Skip to main content

Turkey’s state of emergency is justified but carries risks

The state of emergency is a reasonable response to Turkey's crisis, but using the situation to silence unrelated critics risks further instability

The Turkish government’s decision to introduce a state of emergency is a prudent and fairly predictable response to the situation it finds itself in.

Around 240 people were killed and the government was very nearly overthrown by a coup last week that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan says was fostered by the Gulen movement, a secretive religious brotherhood inside the Turkish military.

There seems no doubt that a substantial group indeed exists inside the officer corps extending at least up to middle officer level, and that it was chiefly responsible for the conspiracy even if outsiders only joined it later.

That at least is what retired army officers are saying in private, and the biggest mystery perhaps is that authorities did not proceed against the military Gulenists earlier.

Given the risk of a second attempted coup – unlikely under present circumstances perhaps but not impossible - any administration which intended to survive would introduce emergency powers as Turkey has done.

But questions remain over what those emergency powers are and how they will be used, and how quickly there can be a return to normal conditions.

In Turkey's case, the question is complicated by strong memories of heavy-handed military rule under martial law in the fairly recent past, as well as the fact that this time around the military are themselves one of the main groups to be investigated. That means the process must be managed by an entirely civilian structure.

The state of emergency will be administered through the interior ministry and the provincial governors (known in Turkish as valis) of the country’s 81 provinces. The main task will be to identify supporters of the Gulen movement – a Hanefi Sunni brotherhood, theologically conventional but with some modernist and pro-scientific trappings - and apparently purge them.

This is in itself very problematic, since some kind of past link with the movement does not necessarily indicate continuing sympathy for it and in particular a link to its criminal activities.

Here the Gulenists have, in a way, only themselves to blame since (unlike other Sufi brotherhoods in the West) they operate as a secret society outside as well as inside Turkey. Their friends and allies in Europe and America have felt able to comment publicly in the Western media on events in Turkey in the last few days without mentioning any personal dealings with the movement, even when these can be quickly checked on the Internet. Such conduct ratchets up the climate of suspicion in Turkey.

The state of emergency has been introduced for a relatively short period of three months, and government spokesmen have spoken of it lasting for only a month or two. But if the past emergency powers are any guide, it is likely that the emergency will be in force for much longer than that. While it is, all constitutional checks and balances will be suspended, including the application of the European Convention on Human Rights. (It later said it would derogate the convention "insofar as it does not conflict with its international obligations").

It is possible that the death penalty, not used in Turkey since 1984, will be reintroduced and possibly retrospectively – though it is noticeable that calls for it have been less frequent in the past few days than they were immediately after the putsch.

This may reflect awareness of warnings from German Chancellor Angela Merkel that restoring the death penalty would trigger the collapse of Turkey’s slow-moving bid to join the European Union. There are other restrictions too which look alarming: the press will not be allowed to publish "exaggerated" news; there is talk of confiscating the property and assets of convicted traitors, and (though this is not strictly speaking part of the emergency powers) it seems that "traitors" may not even be given normal religious burial.

The drawback to any kind of emergency powers system is that with no right of appeal, unlimited powers often turn out afterwards to have been used in an unnecessarily draconian way - especially when the authorities are either responding to pinpricks from critical writers in the press or acting on anonymous denunciations from personal enemies as is often the case in Turkey.

The Gulen movement is relatively small compared to other Sufi brotherhoods in Turkey, though it is concentrated in parts of the civil service and public sector. Because religious brotherhoods are vaguely defined associations and not clear legal entities, the government for some time has been referring to the Gulen movement as "FETO’" or the "Fethullah Gulen Terrorist movement". Nonetheless, proving criminal activity in connection with it by anyone not directly part of the coup attempt could be problematic.

Its adherents are invariably well-known locally, and all such individuals across the country are thus highly exposed to a possible witch hunt, especially since they are, as far as can be judged, usually unpopular with their local mosque and must be especially so at the present.

Among the first civilians to be arrested on Thursday, for example, were Orhan Kemal Cengiz, an idealistic human rights lawyer and journalist, and his wife. They have always been bitterly opposed to military rule in the past. Until evidence is presented in court, it will be impossible to judge the strength of any case against him, but this case looks disturbingly like an indiscriminate crackdown.

The next question to be asked is what sort of courts will try the thousands of people being arrested. With nearly 3,000 judges dismissed and several hundred charged with offences and in prison, and about a third of the Supreme Court of Appeal dismissed, there will have to be new appointments and perhaps even new tribunals.

Perhaps the most fateful question for Turkey, however, is whether the authorities will now use the special powers to go after their other opponents, and particularly perhaps libertarians who supported the Gezi Park protests in 2013. A crackdown on the large number of Gulenist educational institutions could easily spill over into arrests of intellectuals, academics, journalists and writers: the most baneful feature of martial law under the generals.

Several university rectors have already been dismissed and three arrested. All the country’s 1,577 faculty deans have complied with orders to resign their position. All faculty staff are currently banned from foreign travel, a restriction which could suggest they are viewed as a hostile category. Schools and teachers (where the Gulenists were still strong till this week) are also a key target, with over 20,000 teachers suspended.

Martial law after the revolutions of 1960 and 1980 in Turkey in effect produced a meltdown and reconfiguration of Turkish society, at the cost of great suffering and injustice. The Turkish military now looks certain to be restructured, but will things stop there? If the state of emergency rolls out beyond its original brief, history could repeat itself but perhaps even more painfully.

- David Barchard has worked in Turkey as a journalist, consultant, and university teacher. He writes regularly on Turkish society, politics, and history, and is currently finishing a book on the Ottoman Empire in the 19th century.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: Turkish policemen attend the funeral ceremony of special forces police officer Meric Alemdar killed during the failed 15 July coup, at the Kocatepe mosque in Ankara on 21 July, 2016 (AFP).

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

Stay informed with MEE's newsletters

Sign up to get the latest alerts, insights and analysis, starting with Turkey Unpacked

Middle East Eye delivers independent and unrivalled coverage and analysis of the Middle East, North Africa and beyond. To learn more about republishing this content and the associated fees, please fill out this form. More about MEE can be found here.