Fantastic Friday


There were several assumptions Turkey’s coup-makers made. Some were tempting, some were half-correct, but all were impractical and, most importantly, totally unsustainable.

The first assumption was tactical: that they would be able to pull off the coup in a country as large and strategically critical as Turkey by simply announcing it on state run television. The so-called Peace Council unfurled its equally so-called agenda in a matter of hours, announcing success even though people were gathering on the streets to besiege the tanks.

The supposition that merely spreading word of a coup would make it a fait accompli was foolish. Just as stupid was the idea that somehow they would be able to run their version faster than the speed at which news gets spread on social media.

By the time they had finished uttering their success narrative, social media was already in a state of rebellion against this narrative. Tayyip Erdogan had spoken and the message went out like jungle fire. Mosques blared messages of defiance and people filled the streets in no time. Information flowed faster than coup plans. That turned out to be a turning point. A counter-coup began as soon as information started to move from neighbourhood to neighbourhood undeterred by curfew.

The second assumption was even more silly and impractical. The coup-makers not only took on an elected government but also their brothers in arms. This was a double coup: it was against the pro-Erdogan sentiment within the army and also against other law-enforcement agencies like the police. That was taking on too much in too short a time. Factionalism breeds natural reaction, and in this case it was a failure foretold as the rebels did not have complete institutional backing unlike the coups of 1960, 1971 and 1997.

That they ended up killing policemen and also fired on the Turkish people made their task even harder to accomplish. They wanted to make it look like a cake-walk but ended up in a quagmire of their own making. The air support was blown away by the pro-Erdogan airforce and it was left to the ground forces to manage a large territory, which was not possible. The symbolism of the coup, therefore, went horribly wrong from the word go and the faction that had planned it had no alternative strategy and no backup plan other than to flail and fail.

No less foolish was the third assumption about the unpopularity of the government in power and the imagined popularity of the radical step of overthrowing it. The underlying causes for making this dangerous and untenable ground a basis for launching a front attack on democracy in Turkey was President Erdogan’s authoritarian ways and the growing public despair at worsening law and order in the country.

The coup-makers, it appeared, had as little training in military strategy as in political psychology. They confused public anger at the government and its policies with a public desire for an alternative political order. They also believed, and wrongly, that just because they wear the uniform and wield the gun their action would be naturally accepted and welcomed. This could not have been farther from reality.

The sight of soldiers with guns being chased by the people, and policemen holding military men by the collar were graphic images of graphic failure in anticipating the public reading of the coup. In no time coup-makers waving people off the streets became signposts of Turkey under a different kind of attack – one that was aimed at destroying the country’s constitutional system. Fears of more chaos came up in no time and frustration at the state of government affairs found a new target: the coup-makers.

Those who were parading themselves as saviours were marked as mayhem makers – terrorists of a different kind who wanted to take the motherland to another level of uncertainty. If the Islamic State had hurt the body of the country through heinous bombings, the adventurists were attacking its soul by cutting it off from the democratic mainstream. Airports closed, roads blocked, trains stopped: Turkey in a few hours was turned into North Korea by a faction claiming to serve democracy by imposing martial law.

The planners also misread the regional and international scenario. Their calculation seemed to be to get immediate recognition from the European Union and Washington on the strength of Turkey’s strategic location. This location is so central to the world’s many core concerns that, regardless of what happens in Turkey, the planners assumed, the world cannot afford to ignore it.

In the initial moments of the coup the statements coming from world leaders – not to mention coverage by American and British media outlets – it looked that this belief was not misplaced. However, as the coup fell apart and soldiers were pulled out of tanks and trucks by protesters, momentary fence-sitting by the world gave way to outright condemnation. The world raced to support Turkish democracy, rallying behind a government whose leader, Erdogan, they do not necessarily idealise but had to back.

That killed whatever chances the coup makers might have fancied for themselves. This was reinforced by international monitoring of the situation and the correct assessment that while the people stood against the barrels of blazing guns, not a single person came out for the coup makers. This clearly was the most unwelcome coup attempt in the history of men on horsebacks trampling on constitutional paths.

The consequences of this failed adventurism, interestingly, have made the very logic of the coup look even more absurd: it was an attempt to de-legitimise the Erdogan government and cast permanent aspersion on Turkey’s political system, but it ended up giving it more legitimacy and power – even endorsement from opposition parties.

Generally, the miserable end of the coup has also been a setback for coup lovers in other countries. In Pakistan the ‘come-on-man, do-it-now’ lobby lost no time in creating trends on social media drawing parallels between Turkey and Pakistan. Tongues began to wag in favour of a copy-cat move in Islamabad. Some anchors, pulled out of their beds by the strange sensation of similar happenings in their own land, started to create a Turk-Pak coup line that could join the two in a brass bonding.

But as the tide turned, those wishing the situation upon Pakistan disappeared as quickly as the soldiers in the streets of Ankara and Istanbul. That itself was a remarkable result that the coup-makers in Turkey did not foresee. They must have assumed that their success would be similar to that of the generals in Egypt and might find favour in places like Pakistan. Instead their failure has made pro-democracy, anti-coup sentiment stronger.

The amazing imagery that the people of Turkey have been able to create as they confronted fake saviours has birthed legends that will be followed every time a constitutional order is challenged by trigger-happy Tarzans.

At the same time, it is important to state the conclusion for democratic governments: their power is in the hands of the people. So is their fate. If they lose the hearts and minds of the people nothing can save them. President Ergodan has to become more democratic and inclusive in his approach to democracy. On this fantastic Friday night, when he could well have been made a prisoner and a horrible example, the people of Turkey came out and gave him a lease of life. But they did not save him. They saved democracy.

In Pakistan, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif too should bend his ear to this conclusion. People’s power is supreme but only those shall benefit from it who are invested in genuinely serving their electorate.