(Interview) Sinan Özbek: “The antidote to a coup is establishing peace and democracy”

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We interviewed Prof. Dr. Sinan Özbek, the editor of Felsefelogos (a quarterly academic journal of philosophy), to hear his analysis of the 15 July coup attempt, anti-coup struggle and the possible outcomes of this incident for Turkish politics.

Below you can read the interview conducted by Özdeş Özbay for Marksist.org:

Who came out onto the streets on 15 July? Was it anti-coup protestors, Islamist fundamentalists, lumpen proletariat, gangs or fascists?

On 15 July 2016, at night, a coup organised within Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) was instigated. We all watched the extraordinary military traffic on TV screens. The closure of the Bosporus Bridge, deployment of military tanks in some cities including Ankara, the capital, flight of F-16s at low altitudes in Ankara and İstanbul were all interpreted as signs of a coup attempt. There were still doubts, though. It was the Prime Minister’s statement on TV screens that left no doubt that what we were observing was a coup. Following this statement, we also heard the Statement of the putschists, who called themselves “The Council of Peace at Home” (Yurtta Sulh Konseyi), be read out on TRT, the official TV station in Turkey. This moment almost marked the success of the coup d’état. However, after a while, TRT restarted its broadcast and all the locations seized by the coup makers were taken back one by one. Eventually, the coup was repelled and the putschists failed…

We heard quite a few comments that night claiming that what happened on 15 July was not a coup attempt but a theatrical mise en scene, which would play into the hands of President Erdoğan and the ruling party AKP (Justice and Development Party). This view suffers from a logical fallacy. That a coup attempt failed cannot provide evidence for its ingenuineness. In other words, it would be wrong to deduce that it was a fake coup because it failed. It should be noted that there are always two possible outcomes of a coup attempt: it either succeeds or fails. Embarking on a coup means starting a battle of life or death. When a coup is taken to the stage, those who succeed put the losers on trial and eventually punish them. As a matter of fact, there is no third way.

There are definitely certain reasons why this coup attempt failed. Had it not been for these factors, it would surely have accomplished its goal. We will be able to see why the coup makers made the so-called inept moves or why this attempt failed in greater detail in the upcoming years. Still, however restricted our knowledge of the details regarding the coup today, I would argue that the reasons for the so-called unskilful or inept moves could be:

1) The coup might have been moved to an earlier time due to the fact that its original scheduled time had been exposed. And the unforeseen problems might have arisen subsequently because of this change.

2) Some collaborators or participant forces might have backed out of the military action. At this point, one could think that the “indecisive” or “impartial” forces, who had been thinking of taking sides based on the developments, preferred to join the anti-coup ranks.

Having put forward the possible reasons for the perceived “unskillfulness or ineptness” of the coup attempt, we can see the reality more clearly now:

Putting aside these unforeseen circumstances, this coup attempt seems to have actually been well-planned, thoroughly-thought and very inclusive, given the number of generals that had taken part in. Almost half of the generals are known to have joined the coup attempt…The number of generals and admirals whose dismissals were announced in the annual meeting of Supreme Military Council (YAŞ) was 149. As for the officers and junior officers, their numbers were 1099 and 436 respectively. The total number of generals and admirals in the army is 356, which means that 40% of them were on the ranks of the coup makers. These figures show the gravity of the situation and the magnitude of the coup organisation.

It is very commonly argued that Gülen congregation had placed young students under their control in the military school over long years. Taking into account the organisational model of this congregation, which basically involves “light houses” (“hothousing” dormitories or halls of residence for students), university entrance exam preparation schools and the exam frauds, facilitating their members getting placed in military schools and government institutions, this argument sounds rather credible. The estimates of Gülen affiliated military students, calculated upon this organisational scheme, reach astounding numbers. All these calculations are today presented as the empirical evidence for the Gülen’s central role in the coup d’état. A special attention is paid to the recruits of the military school in 1984. It is claimed that Gülen congregation committed an extensive exam fraud that year and those who entered the schools then are the lieutenant generals in today’s army. This retrospective analysis is made to account for why the central cadres of the recent coup were prominently from the ranks of lieutenant generals.

Having talked about the Gülen’s role in the coup, it should also be made clear that Gülenist coup centre apparently managed to incorporate non-Gülenist forces in their plan. Some of them might have seen a good prospect for themselves in case of a success. Some might have waited just to take sides depending on the chances for success.

If the coup was well-thought and the coalition was broad enough to include different political forces from that of Gülenists, one has to ask how then this far-reaching coup attempt was repelled.

Two further factors need to be added to the ones listed above. You remember the first factor for the failure was its having been rescheduled for the evening rather than early in the morning and the second one was that some collaborators or “indecisive” or “middle” forces changing their minds. Now, the other two factors are:

1) The mass media, particularly the TV channels on broadcast that night, immediately took an anti-coup stance. They became the voice of the struggle against the coup (We all remember how CNN’s news broadcast was raided by the military live and how all the staff resisted).

2) The government also resisted and people poured into the streets. Of the two, the significant phenomenon is the latter because it was the people who prevented this coup from happening by taking a firm position against the military on the streets. Although the putschists opened fire on civilians in certain areas, the mass movement blockaded the tanks and the invaders, making it impossible for them to move forward. This also prevented a widespread armed clash between the army and the police force. The death toll would have soared, had it been the case. Therefore, all the statements which intimidate, leave under suspicion or belittle the struggle of the people who resisted the coup that night are simply defamation, nonsense and scornful blindness… The naked truth is that people took to the streets and defeated the coup…

One can surely question the characteristics or the identity of the masses. However, the first point that needs to attract our attention is their standing firmly against the coup. This was clearly what mattered or what was meritorious about that night. One should not forget that masses never fit the models that socialists have in their minds. Masses develop such behavioural models only if there are people within the movement who could organise and lead the masses in the right direction. In other words, unless you are influential enough in the mass movement to effect a behavioural change, it doesn’t make sense to expect the masses to act in accordance with what we have in mind. Unless a mass movement is guided by an organised leadership, it bears all sorts of potential adverse. One can observe all kinds of incidents ranging from lynching to plunder. And this is not peculiar to Turkey. Mass movements act in a similar fashion all around the world. This is the nature of the mass movement. To illustrate, those who were attempting to lynch soldiers and those who were preventing them were side by side. And one needs to keep in mind that it was the latter that determined the course of action in the streets rather than the first. One should also remember that streets never fit into the theories read from the books.

Well then, did some Armenian citizens get attacked or Alevites get harassed in some places that night or the following nights? Possibly. Yet, by shunning the masses, it is impossible to criticize such attacks. Provided that you are part of the mass movement, you can get an opportunity to criticize and change such acts. Being part of the movement, we can prevent the masses from displaying such tendencies. By keeping away from the movement and constantly and deliberately focusing on the adverse tendencies in the masses while analysing the movement, one only serves to a blindness which hinders the onlooker from acknowledging the fact that the masses defeated the coup with an unprecedented success.

Now awaits another significant question: did those who poured into the streets defend democracy or their political parties? This question is not meaningful when there is a coup attempt already happening. The masses took to the streets to stand against the coup. For me, being and acting against the coup has a categorical priority. Even governments with very poor records of democracy are preferable to coup regimes. Therefore, it is important to resist the coup in the streets and be shoulder to shoulder with the others resisting. It should not be forgotten that is the precondition for our ideas to be heard and for the masses to be convinced.

Is the coup risk over? Is there a possibility of another coup?

Coup attempts cannot be explained through the malicious efforts of a couple of generals. They are the ultimate point in the struggle for power. Yet, attempting to seize the power through a military coup annihilates the legitimacy of power struggle. Therefore, the right for resistance or rebellion on the part of the people automatically arises. In countries where the regime is based on parliamentarian democracy, it is usually unthinkable for a military coup to seize the power. This reminds us about two important points:

First of all, parliamentarian democracy should be defended against undemocratic forms of power; that is, it is the one to be favoured among all existing models.

Secondly, it is not possible to sustain an anti-coup struggle with undemocratic decrees such as Emergency Laws (OHAL). The antidote for coups is greater democracy. The government should therefore broaden the democratic sphere rather than narrowing it down.

It should be noted that the leading factor that prompted the coup dynamics in Turkey is the Kurdish question. Prolonged crisis in the Kurdish question and maintenance of war causes the democratic space to get restricted. Secondly, in a country where democracy operates on a flimsy ground, such a war emboldens the already powerful army, leading them to take on new and significant roles in power struggles. Having said that, we also need to emphasize that there is a tendency in Turkey to analyse politics with Kurdish question in the centre. Such analyses fail to grasp the full reality. The political genius which solely concentrates on pondering the Kurdish question stumbles in political situations like coups. That is, it fails to show quick and proper responses.

Undoubtedly, as we said above, coups cannot be explained as an adventure of a group only. For this reason, it would be true to consider the international interests that could be at work. The conjuncture in the world could bring about certain international powers supporting the coup or even co-plotting it. What I am trying to emphasize is that it would be very naive to think that leading intelligence agencies in the world were unaware of the coup attempt. At this point, the question regarding democracy comes into prominence again: Is it possible for a country with a developed parliamentarian democracy to be an area where other countries undertake operations like coup d’états? It doesn’t seem possible. Therefore, the politicians who constantly refer to a “mastermind” when things go wrong in Turkey unintentionally admit that Turkey is a country where horrible operations can be undertaken by foreign powers. This can also be interpreted as a confession that democracy is not strong enough in Turkey. Here, we should put emphasis on the previously made point once more: a better functioning parliamentarian democracy should be the form of government among the existing models.

Lastly, I want to add that Turkish army has a structural inclination to produce coup attempts. It is enough to take a quick look at the history of Republic to understand this.

onsequently, it would be unwise to expect a solution to this problem unless radical reforms concerning the structure of the institution are introduced. The view “It is not the institution but the infiltrators that should be held responsible” does not make any sense. It has been possible for a secret organisation to infiltrate the army because of the latter’s structural predisposition. This institution needs to be questioned and radically reformed.

Is it democracy that has won? What will happen next?

This coup attempt led to important shifts in the power struggle. In other words, fixed positions have come loose and the cards are getting reshuffled. This opens the ground for several possibilities:

1) One of the possibilities is strengthening the parliamentarian democracy, eliminating the coup mechanics for good. This would be one of the most favourable outcomes. As a matter of fact, there seems to be a possibility for this. Yet, with the Kurdish question unaddressed, Middle East chaotic, the army holding big stakes in politics and the economy still unstable, this possibility seems to be pretty weak.

2) Another possibility is the government could exert greater political pressure acting on a sense of fear for another coup threat as well as a sense of victory ecstasy it enjoyed by the defeat of the 15 July coup attempt. This could give an incentive to the government to impose its own political agenda by expanding the scope of the crackdown to include even anti-coup movement through Emergency Laws (OHAL). This option seems to carry greater possibility. However, putting such an oppressive agenda into effect would bring about new disturbances.

The high-rank officers placed back in the army are the ones once said to have plotted coup against the government. A Gülenist coup attempt mustn’t be used an excuse to whitewash the previously made coup-plans. It would be wrong to underestimate the Gülenist putschists by referring to Ergenekon-Balyoz plans (the coup plans, allegedly made during the initial years of AKP government) as well as using the Gülenist coup attempt to acquit the Ergenekon and Balyoz coup plans. Both reasonings are problematic in logical terms.

If what are faced with is as explained above, an uncompromising policy frame could create favourable conditions for other coup attempts. Even if the governing party takes the necessary administrative and legal measures to prevent another coup, as long as it insists on sustaining its own program, instability is inevitable.

What needs to be done at the moment is not hesitating even for a moment to take part in the anti-coup struggle in the streets. Only such an involvement could pave the way for propaganda for greater democracy to eliminate the coup dynamics. The struggle against coups cannot be carried out by introducing new methods of oppression or by restricting democracy. On the contrary, what needs to be done is to try to build a stronger democracy with expanded borders and to force the institutions to retreat back into their fields of responsibility. It is more important than ever to argue for peace and democracy as an antidote for coups.

(Translated to English by Carol Williams and Canan Sahin)