Turkey Coup Attempt: Is It Legitimate to Promote Democracy Through Undemocratic Means?

The stormy events in Turkey raise the question of whether anything is permissible in the name of democracy.

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A man poses on an Armored Vehicle with portraits of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, parked outside the parliament building in Ankara, Turkey, July 16, 2016.
A man poses on an armored vehicle with portraits of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, outside the parliament building in Ankara, Turkey, July 16, 2016.Credit: Baz Ratner/Reuters

The Turks, of all nations, and their army, of all armies, posed a challenge to the democratic world over the weekend: Is it legitimate to topple quasi-democratic regimes or ones that pose a danger to democracy through undemocratic means? Should any kind of government be sanctioned, even one that was democratically elected but that severely and persistently harms democracy and violates human rights? Is it permissible to bring down such a dangerous government only at the ballot box, even though one knows the road to it is paved with brainwashing, ignorance and sometimes corruption?

The answer to these questions was emphatic. Even those who strongly criticize the regime of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan heavily rebuked the attempted military coup against him.

Erdogan was elected 13 years ago as the 25th prime minister of Turkey. He advanced his country admirably, until he was overcome by hubris. With the growth of the economy and his consolidation of power, religious, ultranationalist and antidemocratic legislation increased. Adultery became a criminal offense; abortions were banned; the military was regulated more stringently, with arbitrary arrests of its commanders; and, above all, human rights and freedoms of expression were seriously harmed, including the arrest of journalists and a government takeover of the media. Many Turks were worried. The fact that most of the population supported these moves did not make these actions any more democratic.

Over the weekend, part of the Turkish army tried to depose the person responsible for these changes. As with any military coup, an attempt to remove a ruler harms democracy. However, Turkey is full of contradictions. The army safeguards the country’s secular nature and indirectly protects democracy. Is the army – concerned for the secular and democratic character of the country – permitted to overthrow the president? Obviously, the answer is no. And yet the failed coup, the collapse of which will seemingly only strengthen Erdogan and make him even less democratic, had more than one dimension.

It’s not yet clear whether the coup was motivated only by power struggles, but, whatever the case, this was not a legitimate intervention. If this were a civil uprising, it would have been impossible not to feel admiration for the courage and determination of people risking their lives in a struggle for change – even when resorting to nondemocratic means. In many countries – but especially in Israel – governments are accepted as acts of fate, natural disasters about which nothing can be done, even when they pursue unseemly or criminal policies.

There is no chance of a significant extra-parliamentarian opposition ever arising in Israel, one willing to take risks and make sacrifices with the aim of bringing about change. In the name of a fabricated democracy, indifferent Israelis accept everything with resignation and obedience – starting with the rule of religion over their lives, and culminating in the sacrifice of their children for the sake of the occupation. This has no bearing on democracy. Thus, any other kind of civil action – one that opposes a government that takes immoral or undemocratic steps – is praiseworthy.

In Israel’s formative years, there was occasional mention of the (groundless) possibility of a military coup and of tanks surrounding the Knesset. It was perceived as a horrible idea, even at a time when the army was still seen as a sacred cow.

Over the years, though, it became apparent that the army doesn’t need to stage a coup. Even without one, it’s the strongest organization in the country. Later, a powerful group that was even stronger than the Israel Defense Forces consolidated its power: the settlers and their sympathizers, who started wrapping their tentacles around top army positions with the aim of taking over the military from within – all through democratic means, of course. In the meantime, all of Israel’s governments have continued to sustain the crime of the occupation, democratically, naturally, and the chances that this will end through a democratic process have faded. With extremist governments, the army even seemed a moderating agent.

The stormy events in Turkey raise the question of whether anything is permissible in the name of democracy, including the imposition of religion, ultranationalism and antidemocratic measures, as well as the continuation of tyranny over and abuse of another people.

A military coup is a dangerous move, antidemocratic and patently wrong. However, one should remember that this is not the only antidemocratic act taking place in Turkey.