular-oriented officials who opposed Erdogan in the past and who likewise were discharged from their jobs. In other words, in carrying out this latest purge, Erdogan means to eliminate his opposition—he calls them Gulenists, but it doesn’t really matter whom they follow—once and for all. And the majority of Turks—Kurds excluded—appear to be totally behind him.

Erdogan’s victory is likely to result in his finally succeeding to change the Turkish constitution so that he can rule as an all-powerful president. At present, he controls the government by means of his personal authority—he dismissed Ahmed Davutoglu when the prime minister dared to contradict him, and replaced him with a far more pliant Binali Yıldırım. A constitutional amendment would change all that: Erdogan’s rule would be codified in law.

To alter the constitution, without having submit an amendment to a referendum, Erdogan needs two-thirds of the Parliament’s 550 members to vote in his favor. Having successfully pressed parliament in May of this year to pass, with ten votes to spare, an amendment that removes parliamentary immunity from members of the Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP), Erdogan can probably now garner the votes to realize his goal of an all-powerful presidency.

Turkey under an even more authoritarian Erdogan will not necessarily be a more difficult NATO ally than it already is. Erdogan is the ultimate pragmatist. When it suited him to break relations with Israel in 2010, he did so. When it suited him to repair those relations this year, he did so as well. He has behaved in a similar manner vis a vis Russia, and indeed, even with respect to Bashar Assad. If it will suit him to cooperate with his NATO allies, for example, against ISIS, he will do so; otherwise he will not.

In the face of a Europe that is imploding, however, Erdogan will be even more resistant to Western pleas for a loosening of his repressive behavior towards the Kurds, journalists, or other opponents, real or imaginary. Similarly, Erdogan will feel even more self-confident when resisting American requests for support if they do not mesh with his interpretation of Turkish national interests.

Unlike Mohammed Morsi, Erdogan is a true reflection of contemporary Turkey: increasingly Islamist and increasingly self-confident. Those Turks, and their Western friends and colleagues, who yearn for a secular Kemalist Turkey would be wise to disabuse themselves of their dreams. That Turkey is gone, certainly for the foreseeable future, and perhaps for decades to come.

Dov S. Zakheim is vice chairman of the Center for the National Interest. He was under secretary of defense (comptroller) from 2001 to 2004 and deputy under secretary of defense (planning and resources) from 1985 to 1987.

Image: Recep Tayyip Erdogan at a meeting with Putin in 2013. Kremlin photo.