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Erdogan, the coup in Turkey and the global counter-revolution
By Santiago Alba Rico, translated from Cuarto Poder by Sean Seymour-Jones
August 4, 2016 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal — What many of us feared on the night of July 15 has occurred in the most sombre way possible. If a victorious coup in Turkey would have been terrible, its failure looks set to be no less so. In barely a week, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has detained or purged more than 40,000 public officials: army officers, police, judges, teachers, and journalists. He has declared a state of emergency for three months - which can be extended indefinitely - and has suspended the European Convention of Human Rights, which could open the way – as the government has already insinuated - to the reestablishment of the death penalty and, in any case, normalise repression against all forms of opposition, particularly against the Gulenist forces and the Kurds, who have once again, following the reinitiating of the military conflict a year ago, been converted into the “internal enemy”. In short, to stop or avenge a coup - real and manipulated - Erdogan and his party have at the same time carried out a coup. Regarding the coup and Erdogan I recommend reading the reports by Andrés Mourenza who neither supported the coup nor remains complacent with what is occurring in its aftermath.
Having said that, it would be an error to interpret this authoritarian drift as a crazed move by a megalomaniac, and less still as the finally unmasked inexorable result of the strategy of Political Islam. The recent Turkish vicissitudes must be simultaneously understood within the local, regional and global context. At the local level, which is inseparable from the other two, the Erdogan coup marks the reestablishment of Turkish state nationalism, provisionally suspended or eased in the first years of the AKP (Justice and Development Party) government. In regional terms, it means the definitive closure of the cycle of change that began in 2011 and subsequently aborted in Syria with the militarisation of the revolution and ensuing multinational intervention. As for the global dimension, Erdoganist authoritarianism fits within the counter-revolutionary wave - or negative revolution - that has spread everywhere and does not exclude any continent or country.
Let us have a look. The AKP rise to power in 2002 represented a rupture that inspired hope. Facing a coup-plotting and authoritarian secular tradition, it proposed the democratisation of Turkey through a moderate Islam that reflected above all the cultural conservatism of the most disadvantaged popular classes and that, in any case, always accepted and even demanded in a very explicit way the secular character of the state and, of course, the market economy. For example, Marxist analysts like Emre Ongun wrote that “[the AKP’s electoral victory in 2002] was the sign, for a large part of the population, of political stabilisation, of strong economic growth, of the real domestication of the army and even, in the initial stages, of a new hope of liberal reform regarding the Kurdish question”. In short, the AKP and Erdogan model presented itself as the only autochthonous democratic alternative to both the theocratic and “secular” dictatorships in a region where the left had been overwhelmingly defeated and where, faced with local tyrannies, imperialist interventions and jihadist responses, all routes, even the most modest ones, towards economic development, civic responsibility and a state of law seemed to be closed off. When the so-called “Arab revolutions” broke out in 2011 - revolutions that were also Kurdish, Berberist, feminist and class-based - this model was naturally viewed as a political response to popular demands that were completely unconnected to Islamism and as radically economic as they were institutional. It is this model that today has been definitively buried by Erdogan’s coup against the July 15 coup.
It is worth remembering that, in effect, a global democratic revolution began in this part of the world in 2011 as a delayed consequence of the “thawing of the Cold War”, that prolonged the processes initiated in Latin America ten years prior and at the same time was prolonged by 15M in Spain , Occupy Wall Street in the US, Gezi in Turkey, and the protests against austerity in Greece. In the “Arab world” this revolution - which was neither Islamist nor leftist - immediately faced two counter-revolutionary reactions that tried to slow, co-opt or neutralise popular momentum. In effect, two models faced off in Libya, Tunisia and Egypt. On one side, the aforementioned Erdogan, who abandoned his policy of “zero intervention” and “good neighbour” in favour of a very opportunist, neo-Ottoman interventionism oriented towards supporting and relying on the Muslim Brotherhood and its local branches to extend its influence within the geographic sphere of its old empire. Confronting this model was the much more reactionary one of Saudi Arabia, an enemy of Turkey allies - the Brotherhood and Qatar - that ended up imposed itself, above all, via the coup carried out by General Al-Sisi in Egypt in July 2013. The only realistic option in northern Africa in 2012 was to choose between Turkey and Saudi Arabia; and more immediately between Erdogan and Al-Sisi: that is, between a democratising Islamism and a “secular” dictatorship resting upon, in reality, a backward, theocratic and criminal Islamism.
Let me clarify two things. The first is that these two models in confrontation were headed by countries equally allied to the US and the EU; the second is that the US and EU, erratic and in retreat, without doubt preferred the Turkish model - and they negotiated without problems with the Muslim Brotherhood - but had to swallow the Al-Sisi coup, and the Saudi victory, due to pure geopolitical pragmatism in a situation - as Immanuel Wallerstein insists - of weakened hegemony.
No anti-imperialist, democratic, revolutionary alternative existed in 2012 and, already resigned to the fact that I will be misinterpreted, I will dare say that it would have been good if, at the time and under those circumstances, the Turkish model - opportunist, but potentially more democratic - had of imposed itself over the Saudi model as a regional substitute of failed US imperialism. I say there was no revolutionary political alternative, but there was, however, a third counter-revolutionary model, the source of a good part of the ills of the region: the Syrian dictatorship, supported by Iran, Russia and Hezbollah, whose atrocious crimes against the Syrian people paved the way for ISIS and definitely buried the cycle of change that started in Tunisia with the immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi. Confronted with this third model, the other two - Saudi Arabia and Turkey - reached an agreement or truce that, papering over the inter-Sunni conflict, fuelled the sectarian (Sunni against Shia) dimension of the counter-revolution underway, extended now to Bahrain and Yemen.
But the Syrian dictatorship, allied with Turkey until May 2011 and an indispensable friend in the repression of the Kurds, became the gravedigger for Erdogan and his “democratic” model. Confronted with his own “Arab Spring” in Gezi and seeing his electoral power challenged in 2014, Erdogan’s intervention in Syria, which he imagined to be the foundation of a new triumphant, democratic neo-Ottoman leadership, ended up taking him down a dead-end street: the Kurdish “threat” emanating from Rojava led him to cut off all negotiations with the PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party) and to finance or tolerate different jihadist groups, including ISIS, which in turn opened up a double front of “anti-terrorist” struggle in Turkey, the source and pretext, as is often the case, of an authoritarian drift that, in this case, led to the July 15 coup and the July 16 countercoup still underway.
The “crossover” and feedback between the local and regional levels, with the Kurdish question at the centre, explains the defeat of the AKP model, and reveals once again the volatility and promiscuity of all the different geostrategic alliances in the zone. The US, which four years ago might have preferred the Turkish counter-revolutionary model and put up with the Al-Sisi coup financed by Saudi Arabia, today militarily supports the Kurds of the Syrian PYD (Democratic Union Party), the Siamese twin of the Turkish PKK, and maintains a difficult relationship with Erdogan, to the point that it might have also enthusiastically “put up with” a Gülenist or
Even back in 2013, the choice between Erdogan and Al-Sisi seemed obvious. Today, this is no longer the case. We could say that, to avoid the Al-Sisi coup, Erdogan has chosen to turn himself into Al-Sisi, tragically throwing the “Erdogan model” in the dustbin of history. As such, all that remains of this model is the Tunisian islet, where Rachid Al-Ghanoushi is now attempting, in the most adverse conditions, to continue down the path that the AKP initiated 15 years ago: that of the democratisation of Muslim social conservatism. It will not end well for him.
In any case, it would be a grave error to say that, following July 15, Islamism has imposed itself over secularism in Turkey, as if this was the only available alternative in the region and in the world. In Turkey, 20th century state nationalism has once again imposed itself. This has occurred within the framework of a global counter-revolution (or negative revolution) that is very rapidly dismantling the hopes that emerged in 2011. Among a section of the left that is very Islamophobic and, more generally, religiously secular and misinformed, there exists a tendency to lay the blame for everything on the “Arab revolutions” - pregnant with jihadism - because they were not “socialist” and were defeated. But 15M was also not socialist and was partially defeated. The same thing happened with Gezi. And with Occupy Wall Street. And Chavismo (in Venezuela), Kirchnerismo (in Argentina) and Lulismo (in Brazi) have also been defeated; and even Sanders in the US was defeated by the right-wing radicalism of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. In five years the retreat has been brutal; even more brutal when we consider that in 2011 it seemed we were going to take a great leap forward against neoliberal capitalism and in favour of global democracy. The political counterrevolution, as Aristotle says, is said in many ways. It is pronounced PP (Popular Party) in Spain, Le Pen in France, Erdogan in Turkey, Al-Sisi in Egypt, Al-Assad in Syria, PVV (Party for Freedom) in Holland, UKIP (UK Independence Party) in England, FPO (Freedom Party of Austria) in Austria, Macri in Argentina, Temer in Brazil, etc.
It would be a grave error to believe that this is a battle between secularism and religion. It is between dictatorship and democracy. We are losing this battle, as well as the class struggle and both for the same reasons, but substituting an ideological campist schema, already overtaken by facts on the ground, for a cultural one which is equally invalid will only serve to win agreement for ceding rights and liberties in the name of tribal, cultural and ethnic identities, just as the counter-revolution underway wants us to. European right-wing radicalism can adopt a “secular” and “anti-terrorist” form; Turkish right-wing radicalism a “anti-Kurdish” and “Islamic” form. In both cases, it is mainstream social conservatism that legitimises these dangerous paths. Rightward institutional shifts and conservative populism are gaining ground everywhere and geographic conflicts, increasingly more volatile and interlinked, should not fool us about what is really at stake.
The task continues being the same as it was six years ago, albeit perhaps a bit more difficult today: we need to democratise European “secular” conservatism, we need to democratise Muslim social conservatism. The Erdogan countercoup that closed the cycle opened in 2011 is disastrous news for everyone - atheist, Muslim or Christian - that is fighting for this.