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A Coup of Erdogan, for Erdogan, by Erdogan?

In the lightning-flash of one week, Turkey has been reborn as a strange and unexpected distortion of its former self. So much has been turned upside down that news channels must decide daily which change in Turkey should be their breaking news. Even Turks, both at home and abroad, are struggling to keep up—foreigners, even more so.


What is a coup?

The word “coup” comes from the French “coup d’etat,” which means “stroke of state,” and refers to the sudden and often violent overthrow of a country’s existing government. Since a coup attempts to depose a regime, it first needs to overthrow that regime’s monopoly over the use of force by gaining control of the armed services, police and other national security forces.

A coup is not a revolution. Coups are often led by actors who already have high levels of authority, and they rarely lead to the fundamental social, political, and economic alteration of the country that revolutions led by the masses usually hope to achieve. Historically, in countries that include Pakistan, Egypt, Fiji, and Turkey, coups have been spearheaded by the military against the civilian elected government. One of the first known coups was the 1799 Coup of Brumaire in which Napoleon (himself a military man) overthrew France’s ruling five-member Directory. A more recent controversial coup was the 1973 U.S.-backed unseating of Chile’s Marxist Allende government by military dictator, Augusto Pinochet.

Some coups emerge from international movements, like the 2013 removal of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi by Egypt’s army chief General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi during the Arab Spring.


What is this coup?

This is not Turkey’s first coup and many wonder if it will be the last. To understand the coup, it is important to recognize the elevated status and role of the military in Turkish society. The military, already a privileged institution during the Ottoman Empire, acquired an even greater role after Kemal Ataturk created the Turkish Republic in 1922. Since then, the military has seen itself as the guardian of democracy and used Ataturk’s own words and legacy to justify its unique function. Thus, every time the political establishment accumulates too much power or takes allegedly overly religious or non-democratic moves, the military intervenes. Having successfully intervened in 1960, 1971, 1980 and 1997, the military will perhaps mark 2016 as its first failure.

The coup, although a short event technically spanning just one night, was a fairly complicated affair.

The “military” advances

In the dark of the night, at 9:45 p.m., the military announced that it had taken over the country to restore “democratic order,” the (secular) constitution, and “rule of law.” The struggle would transpire in two cities—Ankara, the capital and Istanbul, Turkey’s largest city and economic center. Although it was unclear who was behind the coup, it emerged that the coup leaders had imprisoned Turkish military’s chief-of-staff, Hulusi Akar, and were preventing him from issuing orders or taking action. The coup leaders’ first objective was to establish an intimidating physical presence and literally bring the country to a halt. Soon, tanks rolled onto the streets of Istanbul and blocked both the Bosphorus and Fatih Sultan bridges, while military planes hovered low over Ankara. An ironically-named “Peace Council” was in power.

The next target for the military was the flow of information—soon, the offices of the government news channel, TRT, were invaded by soldiers and taken over.  Also well aware of the power of social media, the coup plotters managed to block Facebook, Twitter and Youtube. The earlier takeover of the bridges and cities was next supplemented by a takeover of the airport—no one could enter, leave, or interfere. Finally, the “military” went on a direct offensive, bombing the Parliament building and even the headquarters of the national intelligence agency.

The advance of the “military,” of course, did not represent the consensus of the entire military—the detention of the chief-of-staff revealed a rift within the organization.


A simplified map of Turkey’s coup attempt.

Erdogan retorts

First to respond to the situation was the Turkish Prime Minister, Binali Yildirim, on Twitter, who attempted to alleviate the fears of the population by asserting that Edrogan’s AKP government was still in power and that the coup plotters represented just a small faction of the military. He kept tweeting throughout the crisis as a source of confidence.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was reportedly on holiday in the Mediterranean resort town of Marmaris when the coup attempt was launched. The first words from the man of the hour were a threat that the plotters would face serious consequences. He next appeared on CNN Turk through a FaceTime video chat on the news anchor’s iPhone to rally the country’s common people and ask them to fight against those who falsely claimed to be its defenders. Some called it a political masterstroke of the modern world by a President who knew he had to get his message across before it was too late. Others considered the move desperate and an additional embarrassment on top of the mess of the coup attempt.

The country panics

Despite the assurances of Erdogan and his government, the scary reality on the ground had not changed. People remained glued to their phone and TV screens as the night progressed and the developments came in. Some people saw live media broadcasts by media agencies interrupted by military raids. Those already outside started rushing towards petrol stations, bakeries and other places for shelter.

But as some hid, others responded to Erdogan’s calls for action, gathering to greet their President at the airport and congregating at Taksim Square to reaffirm the power of the people to decide their own fate.

President Tayyip Erdogan surrounded by supporters at Turkey’s Ataturk Airport.

President Tayyip Erdogan surrounded by supporters at Turkey’s Ataturk Airport.

The world reacts

Despite the frequent reporting in the Western media about Turkey’s “downward spiral” in recent years, the world was almost as surprised about the coup as the Turkish authorities. Initially, the lack of information made commenting on the event risky. Sources on the ground were limited to the U.S. Embassy in Turkey, the U.K. Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and other government organizations issuing warnings to their citizens currently in and travelling to Turkey. But as more and more information became available, governments began to take sides.

Despite the rift between the U.S./E.U. and Turkey in recent years, the United States and European countries all came out in favor of democracy and democratically elected parties. It is reasonable to expect that deep down many Western governments hoped the situation would weaken Erdogan’s march towards Islamism and presidential dictatorship. They would be disappointed. After the coup ended, Iran also came out against it, affirming that anti-democratic practices had no place in the region. On the other hand, Russia, just recovering from a major tussle with Turkey, expressed classic risk-averse concern for regional stability. Few countries explicitly mentioned Erdogan or the AKP as the side they supported, keeping some space open for possible outcomes and impacts on democracy.

The country hits back

The coup began as a well-orchestrated, fearsome movement that seemed to have all the boxes checked. But beyond the initial momentum in Erdogan’s absence, the coup leaders achieved little. By 11:30 pm on July 15, protesters had flooded the streets near Taksim Square in Istanbul and near the parliament building in Ankara. An unusually long, and earlier than scheduled, call to dawn prayer further galvanized the common people. Conversely, the coup attempt hit a new low when the generally popular military began firing at unarmed anti-coup protesters crossing the Bosphorus bridge.

Pro-Erdogan protesters at Istanbul’s Taksim Square waving what they saw as the flags of democracy.

Pro-Erdogan protesters at Istanbul’s Taksim Square waving what they saw as the flags of democracy.

Clashes and gunfire between protesters and pro-government police forces continued late into the night past 4 a.m. against the background of bomb blasts. Soon, news agencies like TRT and CNN-Turk were liberated by pro-government forces and reports about soldiers surrendering their arms in Istanbul began to come in. The government then summoned all of its bodies, from the military Special Forces to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to (rather prematurely) declare the coup attempt over. Erdogan personally urged his protesters to stay in public squares to foil any subsequent coup attempts. By 6 a.m. on July sixteenth, over 700 pro-coup suspects had been detained and several rebel jets had been shot down, tipping the balance in Erdogan’s favor.

By 10:30 am on July 16th, the coup was all but over. It did not have enough support from the military, people, or politicians and failed to keep linchpins like Erdogan, media outlets and frenzied protesters under control.


Soldiers during a mass surrender on Bosphorus Bridge.


Who does Erdogan think led the coup?

About forty-five minutes after the coup attempt began, Erdogan had already ascribed responsibility to a parallel structure operating in the armed forces. The term “parallel structure” is one Erdogan has always used to refer to his archrival, Fethullah Gulen and the Gulen Movement. Better known as Hizmet or “service,” the movement has no official membership or organizational structure but could possibly be the largest network of Muslims in the world. Hizmet envisions a cultural role for Islam in the modern world with a focus on community service, hard work and education. Followers are volunteers who often donate five percent to twenty percent of their income to the movement’s educational and related institutions.

Erdogan has long attempted to weaken the military in favor of the civilian government, and in the past, used the physical and political reach of Gulen’s followers to orchestrate military purges. But though Erdogan and Gulen were once natural allies, their relationship has since soured due to a power struggle after the military had supposedly been weakened. Critics in Turkey assert that Hizmet wants to gain political power and have been able to pressure Gulen to maintain his reclusive life in the U.S. rather than return to Turkey. Erdogan and his followers believe that the coup was created by the remaining Gulen loyalists in the establishment. To give a face to the coup, they have blamed Colonel Muharram Kose, an army leader who was discharged before the coup for association with the Gulen movement.


Who do the Turkish people think led the coup?

Admittedly, the Turkish people are not a homogeneous entity easy to break down and analyze. But is a reasonable generalization that just over half the population staunchly supports Erdogan, while just under fifty percent feel alienated by their country’s new direction.

It should not be forgotten that despite Western media coverage about his draconian rule, Erdogan remains remarkably popular among the lower classes. He has made Turkey more equal by raising the living standards of socially conservative groups, maintaining steady economic growth and, in particular, keeping inflation under control. Erdogan’s fight is against the Kemalist elite, not just the military. Erdogan’s supporters are especially willing to stand by him against a foreign enemy; they affirm that they are preserving democracy and helping their leader consolidate power.

Erdogan’s plans, however, have never gone down well with the secularists and liberals in the country, who are often part of that Kemalist elite. The idea of a power-hungry, dictatorial Head of State scapegoating a foreign enemy to rile up support at home has long been a fear of this segment of the population. Some secularists acknowledge that the Kemalist, secularist streak in the military played a role in the coup. Other more extreme factions suspect the coup was completely staged to help Erdogan achieve his political aims.


Who actually lead the coup?

As long as Turkey’s national archives are closed to the public, this question is impossible to answer. For now, the unavoidable conspiracy theory is that Erdogan himself could be behind the coup. In this case, however, such theories are particularly convincing because of a confluence of factors. The first is the extent to and speed with which the opposition has been crushed after the coup attempt. The second piece of evidence is the sloppiness of the actual coup attempt in which almost no attention was paid to detaining President Erdogan, and the third is the coordinated success of lightly armed police officers and protesters against a heavily armored military.

There also exists a second, less extreme conspiracy theory that Erdogan knew about the coup but chose not to act against it for his own interests. Perhaps he went to the holiday resort of Marmara deliberately to shield himself. Perhaps he had already rallied support and prepared security forces to act against the threat. Perhaps he knew a failed coup would be the best opportunity to further consolidate his power, reaffirm his democratic roots and Anatolian support and purge out all remaining Gulenist and Kemalist enemies.


What does all of this mean for Turkey?

Erdogan has begun a counter-coup or a revolutionary purge against the entire nation, beginning with the security services and then moving on to every wing of the civilian infrastructure. A purge (a word that literally means “purify”), refers to the forced removal of people considered undesirable by those in power from the government or the public. In summary, Erdogan has declared war against four mains sectors of Turkish society: the security sector, the independent judiciary, the private and public education sector, and the economic policy sector. For context, here are a few numbers: 7500 soldiers (including 118 generals), 8000 police officers, over 1400 judges, over 30,000 people in education (professors, deans, students), about 500 clerics, and about a 100 intelligence officers have been either imprisoned or fired.

For Turkey’s institutions, the coup will be a foundational shake-up: education will become more Islamic, the army more obedient, and the judiciary less trustworthy. For Erdogan, this is a moment of triumph. As the BBC ominously puts it: “Momentum is on his side—power is flowing to him.” Erdogan’s drive to ultimate power is now inevitable. For the poor and socially conservative, living conditions, social inclusivity, and religious freedoms are likely to improve. For the secularists, the effect will be opposite. For Turkey’s minorities, who include Jews, Armenians and Roman Catholics, it might be time to consider other options.

But Erdogan’s recent purges recall an even more sinister parallel: the notorious purges conducted eighty years ago by Stalin in the Soviet Union. Erdogan’s Gulen is Stalin’s Trotsky. Like Gulen, Trotsky fled the Soviet Union to a country abroad and became the fuzzy, foreign, unreachable enemy at the heart of all of the nation’s political problems. Like Gulen, Trotsky’s very existence was enough to justify mass purges and cleansing of the political establishment. Trotskyists had strayed off the path of Communism like the Hizmet movement has strayed off the path of Islam and service to your nation. Stalin is said to have assassinated his right-hand man, Sergei Kirov just so he could demonize Trotsky enough to make him a national enemy. In the last two weeks, Erdogan may have done the same.

Admittedly, Erdogan, unlike Stalin, was freely and fairly elected and has served his voter base well. But Erdogan’s purge tells a different story. While Stalin’s Great Purge affected about one million people, recent purges by Chinese President Xi Jinping’s purges (120 officials) and even Saddam Hussein (60 senior party members) are dwarfed by the new Erdogan revolution. At the current rate, we can only hope that he hasn’t set out to beat Stalin’s record.