Daniel Hannan is an MEP for South-East England, and a journalist, author and broadcaster.
The Internet has revolutionised everything – including revolutions. We all know what a coup d’état is meant to look like: tanks in the streets, a seizure of the TV station, martial music, appeals to patriotism. It’s the second of these, the seizure of the TV station, that has traditionally been the key. Coup plotters need to ensure that theirs is the narrative that the population hears. And that narrative, in the first hours, is not so much “we are justified” as “we are winning”.
Decentralised media, as we saw last week, have made that strategy obsolete. An elected leader who remains at liberty can always find a way to get his message out. The enduring image of Turkey’s failed military uprising was Recep Tayyip Erdoğan appealing to his supporters via FaceTime as a news anchor held her phone before a camera. The “experts” on British and American news channels declared that he was as good as finished: a man reduced to using FaceTime, they opined, had already lost control.
It didn’t look that way to me. Watching the putsch through Twitter – I follow quite a few Turks – I saw a very different picture. Not only Erdoğan and his partisans, but opposition leaders and prominent critics of the government were calling on citizens to face down the plotters. As Western security analysts lumberingly speculated about whether Erdoğan had applied for asylum in Germany, the Internet was urging Turkish democrats into the public square and showing pictures of civilians overpowering nervous-looking conscripts.
(As an aside, BBC News’s coverage was truly hopeless: an hour into the coup attempt, it was still focused on the previous day’s abomination in Nice. Sky News did at least cover the story, though its reading of events was badly awry. I soon switched to Al Jazeera, which alone seemed to grasp what it was dealing with, namely a half-cocked rising by a minority of officers who, having failed to disable the civilian leadership at the outset, stood no chance of success.)
Coups are not yet redundant, and hot countries will still from time to time throw up strongmen with sashes and sunglasses. But the balance, at least in nations with widespread Internet access, has been tilted. The dispersal of information means that every citizen is a potential journalist, a potential photographer, a potential politician. Such countries are now, in effect, putsch-resistant.
A good thing, too. I can’t think of a military pronunciamiento against an elected government that has improved things. I’m not talking here of coups within military dictatorships, such as the 1974 Portuguese revolution. But the overthrow of a civil regime by men in uniform almost invariably ends in corruption, score-settling and arbitrary rule.
This point shouldn’t need making, but a surprising number of otherwise liberal-minded people in the West cheered on the Turkish military, as they had applauded the 2013 coup in Egypt. The justification, in both cases, was that anything was better than “Islamism”. Setting aside the considerable ideological distance between Turkey’s AK Party and Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, that approach fails in its own terms. The coup in Egypt has been a recruiting sergeant for Islamist radicals around the region, who point to it as an example of Western hypocrisy (“they’re only pro-democracy when we vote for their stooges”) and present themselves as the only viable alternative to brutal dictators.
Western sympathisers tend to avert their eyes, not only from the barbarities carried out by some secular despots, but from their ideological affiliations. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Egypt’s current military despot, is a close ally of Vladimir Putin, going so far as to apply, in defiance of geography, for membership of Putin’s Eurasian Union. Western conservatives stolidly overlook that alliance, just as their predecessors overlooked Atatürk’s alliance with Lenin.
Those who backed the Turkish coup attempt were lining up with Assad, Hizbollah and the Marxist PKK. They were, more pertinently, opposing every parliamentary opposition party in Turkey. To their immense credit, Turkey’s secular nationalists, liberals and Leftists, unlike most of their Egyptian counterparts, stood firm for the principle of representative government despite their criticisms of the AK Party administration.
Will their generosity now be reciprocated? The Turkish prime minister, Binali Yıldırım, made a warm speech after the coup attempt, praising the opposition parties for their democratic solidarity. But his government has taken a very different attitude to the machinery of state. As well as purging soldiers and police officers – which is perhaps understandable in the circumstances – it is sacking thousands of civil servants and teachers. At best, this looks vindictive; at worst, it justifies those who say that the putsch was a pre-emptive strike against the attempt to create an authoritarian regime.
Friends of Turkey, and of Turkish democracy, should be alarmed. During its first decade in office, the AK Party led a great reforming ministry, dismantling some of the more oppressive laws inherited from a previous military regime, bringing civil rights to Kurds, liberalising broadcasting and presiding over an economic boom. But, in recent years, there has been a centralisation of power and an intolerance of dissent which, while it stops short of being dictatorial, is incompatible with democratic pluralism.
Before the coup attempt, there had been positive signs that Ankara was re-engaging with European allies, building bridges with Israel and recovering its commitment to market reforms. Now, though, the country’s future hangs in the balance.
The ruling party could act with generosity. It could recognise the democratic credentials of its opponents. It could commit to parliamentary rule, dropping the idea of a new presidential system. It could, in short, show itself to be a mature democratic party, capable of outliving its founder.
Alternatively, it could treat all dissent as hostile, failing to distinguish between political criticism and military resistance. It could opt for vengeance over statesmanship.
For the sake of the stability of the region, as well as of the well-being of Turkey itself, I hope it chooses the former path. As the Koran says, “God loves him who restrains his anger and pardons the people” (3:134). There is anger enough in the Levant. Turks should hold themselves to a higher standard.