Unless you were living under a rock, you will recall the foiled coup d’état attempt in Turkey. The Turkish military attempted to seize control while President Tayyip Erdogan was vacationing on July 15, 2016. The President took to Facetime to encourage the populace to take to the streets in support of the elected government. Now if you are well versed in Turkish history, you will remember that military coups are not uncommon. The military intervened in 1960, 1971, and 1980. In 1997, the Turkish military executed a “post-modern coup”. The military – the secular defenders of the constitution – has initiated coups to restore order and to protect the secular nature of the republic created by Ataturk.
This is one of the reasons why many find this attempted coup so suspicious. The Turkish government continues to point the figure at Erdogan’s longtime rival, an Islamic Cleric living in Pennsylvania. Yet, accusations that the secular military would support radical aspirations to overthrow the government seem unfounded giving its institutional history. Furthermore, the hasty and unplanned execution of the coup which failed to lockdown national media, the presidential palace, and transportation centers seems out of character for a military which successfully orchestrated 3 previous military coups. For this reason, accusations continue to fly of Erdogan’s knowledge and even orchestration of the coup. Now, the President has the opportunity to imprison his opposition, implement centralized control, and even dismantle the military, the one institution threatening his authoritarian ambitions. This also portrays the longtime Islamist Erdogan as the secular defender of the Turkish Republic, creating an ideal scenario where he can maintain his agenda under the guise of defending secular democracy from elements (in the media, military, and education systems) which he feels threaten the will of the people.
Other theories have circulated that Iran is behind Turkey’s instability, as a means to destabilize western relations with their longtime neighbor. Some argue that Iran is simply trying to set pieces in motion to bring about the Islamic Republic of Turkey. While a secular, democratic Turkey with strong ties to the west and NATO may not be in Iran’s best interest; the creation of a Sunni Islamist government in Anatolia could rise to challenge Iranian interest as well. Either way, all the facts regarding the attempted coup remain a mystery.
The impact of these events is unclear at this time. One thing we know is that if Erdogan has his way and reinstates the death penalty to punish the “traitors”, he is damning Turkey to a future forever barred from membership in the European Union (this might not be a bad thing, as it seems as the EU is headed the way of the Titanic). We do not yet know if the political uncertainty in Turkey may be seen as an open invitation to the resistance groups in Syria, nor do we know the extent of the backlash that will result from Erdogan’s iron-fisted crack-down on the opposition. We still do not know how this will affect the actions of ISIL and regional security in both Europe and the Middle East – as Turkey has long been an ally of the west against ISIL aggression. Turkey’s NATO status is in question as it threatens to close U.S. and NATO bases if the U.S. does not cooperate with requests to extradite Imam Fethullah Gulen.
The future of Turkey is uncertain. It remains to be seen in the long run whether the Turkish people will be better off with or without Tayyip Erdogan at the helm, but the foiled coup demonstrates the power of new media. The President called upon his supporters, and the people showed up to answer the call.
Now, this is not the first time that we have seen the power of social media and digital media in orchestrating political change. Remember the Arab Spring? The wave of protests and revolutions which swept through the Middle East in 2010 and continues to this day as the Syrian Civil War rages on. Nearly two dozen states were affected by protests of some kind, creating political and economic reforms in most states. The result in nations like Egypt, Tunisia, and Yemen was the existing government were overthrown. Syria, Libya, and Iraq were far more aggressive than their neighbors with full-fledged civil wars erupting. The political movements have been attributed to the use of new media technology as a way to organize and disseminate information through the population.
…the President of Turkey has an understanding of new media technology which seems to surpass that of most other government officials.
The events in Turkey are essentially the opposite of what led to the Arab Spring in every way. For one, during the Arab Spring the people took a stand and demanded change from the government. In Turkey, they stood in support of the current administration and in opposition to change. The other big difference is that the Arab Spring protests were initiated by the populace. Last week, the President himself initiated the protests in Turkey. Whether we agree with the action or agenda of the Erdogan’s Administration, we have to acknowledge one thing: the President of Turkey has an understanding of new media technology which seems to surpass that of most other government officials.
We were shown that the pen – err, iPhone – is in fact mightier than the sword. What had the potential of escalating into a violent conflict, remained relatively peaceful. Now I am not trying to trivialize the deaths of the 208 Turks, nor am I ignoring the plight of the 1,500 injured and the 50,000 plus who have now lost their jobs as a result of Erdogan’s opposition purge. I am simply comparing the events in Turkey to other nations in the region. Take Egypt for example, where more than 5,000 people died in the protests, crisis, and coups which defined the Mubarak – Morisi – Sisi transition of power. Or the Yemen Crisis where more than 10,000 people were killed. And of course the ongoing chaotic civil war in Syria where the conflict for power between President al-Assad and competing parties has resulted in the deaths of as many as 470,000 people.
The promise of new media technologies has always included the ability to circumvent the gatekeepers who control traditional media for sociopolitical movements. Yet, few instances of this have happened. When we reflect back on the Arab Spring, the link between technology and political reform is more definitively rooted in correlation than causation. This correlation is demonstrated when we consider the fact that countries with a high degree of technological literacy, such as Bahrain, and countries like Libya where technology permeates the population to a much lower percent, both engaged in political protest and reform.
When we look at domestic instances of technologically driven social movements – such as the Black Lives Matter movement or the Occupy Wall Street movement of 2011 – while both instances were successful at mobilizing people and promoting ideology, neither group was pragmatically successful at producing the political changes for which they advocated. Mobilizing people alone is not nearly enough, and there have been far too few instances of these technologies living up to their potential.
Yet, the events in Turkey are a clear case study of how new media technologies are used as a tool to promote (or more accurately resist) political change. The Turkish population was mobilized, and they successfully worked together to help resist and unwanted coup. This is not meant to be an endorsement of the Erdogan administration, but an opportunity for communication and technology scholars everywhere to rejoice in these achievements seen through the use of social media technologies. For better or worse.