You thought Erdogan was bad before? The worst is yet to come

By David Blair

A Turkish woman stands next to a portrait of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan during a protest against the military coup outside Turkey's Parliament in Ankara. Photo / AP
A Turkish woman stands next to a portrait of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan during a protest against the military coup outside Turkey's Parliament in Ankara. Photo / AP

Vengeful, irascible, authoritarian, obdurate.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was all of these things even before a cabal of Turkish generals tried to cast him into oblivion. Now that he has survived their machinations, his worst instincts will be redoubled and reinforced.

If Erdogan was a maddening ally for Europe and America in the past, the leader who has just overcome a military coup will be capable of almost anything. In one sense, Erdogan has been vindicated.

Before the turmoil began on Saturday, one criticism that he found most infuriating was the charge of paranoia. Westerners would deride Erdogan's claims that dark forces were massing to overthrow him and a conspiracy existed within the Turkish state, plotting his downfall.

Then came one of the most surreal 24 hours in Turkey's modern history.

Military units really did fan out across Istanbul and Ankara, seizing key positions under cover of darkness. Helicopter gunships really did strike the national Parliament, with glittering tracer rounds sweeping across the night sky above the capital. At the same time, tanks blocked the suspension bridges over the Bosphorus and the army commander was briefly held hostage by his own officers.

In Erdogan's mind, this sequence of events will have confirmed all his fears. The first stage of his response can be summarised in one word: revenge.

The grim business of vengeance began with the arrest of thousands of soldiers. When he arrived in Istanbul, Erdogan, grave and ashen-faced, warned that his foes would "pay a heavy price" for their "treason and rebellion".

The deputy leader of his AK party demanded the return of the death penalty so that putschists could be "executed". The deputy prime minister promised to rid the Government of all enemies. "Even if they went into the tiniest veins of the state, they will be purged," he declared.

As his underlings compete to be tougher on his opponents, Erdogan's mind will turn to the next stage of his response: blame. This is where Western governments will be particularly worried, for the President is entirely capable of deciding that Europe and America were behind the attempted coup.

Turkish soldiers secure the area, as supporters of Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan protest in Istanbul's Taksim Square. Photo / AP
Turkish soldiers secure the area, as supporters of Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan protest in Istanbul's Taksim Square. Photo / AP

At the height of the mayhem, Erdogan gave one of the most bizarre interviews in the history of television. Turkey's head of state appeared on screen as a talking head on a smartphone, clutched in the nervous hand of a presenter, and delivered his first reaction to the coup. Speaking on the FaceTime app, Erdogan blamed the putsch on a "parallel structure".

Everyone in Turkey knew what he meant by that phrase. In 2013, Erdogan had a spectacular falling out with a charismatic preacher possessing a huge following called Fethullah Gulen, who now lives in exile in America.

Since then, the President has repeatedly accused Gulen of trying to overthrow the Government with agents embedded in the army and judiciary. The moment that troops and tanks began seizing bridges over the Bosphorus, Erdogan clearly decided that his bitter enemies in the "Gulenist" structure were at work. As it happens, Gulen publicly condemned the coup, but that will not be enough to save him from the President's wrath.

And this is where the West becomes relevant. Gulen now lives in Pennsylvania, giving Erdogan an obvious opening to accuse America of conniving in the plot. He may, by extension, include Europe in the nefarious category of those who tried to overthrow him.

But the European Union depends on Turkey to stem the flow of migrants across the Mediterranean. The agreement signed with Erdogan in March has actually worked: the number of boats turning up on the Greek islands has fallen dramatically since last year. But will that deal be safe in the hands of a furious Erdogan in the aftermath of this coup?

Even before he was pushed to the edge of a precipice, his minions had jailed scores of journalists and brought 1800 criminal cases against people accused of "insulting the president". Now that he has escaped a real putsch, Erdogan will redouble his efforts to silence every critic.

As Turkey ponders the aftermath of its surreal 24 hours, there is one bitter truth: hell hath no fury like an Erdogan who narrowly survives.

- David Blair

- Daily Telegraph UK

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