Opinion, Politics

Turkey’s July 15 Revolution

Turkey’s July 15 resistance against the coup attempt is no less than the British, American or French revolutions. It has the main characteristics of the classical revolutions. Now Turkey is among the countries that have a saga to support the democratic system.
15 min read

Revolutions are defined as periods in which fast and comprehensive changes in political systems take place. Thus, a revolutionary period can be defined by three characteristics: 1) a period of time in which political changes occur expeditiously; 2) involving competition and/or fighting between different groups to monopolize political power; and 3) relatively extensive public/popular participation during almost every phase of the ongoing political transformation process. In a real revolution, all of these factors come together and function effectively. If any of these characteristics is lacking in the event, it cannot rightly be named a revolution. This is why we ought to be hesitant in calling any military coup a revolution, as is sometimes done by commentators.In political and historical studies, the British Glorious Revolution (1688), the American Revolution (1776), and the French Revolution (1789) are usually cited as examples of classical revolution. In the 20th century, there have been many periods of political unrest, rebellion and change, which some call revolution and some do not.

In fact, the classical revolutions mentioned above had certain similarities and differences. They, no doubt, caused profound changes in their respective lands and received some kinds of popular participation during the process.

Classical Revolutions in Short

In the British case, two claimants for political power appeared. King James II replaced King Charles amid heated religious disagreements and conflicts. He claimed to rule the country by divine right and stated that his right to rule and his authority could not be objected or challenged. Despite being Catholic, he could make neither the Catholics nor the Protestants happy. He also angered the British Parliament, which had been gaining strength against the throne in the previous decades. Finally, Parliament removed James II from the throne and replaced him with Mary and William of Orange in November 1688.

The agreement with the new holders of the throne constituted a significant step towards establishing the constitutional order of Britain. After the revolution, the king became a symbolic figure. The country moved towards a constitutional monarchy and the first parliamentarian system. It was a peaceful transformation and became formally known as the Glorious Revolution. The revolution did not witness the deaths of thousands of people; however, in previous decades Britain had experienced political bloodshed and it can be assumed that these fights helped to pave the way for sweeping political change. The Glorious Revolution, to a large extent, shaped the British political system and Parliament, which represented the people, was the main player in the game.

The American Revolution was, to a large extent, identical to an independence war. The Americans objected to the authority of King George III and the British Parliament, but on no account were they slaves in shackles. In March 1770, British soldiers panicked when Americans threw snowballs at them and opened fire. Five Americans died, but in a short period of time the event became known as the Boston Massacre throughout the colonies, one of the smallest massacres in world history!

American merchants decided to stop selling British tea and refused to unload the tea from the three ships anchored in Boston Harbor. On the night of December 16, 1773, a group of 60 Americans went to the harbor and threw the tea into the sea. The British Parliament was angered by this act and imposed a ban on the usage of Boston Harbor until the owners of the tea were fully compensated. Parliament also declared that Boston would be governed by British soldiers commanded by the British general, Thomas Gage.

The American Congress gathered in 1774. Congress sent a petition to George III and Parliament, asking for the harbor to be opened, the soldiers removed, and the taxes abolished. The petition did not solve the problem or bring peace. Skirmishes between Americans and British soldiers broke out, evolving into full-scale war. In the beginning, it seemed impossible that the Americans would win against Britain, a huge military world power that had recently won the Seven Years War. However, in 1778, things started to change. The old foe of Britain, France, decided to side with the American colonies. Then, Spain and the Netherlands also entered the war. In 1781, George Washington captured the biggest British army unit at Yorktown, in Virginia. The colonies gained independence and started construction of the new political system.

The Americans did fight for their independence against an imperial power with which they shared many social and cultural values. According to one interpretation, they preferred to set up a republic instead of a kingdom because they had conducted their independence war against the British kingdom. The colonies desired to achieve two important aims at the same time: to create a new common political entity and to keep their autonomy. The American founding fathers were also sensitive to achieving or, to put it better, protecting individual freedom. Thus, they created a federal system to please the colonies, and implemented checks and balances in the sense of constitutional governance traditions to serve individual freedom.

France was late with respect to Britain, both in having a constitutional order and achieving industrial revolution. It was poor and militarily weak. In hostility against Britain, France helped the American colonies to defeat the British Empire. The French people followed the fight of the Americans with great admiration. Ironically, they had to obey an emperor in their own country.

France was a country of three classes. The first class consisted of the Roman Catholic priests (the Church) who did not have to pay taxes as Catholicism was the official religion of France. This class had other privileges too. The second class, which included almost 30,000 people, lived in large manors, farms inherited by their ancestors. They had high social and official status, serving as generals, ambassadors, and ministers, and very few of them paid taxes. The third class was the largest, numbering almost 26 million. It included lawyers, merchants, doctors, farmers, etc. They were the people who paid taxes, even for basic needs. They also paid taxes to the church.

The French people were poor and in the seasons of bad harvest they went hungry. The state was also broke. King Louis XVI wanted to impose taxes on the aristocracy, but was not able to succeed in this. Social unrest seemed inevitable. As the American Declaration of Independence was translated into French and published, millions of French people read it and learned about freedom and equality.

Louis XVI pressed for taxes. The aristocracy declared that they would agree to be taxed, provided that the representatives of the three classes came together and united on the necessity of the taxes. The king accepted and the representatives of the three classes assembled. However, the representatives of the third class (named as the public, or the people) were discriminated against and made to understand that they were not as important as the other classes. The voting method in the Assembly also caused discontent among the representatives of the third class. As the third class included a huge majority of the French people, its representatives changed the name of the Assembly to the National Assembly and convinced some of the priests and aristocrats to act with them. Other aristocrats rushed to ask the king to stop the new Assembly from functioning, fearing that it would take decisions that would harm their interests. The king accepted and locked the meeting hall.

The new Assembly insisted on gathering and decided to write a new constitution. The king ordered the National Assembly to dissolve but his order was rejected. He then decided to use force and called upon his special guard unit of soldiers from Switzerland. The people in Paris, hearing that the king’s guardians were coming to suppress them, declared that they would resist. They attacked the Bastille on the July 4, 1789, to find an arsenal that had only a dozen prisoners being protected by almost ten soldiers. However, later on, in writing the history of the French Revolution, a story about the Bastille was produced that is comparable to the American Boston Massacre. The French Revolution grew to extensive violence that cost the lives of thousands, among which were not only aristocrats but also ordinary people.

After the French Revolution, France adopted a republican political structure. The newly emerged republic was based on the idea of equality for all citizens. It produced the French Declaration of Human and Citizen Rights. The French revolutionaries also took a position not only against the dynasty but also the religious establishment (the Church) and even religion itself, and created the French laïcité. More than two centuries after the French Revolution, the French people are still divided into two large groups: those who are for the Revolution and those who are against it.

Thus, the French revolution marked a break in French political history. Although it is debatable how successful it was in reaching its declared aims, the French Revolution proceeded to create a completely new political structure instead of restoring what the French people called the ancient regime.

Setbacks of Revolution

Now it is time to make a general observation about the results of revolutions. The term ‘revolution’ connotes, especially when used in romantic senses and contexts, radical changes that sweep completely away previous institutions, rules, and social and political entities. This approach is misleading. Revolution might mean significant change, but on no account does it lead to the change of everything. The idea that it can be possible to change everything at once and for forever is an unrealistic, false approach, denied by the nature of human life. In the case of the three classical revolutions, including the French, it is possible to detect continuity in social and political life. There is nothing surprising in this, as life depends upon repetition and continuity.

Turkish Political System up to July 15, 2016

Turkey lived through and witnessed an unprecedented event, not only in Turkish history but probably in the history of the world on July 15, 2016. The Turkish people defeated an attempted coup by the military without the use of weapons. In order to fully grasp what happened and why it is unique and so important, we need to point out the main characteristics of the Turkish political system before July 15, 2016.

The Turkish Republic was founded on October 29, 1923, after an independence war as a relatively plural and democratic political entity. Then, in 1925, it was turned into a single-party dictatorship that lasted until 1945. After the end of WWII, Turkey faced the truth that it had to make a choice between the democratic West and the totalitarian Soviet bloc. Due to several domestic and international factors, the political leadership of the time decided to unite with the West and started the process to transfer the closed political system into a democratic one. On May 14, 1950, Turkey had its first democratic elections, in which the opposition party – the Democrat Party (DP) – won and replaced the People Republic Party (PRP).

However, the PRP and its allies in the bureaucracy and society were discontent with the new regime. As early as 1952, only two years after the DP took office, army officers began to make plans to overthrow the democratic government. They started a military coup on May 27, 1960, the first coup in the history of the Turkish Republic. After a show trial, the army executed PM Adnan Menderes, and had a new constitution prepared that allocated the army a special and undemocratic position and, overall, established what we call a bureaucratic tutelage system. In the new political structure, the democratically elected government was given limited scope and the rest of state authority was reserved for the bureaucracy, with the army at the center.

All democratically elected governments showed discontent with the bureaucratic tutelage system and made small attempts to change its denominators. The biggest effort in this respect occurred after the AK Party came to power in November 2002. During the AK Party era, the bureaucratic tutelage system has been pushed back step by step. In his fight against bureaucratic state power, PM Erdoğan has needed allies in the bureaucracy as he, despite having political power, lacks bureaucratic cadres. Within the state structure, the main bureaucratic groups were the Kemalists and the Gülenists. As they were coming from similar religious and cultural backgrounds, Erdoğan allied with the Gülenists against the Kemalist cadres. However, the Gülenists were a deep-rooted, clandestine group with their own ambitions and plans. The aim of the Gülenists was to seize power within the bureaucracy so that, no matter which political party was in office, they would have the real power.

Erdoğan sensed the Gülenist make-up in the bureaucracy in 2010 and started preparations to take steps to curb the Gülenist bureaucracy. This was the beginning of a still ongoing fight between the two powers: democratically elected, legitimate, and transparent government on one side, and a hidden, bureaucratic, totalitarian power on the other.

The Gülenist movement made several attempts to take Erdoğan’s governments down. It tried to arrest the head of the National Intelligence Agency and, through him, reach Erdoğan in February 2012. The attempt failed. Then, the Gülenist gang tried to benefit from the Gezi Revolts in June 2013. An important effort to oust Erdoğan came from Gülen’s men in the police and judiciary on December 17-25, 2013. This attempt also failed.

The Coup Attempt of the Gülenist Army

Everyone in the country knew that the Gülenists had infiltrated the army, but no one was sure how large the infiltration was. It became clear on the night of July 15, 2016. The army officers who were FETO (Gülenist Terror Organization) members attempted a violent military coup. It was the bloodiest coup attempt in the history of the Republic. More than 200 people were killed and thousands were wounded. The people resisted the Gülenist officers and defeated the coup.

Many domestic and foreign observers of Turkish politics had expected such an attempt by the Gülenists. But why did it come on July 15, 2016? One might consider two reasons: 1) the judiciary was about to arrest many Gülenist officers who had participated in plot trials committed against army officers who were not Gülenists; 2) the government was about to have almost 2,000 Gülenist officers retired at the High Military Commission meeting in early August 2016. The Gülenists understood that they would lose an important part of their manpower in the army. This forced them to begin the coup as soon as possible. As the National Intelligence Agency learned of the attempted coup, the coup plotters changed their timing and began to implement their plan at 21:00 pm July 15, instead of 03:00 am on the night of July 16, 2016.

One point needs to be specifically mentioned here. The Gülenists had been able to present themselves to the outside world – though, of course, not to the Turkish people – as a peaceful movement of moderate Islam that defended secularism and fought radical Islam. They also managed to portray Erdoğan as a radical Islamist and Turkey as a country run by Islamists. To do this, they used totalitarian disinformation tactics. In fact, it is Gülen and his men who are radical. Gülen wishes to create a political system that resembles that of Iran. His ultimate aim is world domination.

The coup attempt failed. Several factors contributed to its failure. President Erdoğan and PM Binali Yıldırım declared that they would resist, even at the cost of their own lives. Erdoğan called on the people to defend democracy in the streets. Millions of people from every walk of life and political bent poured into the streets unarmed and challenged the soldiers. Public prosecutors issued a warrant to the police forces to arrest soldiers who were trying to overthrow the government. Turkish media, for the first time in the history of the Turkish republic, stood united against the coup attempt. The police bravely fought against the soldiers taking part in the coup, and army officers who opposed the coup attempt and were loyal to the constitutional order resisted in active or passive ways against the Gülenist officers.

The Gülenists tried to renew and accelerate the Kemalist bureaucratic tutelage system. That the coup attempt failed, or to put it better, that Turkish politics and the people defeated it, will have consequences for Turkish politics and the political system. Turkish politics will push the bureaucratic tutelage system back even further. It is certain that Turkey will be more democratic afterwards. After the failed coup attempt, Turkey began to reconstruct the state structure. Of special importance in this respect are the reforms in the army. For decades, the army in general and army generals in particular enjoyed a fairly autonomous position with regard to the democratic government. Generals saw themselves on a par with high-level politicians, and even thought of themselves as superior to the prime ministers.

Now, all of this is changing. Military schools at the level of high schools have been, rightly, closed down as they had been completely infiltrated by the Gülenists. Commanders of the army, navy, and air forces will be under the command of the Minister of National Defense, something that has been talked about for decades but has never come to pass. The National Intelligence Agency will be restructured.

More importantly, there is a spirit of reconciliation in the country. Turkish politics is excessively divided, but all main political parties united to oppose the coup. Political leaders now use softened language towards each other. People from all political parties participated in demonstrations against the coup. All of these developments give us hope for the future of Turkish democracy.

July Revolution of Turks      

It is not an exaggeration to call the Turkish people’s defeat of the coup attempt a revolution. It has the main characteristics of the classical revolutions. It caused or paved the way for sweeping political change. The Gülenists competed illegitimately for political power and lost the fight. Millions of people joined the resistance against the coup attempt. Now we can say that Turkey is among the countries that have a saga to support the democratic system. Turkey’s July 15 resistance against the coup attempt is no less than the British, American or French revolutions.

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Atilla Yayla is Professor of Social and Political Theory and currently the chairman of Association for Liberal Thinking in Turkey.