What has Erdogan been up to since the failed coup attempt in Turkey?

What is behind Erdogan’s unanticipated conciliatory effort? Fathoming his intentions is pivotal for accurate understanding of developments in Turkey in the wake of the abortive coup

The prevalent viewpoint among the political savants and the media, both Turkish and global, is that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has become much stronger after the July 15 coup bid and is now unshackled to marshal the country as he likes.

After the failed coup, Erdogan’s first address to his partisans was on the night of July 18 outside his lavish house in Istanbul, perched on the hills of the Bosphorus’s Asian shore. In that speech, he seemed assured he was now more vigorous, very much in the manner of “what doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.” This was evinced by the fact that only three days after the coup attempt he proclaimed he would move forward with a project that did require him to be more powerful than ever. It was none other than the project to obliterate Gezi Park at Taksim Square and replace it with a replica of former Ottoman barracks — the stimulus for the 2013 Gezi Park resistance — which he had cautiously adjourned but had since become preoccupied with.

The project will proceed “whether they like it or not,” he informed the crowd, and went on to give “other good news” — a plan to construct also a mosque on Taksim Square. It was the usual Erdogan who had lost nothing from his pontifical style even after surmounting a fatal peril. It was the same Erdogan, who, in 2013, had shut Taksim Square to the opposition, including on May Day, inciting widespread rancour that eventually exacerbated the Gezi park insurrection.

But in a couple of days Erdogan’s diction and behavior in local politics began to apparently alter. The haughty Erdogan full of hauteur was gone, replaced with one who perspicuously solicited synergy and succour from the opposition. The first indication came on July 20 as the chief opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) got permission to organize a "democracy rally" at Taksim Square. Opening the square to the opposition after a three-year prohibition was Erdogan’s first measure of domestic relaxation, which was followed by other decisions.

The same day he showed he had deferred, at least for now, his scheme for an executive presidency regime, which inheres within the nucleus of Turkey’s escalating polarization and the disquiet the opposition and civil society sensed vis-a-vis him. “We will remain inside the democratic parliamentary system, we will never step back from it,” he told Al Jazeera.

On July 24, Taksim Square observed one of its biggest rallies in recent times as thousands from almost all oppositional quarters joined the CHP-organized event.

On July 25, Erdogan invited CHP leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu and the chairman of the Nationalist Action Party (MHP), Devlet Bahceli, to his palace to give heed to their notions on the coup bid and its repercussions. He scorned the Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), but Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said later in the day the HDP was welcome to come on board in a joint parliamentary effort, agreed to with the CHP and the MHP, for several constitutional amendments.

On July 27, Erdogan proceeded to consummate his efforts at “coup peace” with the opposition, revoking all libel cases against Kilicdaroglu and Bahceli. Soon he went even further, dropping all lawsuits against hundreds of people accused of “insulting” him.

Finally, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) displayed a giant portrait of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk on the frontage of its headquarters in Ankara, which left many astounded, given the Turkish Islamists’ odium for the person who quashed the caliphate and laid the foundations of modern Turkey as a secular republic. Only a few months ago, some leading AKP members were calling for removal of the doctrine of secularism from the constitution.

So, what is behind Erdogan’s unanticipated conciliatory effort? Fathoming his intentions is pivotal for accurate understanding of developments in Turkey in the wake of the abortive coup. Over the past 14 years, Erdogan has regularly gone for polarization as a medium to strengthen power, so why does he want “national unity” now? Is this meant as a semblance of social and political prevention against a potential second coup? This probability, however, has expired with the massive purges in the military and other security branches of the state. Hence, his motives must be rooted abroad rather than at home.

Starting on July 16, Erdogan and his aides were eagerly waiting for signals from the United States, the world’s only power at which Erdogan would wince, excluding perhaps Russia since the Russian plane shootdown last year. Whether his July 19 phone call with President Barack Obama bore on his trepidation is unascertained, but Ankara certainly apprehended a threat from the United States. Its starkest demonstration came in a headline in the adamantly pro-government Yeni Safak, which blazoned:

"The United States tried to kill Erdogan!"

Gulen has been in self-exile in Pennsylvania since 1999, and his extradition is a demand Ankara raised promptly after the bungled coup. Nugatory coup has opened eyes of Erdogan to how desolate he has become globally, as manifested in a sentence he articulated July 23:

“If I had died [in the coup], our Western friends were ready to jump for joy.”

Erdogan has undertaken conciliatory measures at home upon surmising he was confronted by an external threat. The cooperation ground he has adjured with the opposition by captivating it towards the narrative of “defending democracy against coups” is in fact an effort to stand against that external threat. His trip to Russia for talks with President Vladimir Putin, scheduled for Aug. 9, is an outcome of the similar effort. Erdogan is simply in a forced withdrawal, with a view of compensating for it later. To think of any new aspiration for Turkish democracy is still impetuous. An extensive purge of the Turkish civil service began in the wake of the 2016 Turkish coup d'état attempt, with President Erdogan warning his opponents that "they will pay a heavy price for this.” The New York Times described the purges as a "counter-coup" and expected the president to "become more vengeful and obsessed with control than ever, exploiting the crisis not just to punish mutinous soldiers but to further quash whatever dissent is left in Turkey.”

Erdogan’s government has detained more than 6,000 military personnel since an attempted coup, and there are indications he is manipulating the moment to broaden a clampdown on perceived adversaries.

Turkey has been a crucial ally in the region for the United States and NATO, and it has also long sought membership in the European Union. The aftermath of the coup could present European Union leaders with especially infuriating trade-offs. The intensity of the crackdown in the wake of the attempted coup in Turkey has perturbed Western leaders. Alongside the members of the military, the Turkish government also ousted thousands of judges, who apparently had no role in the military uprising. The human rights group said it has “credible evidence” that around 10,000 Turkish soldiers face the severe punishments for their part of the failed military coup against president Erdogan. Victims are being held in makeshift cells, such as stables and sports halls, and are being tortured and held in stress positions for 48 hours, the group said. Amnesty’s European director John Dalhuisen said:

"Reports of abuse including beatings and rape in detention are extremely alarming, especially given the scale of detentions that we have seen in the past week.”

“Obviously a lot of people have been arrested and arrested very quickly,” US secretary of state John Kerry said. US seems to be echoing accusations by some Europeans that the Turkish authorities had prepared lists of people for reprisals even before the coup. A lawyer working at the Caglayan Courthouse in Istanbul said she saw a detainee attempting to jump out of a sixth floor window and another banging his head against a wall. As American officials sought to manipulate the situation in Turkey, European officials grappled with calls from Erdogan supporters to reintroduce the death penalty, which Turkey abolished in 2004.

Negotiations to bring Turkey into the European Union are already proceeding at a glacial pace, and Ms. Mogherini said the reintroduction of the death penalty would be a deal-breaker, as did a spokesman for Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany. “No country can become an E.U. member state if it introduces the death penalty,” Ms. Mogherini said at the news conference.

The death penalty would also be incompatible with Turkey’s membership in the Council of Europe, a human rights organization with nearly 50 member states that operates separately from the European Union, she said.

British academic Chris Stephenson said that the ongoing persecutions in Turkey often affect those who had no connections with the attempted military coup that took place in the country a few weeks ago. Since the failed coup, Turkey has jailed more than 10,000 people and suspended more than 50,000 judges, civil servants, and educators under a state of emergency in which expressing ideas similar to those of Gulen is considered a crime. On 23 July 2016, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan shut down 1,043 private schools, 1,229 charities and foundations, 19 trade unions, 15 universities and 35 medical institutions in his first emergency decree under the newly adopted emergency legislation. In addition, a travel ban was placed on academics, preventing them from leaving the country.

On 27 July 2016, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan shut down 16 television channels, 23 radio stations, 45 daily newspapers, 15 magazines and 29 publishing houses in another emergency decree under the newly adopted emergency legislation. The closed outlets notably include Gulen-affiliated Cihan News Agency, Samanyolu TV and the previously leading newspaper Zaman (including its English-language version Today's Zaman), but also pro-Kurdish IMC TV and the opposition daily newspaper Taraf. The Presidency of Religious Affairs suspended 492 employees, among them three provincial muftis. The Turkish human rights lawyer Orhan Kemal Cengiz was detained at an airport on 21 July 2016. Human Rights Watch described his detention as "shocking" and called for his immediate release.

Historians and analysts including Henri J. Barkey, Director of the Middle East Program of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, compared the 2016 Turkish purges to Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution that started in 1966 and the Iranian Cultural Revolution in which Iranian academia was purged during 1980–1987. The Czech University Council compared the purges of educational institutions in Turkey to events which took place under Communist dictatorship in former Czechoslovakia.

I wish Turkish nation will soon escape out of these gloomy days of being constantly haunted by an unprecedented surge in qualms about their country and appalling purges in the wake of a failed coup.

Sarmad Iqbal is a writer, blogger, columnist and a student at FC College Lahore. He can be followed at Twitter @sarmadiqbal7.

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