Anti-coup protestors on the streets of Istanbul, July 16, 2016.
The eastern Mediterranean has witnessed two military coups in the last three years: Egypt’s on July 3, 2013, and Turkey’s on July 16, 2016. In both cases, it appeared that the military stepped in to oppose a president committed to the steady centralization and Islamization of the country’s government.
Both ruling political parties, Egypt’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) and Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), had their roots in the Muslim Brotherhood, and both parties have been accused of having a hidden agenda, notwithstanding their avowed commitment to respecting the political process. The similarities notwithstanding, the coups had widely different outcomes, and their consequences will have far reaching implications for the international politics of the Middle East.
The Egyptian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood had announced the formation of the Freedom and Justice Party on February 21, 2011, in the wake of the 17 day, Arab Spring inspired, revolution that had toppled the Mubarak government. The party’s leadership, President Mohamed Morsi, Vice President Essam el-Erian and Secretary General Saad El-Katatni, were all chosen from the Muslim Brotherhood’s “Guidance Office,” the organization’s senior leadership council.
The Muslim Brotherhood was founded in Egypt, in 1928, as a Sunni Islamist religious, political and social movement committed to installing the Quran and the Sunnah as the foundation of the state and society, and the adoption of the religious Sharia law. Initially, the group focused on charitable and educational work for the poorer strata of Egyptian society, but it quickly emerged as a major political force and played a prominent role in the Egyptian nationalist and anti-colonial movement.
From Egypt the organization spread throughout the Middle East and North Africa. Its model of melding charitable works with political activism has been widely adopted by a number of Muslim Brotherhood inspired organizations - most notably Hamas.
The FJP made quick political inroads in post-Mubarak Egypt. It won just under half of the seats in the 2011 Egyptian parliamentary elections, which when combined with the support of the Salafist Al Nour Party, gave it an overwhelming majority. Mohamed Morsi contested the 2012 presidential election for the FJP, polling 51.7 percent of the vote to become the first democratically elected president of Egypt.
Morsi’s term as president quickly became controversial. The FJP used its majority in the Egyptian Parliament to force through a controversial constitution. Morsi issued a “temporary” constitutional declaration, later rescinded, that granted him unlimited powers, including the power to legislate without judicial review, which made all presidential decisions final and irrefutable until a People’s Assembly was elected. In the meantime, he moved aggressively to appoint Muslim Brotherhood members to key judicial and administrative posts. His opponents called the moves a de facto “Islamist coup.”
By June 2013, anti-Morsi protests and pro-Morsi counter protests had become a daily ritual in Egypt’s principal cities. On June 30, 2014, more than 14 million demonstrators, according to the Egyptian military, took to the streets to protest against Morsi. The next day, more than a million protestors converged on Cairo’s Tahir Square. That same day, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAFs), the Egyptian military’s ruling council, issued a 48-hour ultimatum to Egypt’s political parties, “to meet the will of the Egyptian people.”
Egyptian protests against Mubarak government, January 2011
Two days later the Egyptian military detained Morsi and placed him under house arrest. The leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood was also arrested. In December 2013, the Muslim Brotherhood was declared a terrorist group. The organization was dissolved and its assets seized by the government. Since then, between 15,000 and 20,000 Muslim Brotherhood members have been arrested and imprisoned by the Egyptian government. Morsi was subsequently tried in Egypt for inciting violence, as well as a number of other charges. He was found guilty and given the death penalty. As of August 2016, he remains incarcerated.
The head of the Egyptian armed forces, General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, was subsequently elected as the sixth president of Egypt. The election, which was boycotted by the Muslim Brotherhood and most political parties, resulted in el-Sisi winning 93 percent of the vote.
In one sense, the election of el-Sisi signaled a return to the military dominated governments that have marked Egypt’s politics since the July 23, 1952 revolution. The military has continued its historic role as a major player in Egypt’s economy and as a government contractor. In September 2013, for example, the Egyptian government awarded building contracts, without any competitive bidding, totaling one billion dollars, to companies controlled by the Egyptian Army.
On the other hand, el- Sisi has moved to defuse religious partisanship, becoming the first Egyptian president to attend a Christmas mass. He has called for the reform and modernization of Islam and moved to regulate sermons and school textbooks that “incite violence and intolerance.” He has also moved to reign in Jihadist groups in Egypt and is fighting an Islamic State affiliated insurgency in the Sinai. El-Sisi has also called for a national goal to remove unsafe slums within two years, and outlined plans to build 850,000 housing units. By the spring of 2016, approximately 125,000 units have been built.
Other ambitious plans include the widening of the Suez Canal (completed in July 2015), the creation of new industrial zones along the canal and a 2,600-mile expansion of the national road network. There are even plans to build a new capital city halfway between Cairo and Suez to relive Cairo’s chronic overcrowding. Notwithstanding the historic unreliability of polling data in the Middle East, El-Sisi appears to be widely popular in Egypt, with most polls putting his approval rating between 70 and 80 percent.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, making the rabia sign in solidarity with Muslim Brotherhood protestors in Egypt, July 2013
Turkey’s Justice and Development Party was founded in 2001, under the leadership of Abdullah Gull, Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Fetullah Gulen. The party, which had long standing ties to the Turkish branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, has been in continuous power in Turkey since winning the 2002 parliamentary elections. From 2002 through 2014, Erdogan was the leader of the AKP. In August 2014, he was elected president of Turkey.
When it was first founded, the AKP described itself as a pro-Western and pro-American conservative party, with “an agenda of social conservatism and economic liberalism.” The party’s tenure occurred during a period of unprecedented economic growth in Turkey. Critics, however, have accused the AKP of having a hidden agenda, and that it was pursuing policies designed to move the country away from the secular principals enshrined in the Turkish constitution.
Over the course of the last decade, and increasingly since he became president, Erdogan’s critics have accused him of attempting to consolidate greater power, and of making the Turkish government increasingly authoritarian. Under Erdogan, the AKP has pushed for a strong, centralized government built around a presidential system of government and has reduced the number of government positions filled by popular elections in favor of state appointed ones.
The government has moved to tightly regulate Internet use, and to discourage abortions and alcohol consumption. It has been heavy-handed in its use of the courts to punish its critics, especially those in the press. At last count, Erdogan had initiated more than 1,500 lawsuits, since withdrawn after the failed coup attempt, against various defendants, many in the media, for “slandering” the office of the presidency.
Under Erdogan, Turkey’s historic pro-Western foreign policy has been seen as increasingly Pan-Islamist. Ankara has voiced support for the Hamas government in Gaza, organizing “volunteers” to deliver needed supplies to the region, a move that led to a highly publicized split with the Israeli government, since repaired, when Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) intervened to block the ships from landing in Gaza.
The Turkish government has also been heavily involved with the Free Syrian Army and other rebel groups fighting the Assad government. It has also been accused of aiding radical jihadist groups, like the Islamic State and the al-Nusra Front, and to turning a blind eye to Islamic States’ smuggling of oil and antiquities into Turkey, or to the transit of jihadist fighters across its territory.
Anti-Erdogan, Protect Your Republic protests, April 14, 2007
On July 15, 2016, a group of Turkish officers, calling themselves the Peace at Home Council, declared that it had launched a coup against the government of President Erdogan. The Peace Council claimed that it had been forced to act by the erosion of secularism in Turkey at the hands of the government. The very term “Peace at Home” harkened back to a famous saying by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the secular Turkish Republic, following the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in World War I. Ataturk had described his policy as “Peace at Home, Peace in the World.” The council also cited the Erdogan’s government disregard for human rights and its steady reduction of democratic rule.
The coup proved short lived. Erdogan, in a Facetime interview with CNN Turkey, urged his supporters to take to the streets in defiance of the military imposed curfew. In Istanbul, General Salih Zeki Colak, commander of the First Army General Command, one of the four field armies of the Turkish military, declared that the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) did not support the coup. Over the course of the next 24 hours, military forces loyal to the Turkish government, supported by local police forces, rounded up the rebels. Eight military officers escaped to Greece where they asked for political asylum. In total, 300 people were killed and 2,100 people injured in the coup attempt.
Erdogan claimed that the coup attempt had been organized by Fetullah Gulen, a Turkish cleric and political activist, who has self-exiled himself to the United States. Gulen was one of the founders of the AKP and was a close ally of Erdogan for many years. The two found themselves increasingly at odds until they had a complete falling out in 2013, when Erdogan accused Gulen of being the mastermind behind the corruption investigations that exposed the rampant cronyism in the Erdogan government. Since then, Gulen has been accused of being a terrorist and has outstanding arrest warrants against him from Turkey. Ankara has repeatedly demanded his extradition to Turkey from the United States.
Erdogan also accused the United States and General Joseph Votel, the head of U.S. Central Command, in particular, of “siding with the coup plotters.” On August 2, Erdogan accused the United States and Europe of supporting the coup plotters and “taking their side.” That same day, the Turkish government filed criminal complaints against General Joseph Dunford, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, James Clapper, Director of National Intelligence, and General Joseph Votel. Turkish newspapers have accused the CIA of being behind the abortive coup and of attempting to assassinate Turkish President Erdogan. According to the New York Times, a majority of Turks believe the U.S. had a hand in planning the coup.
Gulen, on the other hand, has accused the Erdogan government of staging the coup in order to create a pretext to carry out further purges of the judiciary, schools and military, all centers of anti-Erdogan opposition, and to impose further curbs on civil liberties.
In the roughly three weeks since the failed coup, over 8,000 people have been arrested, including 2,839 members of the Turkish armed forces, and 2,745 judges. Another 8,000 or so people have been detained, although not yet charged with any crime. In addition, 15,000 teachers and staff at Turkish government schools and in the Education Ministry were suspended, and a further 21,000 teachers in private schools had their teaching licenses revoked. In total, around 50,000 government officials and employees have been suspended. The government has also ordered three news agencies, 16 TV stations, 23 radio stations and 45 newspapers, 15 magazines and 20 publishers to close down their operations.
Regardless of the origins of the Turkish coup attempt, there is little doubt that the Erdogan government is using it as a pretext to rid itself of many of its long-standing critics in the media, government, military and education sectors.
Two coups, two very different outcomes - both of which will have long-term consequences for Mid-East stability. In Egypt the el-Sisi government seems committed to rationalizing the Egyptian economy and improving social services for the country’s most downtrodden. The cronyism, which has ensured that Egypt’s military leadership profited from government contracts and its privileged role in the Egyptian economy, however, shows no sign of changing.
In Turkey, on the other hand, the AKP is clearly on a course to consolidating its power and, under the Erdogan presidency, centralizing governmental authority at the expense of civil liberties and a more pluralistic and secular society. How far that process will go, and the extent that the Erdogan government will abandon the secularism enshrined in the Kemal Revolution of 1922, remains to be seen. What is clear is that the path that Turkey is following is one that will put it increasingly at odds with the United States, Europe and, more importantly, with its NATO allies.
NATO has had authoritarian governments among its members before, but it has never had an increasingly pro-Islamist government. Whether Turkey’s Islamist stance can be reconciled with NATO’s growing role in countering jihadist inspired violence remains to be seen. For Washington, trying to keep its anti-Islamic State coalition intact, while trying to mediate between Kurdish aspirations and Turkish fears, not to mention Russian intervention and ever growing Iranian support for the Assad regime, the war in Syria against the Islamic State is about to get even more complicated.