Turkey and the Case of the Magical Vanishing Coup


What kind of coup was that?

The Turkish military has long had a well-deserved reputation for effective coup-making. The fiasco of last week will surely kill that reputation, possibly for good. Turkey’s past coups each had unique characteristics. At first glance, it is the May 1960 takeover that has most in common with the recent drama. It too was conducted against the backdrop of a polarized political system against an entrenched and ever more authoritarian and corrupt single-party (Democratic Party) government that had nevertheless enjoyed impressive electoral popularity. The government then had been in power for a decade and seemed bent on moving the country away from the secularist principles laid down by the republic’s founder, Kemal Ataturk. Like the recent coup attempt, the 1960 military intervention was instigated by elements outside the formal chain of command — largely by colonels rather than the top brass — and its leaders promised a renewed democratization drive, as did the “peace at home council” set up in the early hours of July 15. Still, the 1961 constitution that resulted from the 1960 coup remains Turkey’s most liberal ever.

There the comparison ends. Within days of the ousting of the civilian government in 1960, the Turkish high command had effectively taken full control, although it was led by army chief General Cemal Gursel rather than the chief of the general staff, who was put under arrest. This ensured military unity and the loyalty of the lower ranks. Furthermore, the 1960 coup-makers neutralized any likely source of opposition and swiftly rounded up the civilian leaders, notably, prime minster Adnan Menderes (who was later executed) and president Celal Bayar. In this fiasco, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his minsters remained at large. Erdogan even managed to fly from the holiday resort of Marmaris, land his jet at Istanbul’s main Ataturk airport, and take charge of events. Although Erdogan’s claim that his Marmaris hotel was bombed after he had left it remains unsubstantiated at the time of writing, there were clashes at the hotel that clearly came too late for the coup plotters to capture him. Erdogan and the country’s religious leadership called for people to take to the streets and oppose the tanks, which they did, easily outnumbering the absurdly small huddles of scared conscript soldiers, many of whom clearly had little stomach for violent confrontation with civilian crowds. Soldiers were soon surrendering, although around 50 civilian deaths did result from the night’s confrontations. Reports suggested that the conscript soldiers and junior officers thought they were on a military training exercise. Other than Chief of the General Staff Hulasi Akar, who was briefly detained but reappeared again within hours, the service chiefs almost immediately declared their opposition to the coup and even mobilized some forces against those of the coup leaders, leading to violent exchanges around the military’s headquarters and the presidential palace in Ankara. During the night, a few broadcasting stations were briefly occupied or closed by small numbers of soldiers, but for the most part, the media spent the night filming, reporting, and commenting on the unfolding drama. In short, this was an epically botched coup, an amateur affair that would scarcely be credible as a plot for a comic novel based in a newly independent African republic in the 1960s. The coup leaders, some of whom seem to have been very senior, made little attempt to grasp or neutralize the levers of power. They entered the fray relying largely on what appears to have been a pitifully miniscule force of confused, disoriented, and uncommitted troops and units. In the early hours of the next day, eight of the coup leaders fled to Greece in a police helicopter and asked for asylum. It is surprising — and also disturbing in a way — that such senior officers in one of NATO’s largest militaries could be found so lacking.

Is This the Turkey We Know?

Yet perhaps more importantly, the Turkey of 2016 is not the Turkey of 1960, or even of 1980 or 1997, when the last two military coups occurred. Unlike in 1960, when there was considerable support for the military takeover from the secular establishment, this misadventure was condemned by all the opposition political parties, including the Kurdish People’s Democracy Party, or HDP. This does not imply support for Erdogan and his ruling party or even an overwhelming faith in Turkish democracy. Rather, it is an indication that Turks of all political persuasions shudder at the thought of a return to the 1980s, when the military arrested half a million people, incarcerated political figures, journalists and activists in their tens of thousands, and executed or otherwise “disappeared” them in their hundreds. Turkey still suffers the burden of the illiberal constitution of 1982, which all would like to revise despite the almost complete absence of consensus on what to replace it with. These were dark days, and few Turks hanker for their return. Furthermore, past military interventions solved few of the country’s persisting problems, such as the role of religion in a nominally secular political system, the Kurdish issue, and the weak rule of law and autonomy of institutions. The 1997 “soft coup” took the form not of a military takeover, but of intense pressure on the Islamist-led government that resulted in its resignation. This eventually led to the emergence of a far more formidable Islamist-oriented party, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), led by disciples of Necmettin Erbakan, who was ousted as prime minister in 1997.

What is the point of all this military intervention? Turkey is a far more sophisticated society than it was under earlier periods of military rule: more educated, travelled, networked, diverse, and consumerist. Its economy is liberal, dynamic, and complex. Its engagement with the rest of the world is far more extensive. Most can see that modern Turkey, for all its drawbacks, cannot seriously be run by a bunch of Colonel Blimps. Many Turkish officers recognize that.

The Turkish military has also changed — or, rather, has been politically weakened and discredited in its own eyes as well as that of the public and political classes. The Turkish General Staff issued its so-called “e-memorandum” of 2007 in an attempt to forestall the elevation of one of the AKP’s leaders, Abdullah Gul, to the presidency. Prime Minister Erdogan responded to this effort by calling an immediate general election that raised the party’s share of the vote from the 34 percent gained in 2002 to nearly 47 percent, and then he installed Gul as president on the back of this resounding demonstration of popular legitimacy. Still more dramatic were the so-called Ergenekon, Sledgehammer, and related trials of Turkey’s so-called “deep state.” These trials followed waves of arrests of military officers as well as intellectuals, activists, politicians, journalists, bureaucrats and the like that began in 2008 and resulted in the imprisonment of hundreds of military officers, many of them senior and including former Chief of the General Staff Ilker Basbug, who was sentenced to life imprisonment. As the trials proceeded, many more senior officers tendered their resignation, but the palpably fabricated charges were made to stick in any case. Though all the verdicts were annulled and the military officers released from jail in early 2016, in itself a move probably best seen as part of the ongoing struggle between Erdogan and the Gulenists, the formerly prestigious, respected, and overbearing Turkish military command seemed to have been reduced to less than a shadow of its former self. Its hitherto formative guardianship role in the country’s domestic politics seemed utterly at an end. This too makes the July 2016 events seem so odd and so unexpected.

Why Try for a Coup?

This brings us to the issue of motivation behind the recent fiasco. Upon his arrival at Istanbul airport from Marmaris, President Erdogan made it amply clear that, as far as he was concerned, the coup attempt was masterminded by Fethullah Gulen, the Turkish cleric living in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania. Gulen presides over a vast though shrinking network of businessmen, journalists, intellectuals, and professionals of all kinds, the tentacles of which extend to commerce, education, charities and the media. Gulen’s followers are apparently inspired by his thinking, which posits a kind of long march through the institutions by relatively tolerant, modern, technocratic Muslims who will thereby be well positioned to benignly subvert the state so that it might become more reflective of the piousness of Turkey’s masses, yet also more attuned to the exigencies of the modern world, both at home and abroad. It was allegedly Gulenist lawyers and policemen who provided the momentum behind the demolition of the deep state and the weakening of the military’s political power. This very much suited the ruling AKP too, fearful as it was of a military coup against its hold on office. In retrospect, we can see that the ruling party’s alliance with the Gulenists — or rather Erdogan’s alliance with them — was simply one of convenience. When a group of Erdogan associates, including his own son, were subjected to the attention of Gulenist law enforcement officers in December 2013, accused of extensive and mind-boggling corruption, Erdogan decided that the network — or hizmet as it self-defines — now constituted a major threat to his hold on and enjoyment of power. He has been relentlessly purging supposed Gulenists  from public office ever since, accusing them of having established a “parallel state.” The police and judiciary have lost tens of thousands of alleged sympathizers to the purges. The foreign, interior, and other ministries have been hit too, as have pro-Gulen media outlets, such as the Zaman newspaper, educational establishments, academics and businesses — the allegedly Gulenist Bank Asya was seized by government regulators in early 2015, for example.

The July 2016 coup attempt has offered Erdogan the opportunity to tackle what he clearly sees — or claims to see — as Gulenist circles in the upper echelons of the military. It is they who are accused of having led the coup attempt, and within a day of its crumbling, nearly 3000 officers had been taken into custody. They include the chiefs of Turkey’s second and third armies and a former chief of the air force. Erdogan insists that the coup attempt’s timing was triggered by the fact that the presence of “parallel state” circles within the military establishment was due to be discussed at a national security council meeting slated for early August. If true, perhaps these officers panicked when contemplating what was in store for them. Yet well nearly 3000 judges were also forced from office and ordered detained on July 16, including at least one constitutional court lawyer and 140 appeal judges. It is already evident that the crackdown is extending beyond the military, although the justification offered is the same — the need to defeat the Gulenist “parallel state.” At the time of writing, academics, and journalists seem also to be in the firing line. Whether they are all Gulen followers, and whether, if so, they act under orders and as a single force, remains unproven and implausible. It seems more likely that the affair was engineered by a group of officers disaffected with Turkey’s domestic and foreign policy trajectory under Erdogan, For the president and his followers, such questions matter little. This is an opportunity — given by God, according to Erdogan during his tirade at Ataturk airport on the morning of July 16 — to destroy this source of opposition to his rule.

Turkey’s Future, Past, and Present

In the past, the Turkish military has justified its political interventions on the basis of its “guardianship role” of Turkish secularism and the unitary nature of the state. We do not know what the motivation was on this occasion, but if Erdogan is to be believed, then this adventure was inspired by a religiously based bid for political power. If Erdogan is proven correct, it would amply demonstrate how far Turkey has come over the past few decades. Turkey’s secularists no longer have the military as their ultimate protector. Under Erdogan, who will protect them or anyone else he deems a threat to his rule? He already presides over a supine media, whose journalists and proprietors have been purged, intimidated, bought, or bought out. Academics and intellectuals are scared, as the government takes ever greater and more pernicious control over universities and even thought itself. Where government agencies have not been brought directly under the president’s sway, such as the intelligence agency (the MIT), they have been stuffed with Erdoganistas — as in the police and judiciary — or bypassed — as with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. More and more decision-making power concentrated is in the hands of Erdogan and his gang of advisors. Even the AKP has been rebuilt in his own image, and it now consists of MPs and regional mayors that owe their positions to his patronage. The party’s big hitters and founders, such as Abdullah Gul and Bulent Arinc, have long since departed. Gone, too, are the more moderate and centrist characters initially drawn to the new beginning that the AKP seemed to offer Turkey back at the turn of the century. More recently, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, who has been credited (debited) with re-engineering Turkish foreign policy for the past decade or so, was unceremoniously dumped from office just a few months back.

Little now stands in Erdogan’s way. The next few days, weeks, and months will tell us what he intends to do with the unprecedented power and opportunity he now has at his disposal. In Turkey’s conspiracy theory-loving culture, some are even speculating that the whole fiasco was staged by Erdogan in order to engineer justifications for what he is now about to inflict on those he sees as his enemies. In any case, he seems to find power irresistible. It is at least possible that things could soon be as bad for democracy, freedom, and the rule of law in the country as they were in the aftermath of the 1980 coup. Turkey seems to have no good choices. Thus far, Turkey’s allies have rallied round in support of civilian rule in Turkey, and given Erdogan the benefit of the doubt once again. But problems loom, not least in the context of Ankara’s war with the PKK and the battle against the Islamic State. But one foreign policy problem is already firmly on the agenda. Turkey’s foreign minister has declared that only an enemy of Turkey would give shelter to Fethullah Gulen. It is the United States that gives such shelter. John Kerry has indicated that, if evidence that Gulen ordered the coup attempt is furnished, he could conceivably be extradited. Is it likely that Turkey has such evidence to hand? Is it likely that Gulen ever gave such an order or was behind other plots of which he has been accused? Who knows, but it seems unlikely and Gulen is vehemently denying any involvement and indeed condemning the coup attempt. Kerry has also hit back against allegations, notably from Turkey’s labor minister, that the United States was somehow behind the coup attempt. The American attachment to the rule of law might soon come up against the almost complete indifference to it by one of its key allies. It could be interesting to watch.


Bill Park is Senior Lecturer in the Defence Studies Department of King’s College London, and Visiting Scholar at TOBB-ET University, Ankara. He is a council member for the British Institute at Ankara, a member of the editorial board of Mediterranean Politics, and sits on the international advisory board of Turkish Studies. He frequently appears on the media, and is regularly consulted on Turkish affairs by a number of U.K. and other governmental and non-governmental institutions.