As if from nowhere, a section of the Turkish armed forces attempted a coup d’etat on July 15. At 10 p.m., reports of gunfire near the General Staff headquarters in Ankara, Turkey’s capital, began the barrage that lasted till 2.30 a.m. on July 16, when the national intelligence agency (MIT) said that the coup had been “thwarted”. Chaos reigned in the intervening hours. The soldiers and their heavy armour held sections of Ankara and Istanbul, including some media stations and parts of the transportation network. Two hours into the coup, the security services had begun to tell reporters that the unrest had been inspired by the U.S.-based Islamic scholar Fethullah Gülen. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan took to FaceTime, a videotelephony app, to ask people to go onto the streets to defeat the coup. From the mosques, imams also called for public action. By 12.35 a.m., the Special Prosecutor had already begun to frame charges against the coup leadership. It was clear that this coup — the sixth in Turkey’s modern history — had failed before it could be consolidated.
Coup as opportunity
Mr. Erdogan, who has long attempted to create pliable state institutions, said that the coup was a “gift from God to us because this will be a reason to cleanse our army”. The government arrested more than 6,000 people from the military and other state institutions. Saying that the Gülen movement had become a “cancer virus” on society, Mr. Erdogan pledged to purge its membership from positions of authority. The ultimate arbiter of who is or is not in the Gülen movement will be left to Mr. Erdogan’s own loyalists, who are likely to remove those who have long resisted the President’s own bid to monopolise power. Mr. Erdogan deliberately linked the Gülen movement to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which the Turkish army has attacked in its bases in south-eastern Turkey and in Iraq. To call both the Gülen movement and the PKK ‘terrorists’ is a convenient way to sweep up all Erdogan enemies into one target and use the coup — a “gift from God” — as the opportunity to go after them with vehemence.
Was the coup a plot by the followers of Mr. Gülen? So far he has denied responsibility for the coup, saying that a military coup cannot develop democracy. Indeed his own participation is not of the essence. What will be useful is that this coup will allow Mr. Erdogan to flush out some of Mr. Gülen’s followers and remove them from places of authority in the military and the judiciary.
The military’s disconnect
A senior military officer in Turkey told me that over the past half century the Turkish military has been increasingly isolated from society. It has built parallel institutions and believes in values — partly republican — that are at some remove from the Islamic piety and suffocation of Mr. Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP). It is likely, this officer said, that some military leaders felt that their putsch might inspire others to join in against the President’s centralisation of power. The amateur attempt to seize power suggests either that these soldiers had no idea what they were doing — and so had been set up — or that their officers believed that the propaganda of the deed would bring society and the rest of the military on their side. Nothing like this happened. Smatterings of soldiers on the Fatih Sultan Mehmet and Bosphorus bridges in Istanbul do not make much of an impression on the public. This was nothing like the 1980 military coup in Turkey, nor like the covert coup of 1993 or the post-modern coup of 1997. Only Mr. Erdogan has gained from it.
When Mr. Erdogan came to power in 2002, he worried about the power of the Turkish military. It had conducted hard coups in the past, and it had perhaps assassinated a President in 1993, and removed an Islamist coalition government in 1997. The AKP came from the Islamist tradition and was vulnerable before a military that had imbibed modern Turkish secularism. To earn immunity from coups, Mr. Erdogan put his party’s Islamism on mute, threw himself into providing for his Anatolian businessmen base and attempted to join the European Union as a full member — an affiliation that disallows military coups. In addition, he placed loyal Islamists into positions of authority in the military. Some of these men were also followers of Mr. Gülen. When Mr. Erdogan says that Mr. Gülen is responsible for the coup, he knows well the role the two of them played together to line the military with their kind of modern Islamist. Turkey’s military had increased its authority through the war on the Kurds, which Mr. Erdogan tried to bring to an end with a peace negotiation with the PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan. These steps disarmed the military for the first decade of Mr. Erdogan’s leadership of the country, first as Prime Minister and then as President.
The Syria impact
But everything unravelled with Turkey’s Syria policy. Mr. Erdogan’s aggressive push against the government of Bashar al-Assad in Syria pushed Turkey into a crisis. As a Kurdish leader told me a few years ago, Turkey began to resemble Pakistan, with Syria being the current Afghanistan. Extremists came across the Turkish-Syrian border, which became porous for arms and men to create mayhem in Syria and to enliven extremist cells inside Turkey. The war on the Kurds was reopened, since the Syrian Kurds on the border had begun to make gains towards a Syrian version of their homeland. This was intolerable to Mr. Erdogan, and to Ankara in general. Disgruntlement grew in the military due to the futile war on the Kurds and for the AKP’s duplicitous policies toward the Islamic State. Mr. Erdogan’s attempt to suffocate institutions of Turkish democracy for his own presidential ambitions took its toll. Turkish society became greatly polarised, with Mr. Erdogan’s supporters more arrogant about his gains and with his opponents bemoaning the lack of democratic space.
Not one Turkish political party backed the coup. Everyone opposed it, including the Republicans and the Left. The Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), which is the party of the Kurds and the Left, said that it is “against all kinds of coups. There is no way but democracy”. Turkish society should take comfort that there is little political appetite for a coup. Nonetheless, there is a great deal of concern at the use of the coup by Mr. Erdogan to push his agenda. The imams from the mosques, through the night of July 15, called upon their supporters to take to the squares. At the funeral service for those killed during the coup, Mr. Erdogan reiterated the call for people to occupy public spaces across Turkey. Violence against political opponents of Mr. Erdogan and the AKP have picked up in Turkey. It has meant little that the Opposition has been united. A generous president would have built national unity around that. Mr. Erdogan’s is a narrower game. He has used the polarity to his advantage. The coup failed this time. But it is not the end of violence. Turkey remains at the edge of the precipice.
This column originally ran in The Hindu (India).