The 1980 Coup and a Slow Transition: The Real Turkish Model for Egypt?

July 15, 2013

What Egypt’s military rulers can and can’t learn from Turkey’s transition back to democracy

Since the events of February 2011 kicked off the “Arab Spring” in Egypt, analysts and journalists have been wringing their hands, wondering whether the most populous Arab country would become the next Turkey or the next Pakistan.  The U.S. obviously prefers the “Turkish Model” – a term that, in the last decade, has served as an unsound short-hand for an Islamic-leaning, Western-friendly, progressive-minded, procedurally functional democracy. As such, the word “transition” (as in “to democracy”) has pervaded tens of thousands of official U.S. documents and communiques about Egypt.  The trouble is, “transition” is as deceptive a term as “Arab Spring,” “Turkish Model,” or (lately) “coup.” The word “transition” assumes an end-state that has thus far eluded most targets of the American democracy project over the last decade.

Whether the recent ejection of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammad Morsi from the Presidential Palace was a coup or something else has framed the “Egypt Question” here in Washington.  Turning to history, perhaps we can agree, at least, that there was a coup in Turkey almost 33 years ago and that it might provide some lessons for present-day Egypt.

True, Turkey and Egypt are very different countries with unique histories of civil-military relations and markedly dissimilar brands of Islamist politics. And the definition of the “Turkish Model” is itself contested.  There is the benign interpretation I mention above – the model that the West desperately wants to realize in the Muslim world – but it has some baggage: four military coups followed by military tutelage, political repression, imprisonment of journalists, an increasingly autocratic prime minister, and a grueling decades-long-counterinsurgency against Kurdish militants.  As such, because of the contingency of the Turkish experience and the many blemishes on this “model,” I have privately and publicly decried impulses to declare that Egypt is following the Turkish model or somehow could.

Still, Egypt’s Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) has two important lessons to take from the Turkish experience: do not “transition” too soon. And when the transition takes place, it should be choreographed far more closely than the haphazard stumble-toward-elections that characterized the aftermath of Hosni Mubarak’s downfall.  The 1980 Turkish coup and the transition back to electoral politics that followed was, in many ways, a success story.  It provides a counter-example to the argument in yesterday’s New York Times editorial that claims that “coups, forcible overthrows, whatever one calls them, do not provide a foundation for stability or sound representative government.”

The 1980 coup led to stability and, gradually, sound representative government.  There is no a priori reason to argue that SCAF’s intervention cannot lead to the same. Despite the interruption of democracy in Turkey and the many human rights abuses that were involved in the coup, had the Turkish Armed Forces not intervened in September 1980, the entire country might have dissolved into violence.  Regional stability was particularly important in that time and place due to the overriding context of Cold War competition and the downfall of the Shah in Iran, Turkey’s neighbor, the year before.

What happened?

In the late 1970s, Turkey erupted into a low grade civil war.  The civilian government was helpless to stop it. Terrorism, assassinations, riots, and open battles with the military became commonplace.  In 1979 and the first nine months of 1980, there were nearly 9,000 violent incidents.  Over four thousand were killed and more than ten thousand wounded.  By 1980, almost half of Turkey’s 67 provinces contained so-called “liberated zones,” or pieces of territory under the control of non-state armed groups.  Political parties and the security services are said to have had shadowy connections to the militants.  Some of these groups set up governance and dispute resolution structures. This conflict met most standards of what constitutes a civil war, although it is not often recorded as one.*

On 12 September 1980, the Turkish Armed Forces (TAF) launched a military coup d’état –the third in the history of the Turkish state. However, it was not a coup in the sense that it is commonly understood.  The immediate objective of the coup was not downfall of the government itself, but rather stabilization, which the Turkish government, led by Süleyman Demirel, of the Justice Party (Adalet Partisi, AP) was unable to ensure, just as Mohammad Morsi was unable to govern Egypt.  Indeed, while the nature of unrest in each country was different, it is difficult to ignore the similarities between the justifications offered by SCAF in present day Egypt and the Turkish military in 1980. General Kenan Evren, the Chief of the Turkish General Staff from 1978 and the chief architect of the coup, explained:

The aim of this operation is to safeguard the integrity of the country, to provide for national unity and fraternity, to prevent the existence and the possibility of a civil war and internecine struggle, to reestablish the existence and the authority of the state, and to eliminate the factors that hinder the smooth working of the democratic order.

This was, of course, a bit disingenuous.  The Turkish “deep state” – a secret network of anti-democratic elements in the military, security services, media, judiciary, and crime syndicates – played a role in the chaos of the late 1970s.   This recalls today’s accusations – mostly from the Muslim Brotherhood – that Egypt’s own “deep state” somehow fostered the conditions that led to the recent record-breaking street demonstrations.  As a colleague recently said to me, “The persisting issue for the military in both Egypt and Turkey is not democracy per se; it is trying to stop challenges to secularism – or, if one prefers, to the privileges of their class.”

Regardless, invoking the Internal Service Code, the Turkish Armed Forces suspended the parliament and annulled the 1961 constitution.  Under the guise of cracking down on “terror organizations,” General Kenan Evren’s military regime arrested more than 43,000 people within a year and seized over 77,000 weapons.  Many of those arrested had been involved in illegal violence, but others faced persecution and prosecution for merely being ‘political’. The most severe actions targeted leftist groups, especially militant groups such as Revolutionary Way (Devrimci Yol).

Unlike in Egypt, where SCAF has set an ambitious timeline for elections, elections were not held again in Turkey for quite some time – three years.  In that period of time, the Turkish military enacted heavy-heavy handed structural and procedural changes in Turkish governance and law. All existing political parties were dissolved and senior party officials were banned from party activism for ten years. Similarly, because military believed much of the blame for the anarchy lay with the press and educational institutions it purged teachers at schools and universities, suspended newspapers, and revised the national curricula.

The National Security Council (NSC), which had been established in the wake of the 1960 coup, organized a constitutional assembly. The new constitution was approved in 1982 by popular referendum. Under Article 118, the NSC was given broad powers. This body included civilian political leaders as well as the Chief of the General Staff, as well as the Commanders of the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Gendarmerie.

General Evren became president and stayed in that role, with veto power, until 1989. National elections took place in 1983 under very strict controls set down by the Political Parties Law and a new electoral law that handicapped the chances of smaller parties, which tended to be more extreme in their positions. Only three parties were permitted to participate in this first post-coup election.  In the context of comparing this “transition” with Egypt’s it is perhaps notable that one of the parties excluded was Necmettin Erbakan’s Islamist Welfare (Refah) Party, but this was a temporary restriction.  They went on to be very successful in later elections.

What did this three-year waiting period allow for?

  • Ambitious constitutional, structural, and legal reforms took root.
  • Newly founded political parties did not have to immediately race for votes.  They could re-connect with constituencies and slowly build their bases in a new political environment.
  • Similarly, political leaders had time to adjust to the new order and the new way of doing things, while being able to reflect on and learn from the chaos of the late 1970s.
  • Tensions between the extreme left and nationalist right cooled off and many of those responsible for agitating divisions and violence were removed from the political stage.

In the 1983 election, Turgut Özal’s Motherland Party won a majority of seats and he formed a government – one that was often at odds with the military.  One must concede that the Turkish Armed Forces and Evren were not Jeffersionians seeking to realize true rule-of-law, independent institutions, and a robust civil society, but they did set the conditions for stability with considerable (though not complete) political freedoms. Morever, the Turkish Armed Forces did not intervene forcefully when at loggerheads with Özal, who was certainly not their chosen man.  Indeed, Özal was even able to force General Yirmibeşoğlu into retirement from the National Security Council due to rumors that the general had been involved in an assassination attempt against him.

What can Egypt learn?

There are lessons to be learned from Turkey’s own “transition,” but its experience cannot be viewed as a model.  Your humble editor is not suggesting that SCAF purge universities and media outlets or dissolve political parties.  Nor is he claiming Turkey’s democratic evolution does not leave much to be desired. But it does seem prudent for Egypt to re-introduce electoral politics gradually.  This is good news for those in DC who spend their days worrying about whether current events are “good” or “bad” for democracy, although I worry that waiting democracy in Egypt has a Vladimir-and-Estragon-esque whiff.

The purpose of the massive, purportedly record-breaking demonstrations that led to Morsi’s downfall was for the opposition to win on the streets what it could not achieve at the ballot box: the political defeat of the Muslim Brotherhood and its Freedom and Justice Party.  A prolonged lead-up to elections, possibly as long as a year or more, would allow these political actors to acquire the organizational skill-sets that allow a political party to be successful: building and responding to constituencies, strategic communications, mobilization, and developing coherent policies.   These are all skills that the Muslim Brotherhood has mastered over decades, especially since the 1980s.  The opposition of the streets would do well to learn from their example, just as SCAF may do well to learn from General Evren.

Some may counter that the “streets” would not tolerate the extension of military autocracy.  But the “streets” do not have agency; political activists and leaders do. And if these actors accept that a gradual transition is in their best interests, then Tahrir Square might once again become a quiet place.

Ryan Evans is the Editor-in-Chief of War on the Rocks. He is the Assistant Director of the Center for the National Interest. His views are his own.


* The Correlates of War (COW) project defines a civil war as an intra-state war involving the government of the state against non-state entities if the state has committed 1000 troops or suffered 100-battle-related deaths.  A non-state actor is considered a participant if it commits either 100 armed personnel or suffers 25 battle-related deaths. The war must, overall, entail at least 1,000 battle-related deaths annually. By these standards, the 1978-80 period was a civil war, but it is not included in the COW dataset as such. See: Meredith Reid Sarkees, Codebook for Intra-State Wars v.4.0, Correlates of War,