Cyprus Mail
CM Regular ColumnistOpinion

Beware the Ides of July

Vincenzo Camuccini, "Morte di Cesare", 1798,

Important comparisons can be made between the coup attempts on Makarios and Erdogan, not least their date. But while Makarios cleverly offered an olive branch to his rebels, Erdogan is ordering a purge

By Alper Ali Riza

The Ides of the month are the middle of the month in the Roman calendar. Beware the Ides of March warned the soothsayer in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. He ignored the warning and went to the senate on March 15, 44 BC where he was promptly assassinated by the conspirators who stabbed him to death on the floor of the Roman senate invoking death to tyranny as a justification for their actions.

I don’t know if President Erdogan was warned about the Ides of July. It does not look like he was as he was on holiday when the rebels struck. They tried to kill him. They bombed his holiday villa at Marmaris minutes after he left. Thereafter it is end of your seat stuff according to my old friend Hugh Sykes of the BBC. Apparently, Erdogan was driven in darkness and managed to get into a Gulf Stream jet and flew to Istanbul. On arrival, the jet was stacked by the control tower at Ataturk International and buzzed by renegade F116 jets with rockets locked on target ready to fire. It was only allowed to land after assurances from the pilot that the passengers were civilians.

Mercifully, Erdogan survived. From now on if you are the president of Turkey – or indeed Cyprus – beware the Ides of July. Do not go on holiday on July 15 and mind your Young Turks.

President Erdogan’s predicament has broad similarities with the coup d’etat against Archbishop Makarios, except that Makarios was warned beforehand but recklessly carried on regardless. It was the summer of 1974, a time of political turbulence for Greek Cypriots with plots and bombs galore. Makarios had been in power for fourteen years and loved to engage in brinkmanship. He naively gambled the fate of Cyprus with his famous letter to the president of Greece accusing ‘the invisible hand of Greece of seeking the elimination of my physical existence’, a pompous way of saying that the Greek government was planning to kill him and overthrow his government.

He was temporarily overthrown the following week but survived and returned to power in December 1974. The ‘invisible hand’ had indeed tried to kill him, sending tanks to the presidential lawn that then fired repeatedly at the palace. He was receiving some Egyptian children that morning who were led away safely and mercifully he too managed to escape.

Like Erdogan, he was just ahead of his pursuers. He ended up in Paphos from where the British flew him out first by helicopter and thereafter by plane to London. ‘They tried to kill me but as you see I am alive, but, tell me, were my obituaries good?’ he joked on arrival in London. No such humour from President Erdogan, I am afraid.

Shortly afterwards, Makarios gave Turkey the green light to intervene in Cyprus. ‘My mind went blank’ he was to say later with much regret. But unlike Erdogan – and very much to his credit – he offered not just an olive branch but an olive tree trunk to the rebels.comment alper - Archbishop Makarios was warned beforehand but recklessly carried on regardless

Makarios and Erdogan both survived the Ides of July. Each was the target of assassination on July 15; each had fallen out with the military; each escaped in the nick of time; each was popular and got elected repeatedly for fourteen years. But each made a mockery of democracy, smothering the development of democratic institutions on which representative democracy is based.

Erdogan purports to be pious and wears his religion of Islam on his sleeve whereas Makarios was a Greek Orthodox archbishop who wore religion lightly on his cassock. Each used religion to garner votes from an unsophisticated electorate, and each knew exactly how to nurture an adoring section of the public and work them into a frenzy whilst antagonising others.

In 1974 the overthrow of Makarios brought the Turkish army to Cyprus which in effect restored him to power albeit over half the island. The Turkish army has remained in Cyprus ever since and – paraphrasing from the Humpty Dumpty rhyme –  all the UN’s efforts and all the EU’s men could not put Cyprus back together again. By contrast in Turkey the attempt to overthrow President Erdogan was itself carried out by renegade elements in the Turkish army which according to the government spokesman is now being purged root and branch.

Like Makarios before him, Erdogan was as much to blame for the attempt to overthrow him as the rebels. As frequently happens in immature democracies, a leader becomes too popular for his own good and power begins to go to his head. He begins to identify himself with the nation and becomes tyrannical. What then happens is that people who cannot fight him in the ballot box decide to overthrow him.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan attends an interview with Reuters at the Presidential Palace in Ankara, Turkey, July 21, 2016. REUTERS/Umit Bektas
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan attends an interview with Reuters at the Presidential Palace in Ankara, Turkey, July 21, 2016. REUTERS/Umit Bektas

Erdogan has wittingly or unwittingly endangered the legacy of Kemal Ataturk and shaken the foundations of the fledgling secular democracy Ataturk built from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire. He has done this at the worst possible time for Turkey and the region and is either unable or unwilling to see how dangerous his stance has been. He is now milking democracy while mounting a tyranny. As in France, a temporary state of emergency may now be necessary, but Erdogan’s democratic credentials are not credible. He has managed to win elections and believed that getting elected entitled him to trample on the rights of those who disagreed with him well before the coup d’etat against him.

The first immediate question is whether the plotters who took part were honourable if misguided patriots who thought they were acting in the best interests of the nation out of sheer folly, or traitors who deserve ill treatment and capital punishment for treason. On balance, I believe the former and would urge the olive branch route similar to the one Makarios offered to the rebels in 1974.

The problem for us in Cyprus is that on the one hand we have to accept that the autocratic predilections of Erdogan are a matter for the people of Turkey, but on the other we cannot be oblivious to the fact that there are thousands of Turkish troops and Turkish citizens in north Cyprus and that it is economically dependent on Turkey. We must urgently find some sort of compromise to avoid the risk of contagion. The situation is dangerous. I hope I am wrong, but I sense the glimmerings of a sea change in attitudes and a resurgence of the nationalist sentiments of the past.

The longer the talks to resolve the Cyprus problem take, the more the danger they will be overtaken by events at home and in the region. It is true as Winston Churchill said famously that ‘jaw jaw is better than war war,’ but he did not mean talks for the sake of talking. What he meant was that it is better to resolve differences by negotiation and compromise than military means. No solution is no longer the solution. Do we really want to return to the bad old days? That is the question.


Alper Ali Riza is a queen’s counsel in the UK and a part time judge

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