Turkey’s General Dilemma: Democracy and the Reverse Coup

The days of military coups in Turkey are officially over. Half of all Turkish admirals and one out of ten active duty generals are currently in jail for plotting against the government, and on July 29 the military’s chief of staff resigned over a disagreement with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan about staff promotions. The same day, the heads of the army, navy, and air force requested early retirement. These developments are a paradigm shift for a country that has experienced constant military meddling and three military coups in the last half century.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of last week’s events was that they did not cause any public uproar or panic. Turkey’s stock exchange opened to gains last Monday, and the government seems to be going about its business as usual. This is unexpected, as Turkey’s armed forces have traditionally been well respected. The military was the first institution of the Ottoman Empire to modernize, adopting Western military strategy, weapons, as well as science and education methods. Almost all modern Turkey’s hallowed founding fathers — the Young Turks and Mustafa Kemal Atatürk — were military officers determined to westernize and secularize Turkey’s government, laws, education system, and even its clothes and alphabet.

Of course, Atatürk’s cultural revolution was not universally embraced, especially among the pious rural masses. As a Kemalist slogan from the 1920s put it, the Turkish government ruled “for the people, despite the people.” In the 1920s, the military had to suppress more than a dozen Kurdish and religious uprisings. These experiences traumatized the young republic’s military leaders and left them suspicious of all things Kurdish and Islamic.

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