The US pledged “absolute support for Turkey’s democratically elected, civilian government and democratic institutions” and immediately ended the attempted coup in Turkey. This attitude of Washington must have come as a nasty surprise to the coup planners — the leaders are not yet identified, because that country under Tayyip Erdogan’s first prime ministership and then presidency has become more receptive towards Islamization, a movement seeking a return of the Turkish society to the faith. This was, as always, counter-balanced, if not resisted, by the Turkish Army the upholder of the modern secular state and Constitution that Kemal Attaturk established in the ruins of the Ottoman rule in the wake of the First World War.
But Attaturk’s secular revolution was from the beginning opposed by the Muslim clergy and the old order where the mosque had great say. Visiting Istanbul, one could clearly see, feel, and sense that deep divide. The bridge across the Bosphorus, linking “European” Istanbul and Turkey (wide avenues, glittering shops, clean lines of buildings in big compounds) to a manifestly “Asiatic” Turkey (a crowded, rising jumble of settlements) is the very symbol of the uneasy but persistent internal tensions. No wonder the units involved in the coup positioned their armoured vehicles on this bridge to prevent the more Islamist people from streaming into the European quarter. In any case, one spotted Islamists in black turbans and kaftans even in the “Western” sections of the city, sporting a sullen attitude, plainly disapproving of the westernized Turkish society they abhorred.
Why does what happen in Ankara and Istanbul matter for developments in Islamabad and Pakistan? Pakistan army chiefs, especially the more adventurous among them who launched coups (Pervez Musharraf, for one, who spent his early years in Turkey as his Dad was posted in the Ankara embassy) have always seen themselves as Pakistani Attaturks, rescuing their country from poor civilian governance, corruption and squalor of a country set too soon and prematurely on the democratic path. Their self-image is that of state modernizers. (Th exception being Zia “the mullah” ul-Haq, who dragged the country back several hundred years with his nizam-e-mustafa.) Whatever his other faults, Musharraf, for example, did something quite unique — actually facilitated a free and lively press and media to proliferate, grow and flourish until now when Pakistan, in my view, has a far freer, more vocal, media, more critical of its government than in India. Just youtube Pakistani news and panel discussion programmes for evidence. Or scan the online versions of Pakistani newspapers featuring, perhaps, the most vociferous bunch of columnists in South Asia (such as the extraordinarily literate Ayaz Amir writing in ‘The News’).
The problem is the relentless 24/7 criticism of the Muslim League (N) government has prepared the ground for possible army takeover by the current Pak COAS, General Raheel Sharif ere his term ends in four months time (November). The apparently no-nonsense Raheel is the new Saladin on the Pak scene — the man who can do no wrong, who deployed his forces to all but wipe out the Pakistani Taliban in FATA and North Wazirstan, cleanse to a considerable extent the Karachi metro region of its tribal crime syndicates, and cut the MQM supremo Altaf Hussain and his Movement to size. And, he is liked by the Pentagon as a “straight shooter”. The situation has all the ingredients for a Raheel coup.
But here’s the difference with Turkey. There Erdogan over the years had weeded out “undesirable” — read too secular — generals from the command structure, leaving the coup to be attempted by mid-level officers that guaranteed its failure. In Pakistan, it is the “secular” army that could reassert its role as the guardian of the state. Fed up with a non-performing govt and a Nawaz Sharif who avoids hard decisions and whose family is allegedly into self-aggrandizement, people have put up posters on lamp posts lining Islamabad avenues pleading for Raheel to rescue the country.
Here’s where the unpredictability is. The Obama Admin’s nyet pretty much let the air out of the coup in Ankara. After all, Erdogan has played ball with the US in its military ventures against the Bashar al-Assad clique in Syria, and is deemed useful. Washington may well disapprove should 111 (“Coup”) Brigade gets its orders from GHQ, Rawalpindi, to take over Radio Pakistan and Pakistan TV studios — the usual events that mark the onset of a coup in Islamabad. However, Raheel (like his predecessors, Ayub Khan, Zia, and Musharraf) is unlikely to be as deterred because he knows the US govt will come round to accepting the imposition of martial law as Afghanistan and other geostrategic concerns will undercut any American interest in strengthening Pakistani democracy.