In Turkey’s Footsteps
Over 300 people died and more than 2,100 were wounded in a coup d’etat attempt in Turkey between the late hours of July 15 and early next morning, as a faction of the Turkish Armed Forces — calling itself the Peace at Home Council — attempted to seize power. The Turkish Parliament was bombed, the Ankara Presidential Palace was shelled, over a dozen navy ships went missing and, after a few hours of cross-firing across the Bosphorus bridges, police forces and the masses had successfully thwarted the coup attempt. The military jets were first seen flying over the bridges around 11 pm; by 6.30 am, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was addressing the citizens he had rallied through FaceTime.
The Turkish coup attempt came three days after the `Move on Pakistan’ banners, encouraging Army Chief Raheel Sharif to take over, emerged in 18 cities of the country including Islamabad, Karachi and Lahore. While this act of a little known Faisalabad-based party was being used as fodder for memes and satire, the reactions in Pakistan betrayed more than just a hint of anxiety.
As the government and many opposition parties condemned the coup attempt, PTI chief Imran Khan exclaimed that the ‘’Pakistani masses would distribute sweets if the army took over the country.’’ These involuntary reactions, envisioning a Turkey-esque scenario in Pakistan, hide decades of juxtapositions between the two states vis-Ã -vis civil-military ties.
For a state that’s halfway through the completion of its first ever back-to-back democratic tenures, it is natural to be wary of military coups, especially at a time when one is repeatedly told that military regimes are a thing of the past. A similar caginess was witnessed when Mohamed Morsi was overthrown by General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in Egypt less than a month after Nawaz Sharif took oath as Pakistan’s Prime Minister in 2013.
At the surface level, there are more similarities between the 2013 coup in Egypt and the attempted coup in Turkey, considering the secular/Islamist dichotomy at play. But given that the Peace at Home Council is in allegiance with Fethullah Gulen’s Hizmet Movement, the recent attempt wasn’t quite a case of the ‘guarantors of Kemalism’ stepping in to take charge as was the case in 1960, 1971, 1980 and, most notably, in 1997, when the Islamist Welfare party ‘had to be’ disbanded to shield Turkish secularism. Among the remnants of the Welfare Party was Erdogan, whose AK Party has ruled post-9/11 Turkey.
Meanwhile, in Pakistan the army itself has been the strongest proponent of Islamism using it as a geostrategic tool. Jihadism has been fuelled among the military ranks and their ubiquitous madrassa proxies by both the religionist Zia-ul-Haq and the ‘moderately enlightened’ Pervez Musharraf alike, in order to retain their influence in Indian-administered Kashmir through the militants and allow the state to dig up strategic depth, reaching well within Afghanistan territory.
Hence, a comparison of civil-military dynamics in Turkey and Pakistan produces an intriguing mÃ©lange, wherein an array of similarities floats atop, but the glaring differences dominate the mixture.
Unlike in Pakistan, the Turkish Army does not have to use any foreign causes as a pretext to exercise more control over the country. The military in Turkey is paradoxically the “custodian of republicanism” in the country, in keeping with the Kemalist founding principles of the Constitution, whereby the army is asked to guard the unitary and secular nature of the state.
In Turkey, even when foreign policy has been a factor in overthrowing the government — as in 1997, for instance — it was because of the Welfare Party’s departure from Turkey’s traditional alignment with the West, as prescribed by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.
Historically, another glaring difference between Turkey and Pakistan, in terms of civil-military relations, is the unity that exists among Turkish politicians. In Pakistan, where the likes of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Nawaz Sharif and, more recently, Imran Khan have all graduated from politics under military rule, there has been a tendency to jump onto the army’s bandwagon, whether it was to nullify the Bengali majority before 1971, or to keep oneself politically relevant.
The dharnas and rallies organised by Imran Khan’s PTI and Maulana Tahirul Qadri’s PAT, said to be backed by certain remnants of former COAS Ashfaque Pervez Kayani, sent alarm bells of an impending coup, ringing in country. But it never happened. The army under General Raheel Sharif, it appears, was not interested in a takeover.
However, when it came to foreign policy issues, they continued to pull the strings from behind the scenes.
Even so, whether it is to ‘safeguard secularism’ in Turkey, or ‘secure national interests’ in Pakistan, the armies in both countries have facilitators within their ranks.
Just as the Musharraf treason trial had triggered the long marches of 2014, the ongoing Ergenekon trials in Turkey where 275 people — including many senior military officers — have been accused of plotting a coup, has irked the establishment. Similarly, while the 2014 events were sparked by allegations of rigging and corruption against the ruling PML-N, the AKP in Turkey has been engulfed by a corruption scandal that surfaced in December 2013.
‘Undue interference’ in military domains and the ‘incompetence’ of civilian governments are often used as excuses by militaries to historically usurp power across the world. For Pakistan, the biggest lessons to be learnt from the Turkish coup relate to issues of power distribution among the institutions, but more critically to the civilian government’s rapport with the masses, which ended up being Erdogan’s saviour last month.
Despite the Turkish president’s neo-Ottoman ambitions and Islamist inclinations, the masses he mobilised weren’t religionist mobs. Erdogan has earned the trust of the people through his economic policies, the benefits of which have filtered down to the people. While Pakistan’s macro-economy is being predicted to boom by the likes of the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank, there has been no apparent benefit accruing to the masses.
The ideal graph of civil-military relations would have to be one where the army is at its strongest, but subordinate to the civilian government. And among the factors that keep that graph in check is popular public support.
So, while Imran Khan might be right about the Pakistani masses distributing sweets if the Pakistan army were to take over, as things stand right now, it does not mean that he — or anyone dismissive of the idea that democratic institutions need time to strengthen in the country — isn’t a part of the problem.
Kunwar Khuldune Shahid is a journalist and writer based in Lahore.