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Coup and counter-coup in Turkey and Kurdistan
By Sarah Parker and Phil Hearse
August 12, 2016 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal — The dramatic events of 15/16 July created an international shock wave: this was, contrary to some initial opinions, a very serious coup involving large sections of the armed forces. Both the parliament and the presidential palace were attacked by fighter planes. Hundreds were killed, both demonstrators and police killed by pro-coup soldiers and helicopter gunships, and young conscripts lynched by the anti-coup crowds. The coup showed the deep rifts that exist inside the Turkish ruling class, and its aftermath showed the growing drive towards the creation of an Islamist dictatorship.
Not so democratic resistance
Immediately the coup was known much of the media went into overdrive about mass popular resistance to the coup. Sone left wing journals have followed suit. Tens of thousands did indeed come out to confront the armed forces engaged in the coup. But was this really simply a mass outpouring in a favour of democracy?
In fact we now know that the overwhelming majority of those who came onto the streets were the supporters of Erdoğan’s AKP (Justice and Development) Party. People on the ground say also that the fascist MHP party members also came out. It is true that the Left wing HDP (Peoples Democratic Party) and main opposition CHP (Peoples Republican Party) condemned the coup, but with perhaps a few exceptions their members were not on the streets, and with good reason.
As Defne Kadioğlu Polat has argued: “Friday night, the night of the attempted coup d’etat, was the first time in the recent history of the Turkish Republic that such a large segment of conservatives and religious citizens went out to own the streets (apart from party meetings) in the name of democracy, or at least for their definition of democracy.
Though some commentators and politicians have argued that different segments of society averted the coup together, displaying a rare show of political unity in Turkey, it is probably safe to say that most of the protestors at the scene of the attempted coup were either AKP voters or at least ideologically close to the AKP”.
The AKP zealots attacked the headquarters of the HDP, the attacked people in bars and restaurants consuming alcohol and they attacked areas of Istanbul where the ethnic minority Alevis – often seen as supporters of the Left – live. Theirs was an eruption of reactionary nationalist and Islamist fervour aimed blows first and foremost against the plotters, but sporadically at others seen as enemies of the AKP.
It was only after a week of post-coup terror that the opposition CHP, supported by members of the HFP and other left wing groups, felt able to organise their own rally, condemning the coup but also defending democratic rights.
Who were the coup’s authors?
The regime has been keen to portray the Hizmet movement of exiled imam Fethullah Gülen, as the dark force behind the coup. Gülen’s movement which has around 4 million followers worldwide, does indeed have many supporters inside the army, the civil service and the judiciary. However is now obvious that the coup supporters inside the armed forces went way beyond the Gulenists. A total of 109 generals (at last count) have been arrested. Former air force commander Akin Ozkurk was arrested and eventually ‘confessed’, certainly under torture, to being at the centre of the plot. Of course no confessions in these circumstances can be taken at face value. Nonetheless the scope of the arrests certainly indicates widespread support among senior officers. The commander general of Turkey's second army, one of the country's most senior military officials, has been arrested, according to the Anadolu news agency. General Adem Huduti is the most senior officer to be detained so far in the wake of the attempted coup. Lieutenant General Erdal Ozturk, the commander of the Third Army, was also arrested.
Some of the commanders of the army which carried out the onslaught against rebel Kurdish towns and villages between September 20125 and April this year have been arrested, as have the two pilots responsible for shooting down a Russian bomber over northern Syria earlier this year.
Erdoğan and his prime minister Mesut Yilmaz stress the alleged role of the Gülen movement, both as a way of targeting Hizmet but also of obscuring the huge support of the plotters in the state apparatus. This represents the titanic struggle that has been taking place inside the state apparatus, and in the ruling class, since the AKP came to power in 2002. The issue between the contending factions is the Islamisation of the Turkish state.
People who supported the coup represent the old ‘Kemalist’ ideal of a secular, pro- Western, pro-NATO capitalist state. They do not represent ‘democracy’, they are fiercely nationalist and completely opposed both to the workers movement and Kurdish self-determination. They are opposed however to an Islamisation of the state which potentially puts Turkey in conflict with the west and especially the United States. It is noticeable that the US government did not take any position on the coup until it became clear which side was winning. While they probably didn’t organise the coup, they probably would not have been unhappy if it had succeeded.
Behind the contending coup and anti-coup forces however is not just different ideas – Islamist or secular, pro-Western or leading the Muslim world – that the different sides support. There are different class interests at work. The old ‘Kemalist’ political parties and state represented a strongly pro-Western, pro-American capitalist ruling class. Erdoğan’s ruling AKP party was backed by a section of the urban and especially rural poor, but also by initially by a section of the provincial ruling class which felt pushed aside by the wealthy, pro-Western, capitalists in the major cities. Turkish political scientist Sungur Savran puts it like this:
“The other part is the rise of what was a provincial bourgeoisie, aspiring to become rich and powerful like their earlier dominant Westernized class brethren, but, feeling like the underdog, produced a different kind of political movement which posed an alternative program of Islamic unity, not only politically but economically as well. This wing had grown beyond a provincial wing of the bourgeoisie into finance capital by the 1990s, and they strove for power.
“The AKP is the expression of this class fraction. However, since Erdoğan is an extremely strong figure and has been so successful at the polls, many from the earlier Westernized wing have also joined him over time. Yet Erdoğan's obsession of becoming the "Rais" (Chief) of the Islamic countries of the Middle East and beyond has not subsided as a result, but on the contrary reached new heights.
“So the AKP is incontrovertibly a party of the newly rising fraction of the Turkish bourgeoisie that draws its strength from the support extended to it by the poor masses, long time alienated by the Westernized wing of the same class. It must be added that the AKP is extremely hostile to the organized working class and has been administering the neoliberal class assault on behalf of the Turkish bourgeoisie all along. Naturally, it is not this aspect of its political practice that the Westernized wing detests, of course. It is Erdoğan's resolute drive towards Islamizing the country, the corollary of which is, in the last analysis, Turkey's divorce from the Western alliance that gives the Westernized wing chills. That is the logic behind the ‘civil war of the bourgeoisie’, which, despite several episodes of extreme tension, remained bloodless until 15 July.”
This ongoing conflict has been shown through on the one hand attempts by Erdoğan to identify plots against him, and the periodic sacking of army officers, judges and police officials. This conflict has also been complicated by the tensions between the AKP leadership and the Gȕlen network. Gȕlen’s philosophy, based on the Sufi interpretation of Islam, calls for religion to be a personal guide and moral compass, but not the organising principle of practical politics. The imam is not just pro-neoliberalism in general, but pro-USA specifically. Undoubtedly he is in a constant and friendly dialogue with the United States government, although for the moment it seems unlikely the United States was directly involved in the coup plot.
Despite their opposition to Erdoğan’s drive towards dictatorship, neither the HDP, other left wing groups nor the PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party) supported the coup – and with good reason. Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) Co-President Selahattin Demirtas denounced the coup and said “The nationalist and racist war bloc has split into two”. The PKK said:
“The AKP fascism drove the army into Kurdish cities and towns, made them burn the cities to the ground and massacre hundreds of civilians. Furthermore, it enacted laws to disallow the trial of the military for the crimes they have committed. There already existed a military tutelage before the coup attempt made yesterday; which makes the current case an attempt of coup by a military faction against the existing military faction.”
Turkey has a brutal history of military coups, which happened in 1960, 1971 and 1980, while in 1997 the military carried out a ‘postmodern’ coup – they told the first elected Islamist government to leave office or face being thrown out by force. They left office.
Most devastating for the left and progressive forces was the 1980 coup. It crushed powerful left wing organisations and trade unions, and forced tens of thousands into exile, and is the one of the main reasons for the large Turkish and Kurdish diasporas in Britain and Germany.
Six hundred and fifty thousand people were arrested, 1.6 million people were driven out of their jobs and ‘red listed’, 517 people were sentenced to death and 50 actually hanged, 300 people died from torture or on hunger strikes in prison, newspapers were shut down, hundreds of thousands were denied a passport and hundreds of ‘people were ‘disappeared’ and many are still missing. Is there any wonder that the coup plotters of 2016 were not supported by the left? The coup represented a deadly threat to all progressive forces in Turkey and the Kurdish resistance. However what has defeated the coup is not democracy. Erdoğan himself is reported as saying that ‘Allah sent us this coup’ as an opportunity to deal with all opposition. The coup has been followed by a counter-coup, aimed at eliminating all opposition to the creation of an Islamist dictatorship.
Obviously the counter-coup goes way beyond those who were directly involved in the coup. At the time of writing, just ten days after the coup, the figure for those arrested or dismissed is astonishing.
A Purge to Islamise the state
The day after the coup Prime Minister Binali Yildrim announced on that 2,839 soldiers of various ranks had been arrested. Among those arrested were at least 34 generals or admirals. A number of students of the Kuleli Military High School, enough to fill five buses, were also arrested. It is absolutely impossible that such a large number of people could have been identified and arrested on the very night of the coup. Like all the other categories arrested or sacked, these soldiers were on a pre-prepared list of people who were to be eventually ‘dealt with’. By 18 July 2016, a total of 103 generals – now 137 -and admirals have been detained by Turkish authorities in connection with the coup, fully one third of the generals and admirals in the TSK (Turkish armed forces).
The purge has gone very deep. A state of emergency has been declared and Turkey has temporarily suspended its adherence to the European declaration of human rights. At the time of writing the extraordinary figures are:
* At least 10,000 arrested, including 6,039 military personnel including at 103 generals and admirals, accounting for a third of the army leading officers;
* 49,000 government workers fired;
* 21,000 private teachers licenses revoked;
* 15,200 teachers fired;
* Arrest warrants have been issued for 89 journalists and more than 40 taken into custody.
* All academics banned from international travel. This is a very nasty item, designed to prevent dissident academics from going into exile and becoming long-term critics of the regime.
* 300 presidential guards arrested;
* 30 governors dismissed;
* 9,000 police officers fired;
* 2,745 judges dismissed;
* 1,577 Turkish university deans asked to resign
It is absolutely inconceivable that the huge lists of those fired or arrested could have been rapidly drawn up. The arrests and sackings have come from pre-prepared lists. Erdogan thanked Allah for sending him the coups so he could act; he was waiting for the opportunity to act against those thought of as enemies or potential enemies. It is hitting wide groups of people who have nothing to do with the coup plotters.
According to Amnesty International prisoners have been held in stress positions for up to 48 hours and “...detainees have been denied food, water and medical treatment, and been verbally abused and threatened. Some have been subjected to severe beatings and torture, including rape.”
A particularly threatening item is that all leave for civil servants has been cancelled and those on leave instructed to return to their posts, so that their whereabouts are known in case ;of dismissal or arrest. According to a government spokesman this has now been extended to civil servants: “Those travelling from any of the country’s international airports will now have to provide proof of their employment. Civil servants as well as their spouses and children will need authorisation by their employer to travel. “Meanwhile other employees will have to prove that they work in the private sector and are therefore not civil servants”.
The government has announced that 20,000 new teachers are to be hired, and these are likely to be proven Islamists who will replace the sacked, suspect, teachers. The teachers at private schools whose licenses have been revoked are mainly teachers in schools run by Hizmet, the Gülen network. These schools are Islamic, but obviously not the right kind of Islamic.
The issue which immediately arises is whether through this kind of purging the nature of the state itself can be changed – without a civil war or successful counter- revolutionary coup – from parliamentary democracy to Islamist dictatorship. In fact of course Turkey before the coup can only be described as a parliamentary democracy with extreme limitations. In 1997, as explained above, the army revised the result of the elections by threatening a coup. Since the advent of the AKP government in 2002, despite the pretence of ‘liberal Islam’, a more and more dictatorial regime has been introduced. Erdoğan has repeatedly purged the state apparatuses and the military and arbitrary detentions and imprisonments have become common. The war against the Kurds has been resumed and the parliamentary immunity of opposition deputies, particularly those from the HDP, removed.
However the counter-coup is profoundly deepening this process. History has shown that reactionary mass movements are quite capable of installing dictatorships while maintaining the trappings of an apparent parliamentary democracy. When Mussolini came to power in Italy in 1922 parliament was maintained but all the Communist deputies expelled and arrested. Gradually the fascists, through state manoeuvres and the use of mass violence, expelled their opponents from the state apparatus and in 1925 Mussolini declared himself dictator. It is most unlikely that now Erdoğan and the AKP will move towards abolishing the forms of parliamentary democracy, but it will be a hollowed out parliamentarism with – probably – HDP and other opposition deputies arrested and suspended from parliament.
Today there is a climate of fear for oppositionists in Turkey and Kurdistan. They can be seized from the streets, at work or from their homes at any moment. Nineteen trade unions have been closed by the government. Already before the coup repression against workers in struggle was mounting with for example the police mobilised against striking workers at the Oyak Renault plant in the city of Bursa.
Erdoğan and the AKP will use the counter-coup to push the Islamisation of the state. The situation of women is particularly threatening. Just five weeks before the coup Erdoğan made a speech denouncing the use of contraception as ‘impossible for Muslims’. The number of reported honour killings has skyrocketed, as have the reported levels of rape and domestic violence. New laws make divorce much more difficult, especially for women, who now have to go through a process of seeing an Islamic family advisor who will try to rescue the marriage. Some women report being abused for not wearing Islamic dress.
Erdoğan and the AKP are using the coup to consolidate their rule and push through changes which will gut parliamentarism and create a presidential government with dictatorial powers. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan wants Turkey, with him at is head, to become the leader of the Sunni Muslim world. His counter-coup is a threat to the Kurdish people, workers, women, journalists, academics and oppositionists of all kinds. A nasty and brutal regime is being put in place.
Tens of thousands of ‘people have been arrested, prevented from travelling or driven out of their jobs in the aftermath of the coup. Some have been brutalised, tortured and even raped.
Few people will have sympathy for the generals and admirals who were willing to plunge Turkey into the nightmare of a military dictatorship. But Erdoğan’s purges go way beyond that, victimising journalists, civil servants, lawyers, teachers, university lecturers and many more. They deserve our solidarity and support.