An award-winning author and law professor on being declared a “public enemy.”
As the Egyptian military prepared to stage a coup on July 3, 2013, I happened to be just across the Mediterranean getting ready for my wedding. My wife-to-be and I were hosting the event in the city of my birth and my wife’s favorite destination, Istanbul. Little did I know that I was about to trigger a domestic scandal.
Lost in my own reality, I was blissfully unaware of the events taking place in Cairo. The night before our wedding, right before I went to bed, I pulled up the news on my phone. As I read the headline, my jaw dropped to the floor: “Army Ousts Egypt’s President: Morsi Is Taken into Military Custody.”
In 2012, I had written an academic article (now a book for general audiences) titled The Democratic Coup d’État. My argument was simple but controversial: Democracy is sometimes established through a military coup. Although the word “coup” usually conjures up dark images of power-hungry military dictators, I showed in the article that some military coups topple dictatorships and build democracies, rather than destroy them. Plenty of examples back up this controversial thesis—from the Athenian Navy’s stance in 411 B.C. against a tyrannical home government, to coups in the American colonies that ousted corrupt British governors, to twentieth-century coups that removed dictators and established democracy in countries as diverse as Guinea-Bissau, Portugal, and Colombia (to name just a few).
When the July 2013 coup happened in Egypt, I was inundated with questions from reporters as my wife and I were trotting around Italy for our honeymoon (sorry, honey). The reporters all posed the same questions: Was President Mohamed Morsi’s ouster a coup? Was it “good” or “bad” for democracy? Did this event fit within my definition of a “democratic coup”? (It did not.)
I wasn’t ready for what happened next. The global press coverage brought the article to the attention of the Turkish government. President (then-Prime Minister) Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, concerned about a coup in his own backyard, took to the bully pulpit and lashed out against me in a public speech. There is “no such thing as a democratic coup d’état,” he argued and compared the concept to the “living dead,” calling it a figment of my imagination.
Erdoğan then turned his army of journalists and social media trolls against me. A Turkish journalist writing for the newspaper Star (owned by Erdoğan’s son-in-law) suggested that I was responsible for what happened in Egypt. The coup leaders, he argued, had followed the steps outlined in my scholarship to legitimate their illegitimate intervention. Setting aside the highly amusing image of Egyptian generals poring over esoteric academic articles, the coup against Morsi clearly didn’t fit the mold. Democratic coups target dictators, not elected leaders. Although Morsi had displayed authoritarian impulses, there were legal avenues, including elections, for unseating him short of a military intervention.
I was also targeted by troll armies on social media who lobbed accusations at me ranging from traitor to CIA agent. My favorite ad hominem attack came in an op-ed that pleaded with NASA to send me to Mars so I can stop writing nonsense. The author got bonus points from me for actually doing some research and discovering that I had worked on the 2003 Mars Exploration Rovers.
This backlash may seem like an overreaction, but it’s the Turkish government’s modus operandi. The government drowns any unfavorable commentary with a flash flood of falsehoods and misinformation that, once reported and retweeted, become the truth.
When I found myself on the receiving end of this smear campaign, the Turkish government was rounding up hundreds of military officers and alleged co-conspirators for plotting a coup. Most of these accusations were eventually proven false, as forensic experts demonstrated that the supporting evidence was blatantly manufactured. In a facepalm moment, it turned out that a pivotal document, dated 2003, was drafted using Microsoft Word 2007.
During our flight back to Turkey from our honeymoon, I was brooding. I didn’t want to be another cautionary tale, an academic rounded up for his ideas never to be heard from again. To prevent the planting of manufactured evidence, I handed all of my electronic devices to my American wife who then sported a different last name. I separately went through the immigration line reserved for Turkish citizens and managed to clear it unscathed.
Fast forward three years to Summer 2016. As I was sitting in a coffee shop in Nuremberg, Germany, busy writing my book, I received a Google news alert for my name. The source wasn’t a news website or an academic article: It was Wikileaks.
My name, and the title of my book, The Democratic Coup d’État, popped up in the batch of “Erdoğan emails” that had been leaked from Turkey’s ruling party. The leak came on the heels of an ill-conceived and unwise coup attempt in Turkey. What’s worse, the coup plotters ended up emboldening the very man they set out to topple. Erdoğan, a firm believer in the adage that a good crisis should never go to waste, authorized a massive purge that ensnared tens of thousands of dissident teachers, soldiers, judges, prosecutors, bureaucrats, and members of the parliament.
I watched this drama play itself out from a distance. I canceled two planned trips to Istanbul after reports of U.S.-based law professors being subject to interrogations before they were permitted to leave. In self-exile, I observed and wrote about the events with growing concern.
My story is only one example, and I am one of the lucky ones. Although I was declared a public enemy and had my name plastered on Wikileaks, I avoided the Turkish prison system (which, true to the Hollywood stereotype, isn’t a pleasant place to be). Many academics, journalists, and writers lost their jobs or found themselves locked up. A state of emergency declared after the July 2016 coup attempt, and still in place almost a year and a half later, continues to give the government free rein to round up their critics.
And this problem isn’t going to get better: As Turkish democracy continues to erode, the government’s already lengthy list of public enemies will grow. Sadly, for Turks, things are bound to get much worse before they improve—if they ever do.