A military coup attempt in Turkey on Friday 15 July failed, but the future of the country’s democracy, and survival as a nation state, is bleak.
Friday night is a busy time in Istanbul, especially in the summer. The streets are choked with traffic and bars and public places are packed with people. The sight of armoured vehicles on Turkish roads is normal, due to the prominent position of the army in Turkish life and the tenuous security situation the country has experienced since last year.
Yet when the iconic Bosphorus Bridge, which was lit in the colours of the French flag in solidarity with Nice, was closed by green military trucks at 7.30pm, passers-by sensed that something was amiss. The Fatih Sultan Mehmet Bridge, the other bridge linking European Istanbul to its Asian side, was blocked at the same time. Military aircraft appeared over Istanbul and the capital, Ankara. Half an hour later, Prime Minister Binali Yildirim made a statement: his government was facing a coup.
Fighter jets and ground soldiers attacked the army’s headquarters in Ankara, capturing the chief of staff. Other troops shut down the offices of the ruling Justice and Development (AK) Party. TRT, the national broadcaster, was stormed by armed soldiers and the anchor was given a manifesto to read.
Who was behind the coup? That question remained unanswered. It was unusual to see a civilian woman reading a putschist manifesto, especially when the group in charge calls itself the ‘Peace Council’, which sounds like a parody of the ‘Military Council’, usually established after a coup. Initial speculation by analysts pointed to the traditional conflict waged between the secular generals and the Islamists.
Then, during a live show on the opposition TV channel CNN Turk at around 9.30pm, the anchor held her iPhone up to the camera: it was President Recep Tayyip Erdogan talking via FaceTime from an undisclosed location. Clearly worried, he called on the people to take to the streets and stop the rebellious faction of the army from taking over, and vowed to be in the capital soon. The Turkish Armed Forces, a reformed version of the Ottoman Army, dates back to 1920. Unlike the Ottoman Army, which was proclaimed the Army of Muhammad, protector of the Empire and Islam wherever it spread, the Turkish Army was nationalistic, centrist and, above all, secular. The army’s mandate is to defend the Secular Republic of Turkey.
Most of Turkey’s presidents have been former officers. Although elections were introduced at an early stage, Turkey remained an incomplete democracy run by the military elite from behind the scenes. During the last century, whenever the political process derailed, whenever the generals disagreed on certain politics, a coup was staged. Four military putsches have disrupted Turkish politics in that time. The 15 July coup attempt was supposed to be the fifth.
Explosions and gunshots rattled Istanbul and Ankara. Helicopters attacked the coastal city of Marmaris, 700km south of Istanbul, where President Erdogan was spending his holidays. Other troops stormed Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport, which was still recovering from its worst terrorist attack two weeks earlier, and the parliament in Ankara was besieged. TRT stopped broadcasting and uncertainty was rife, especially when rumours about Erdogan’s escape from the country began to circulate.
Amid all this, the minister of justice made a statement, accusing the ‘Parallel State’ of being behind the plot.
He was referring to the organisation of Erdogan’s arch-rival, Islamist leader Fethullah Gülen. The latter is a septuagenarian, who has lived a voluntary exile in Pennsylvania, USA since 1999. A respected spiritual leader, he has called for the re-Islamization of Turkey and has a network of businesses and schools disseminating his teachings. He has been able to infiltrate Turkey’s different institutions, including the army and the police, hence the nickname Parallel State. He helped Erdogan come to power, but then the two fell out.
Erdogan’s FaceTime speech was considered by many as the reason why he kept his throne. Putschist soldiers stormed CNN Turk shortly afterwards and shut it down, apparently in retaliation for the TV’s broadcast of the speech.
It was too late. Erdogan’s words resonated in the ears of officials in his government as well as among the security and military forces: he was still around. It also echoed in the ranks of his supporters. Many current and former army commanders sided with Erdogan, and clashes intensified between the putschists and those who remained faithful to the democratic institutions: ground and air battles were reported, many casualties as well.
Shortly before midnight, Prime Minister Yildirim gave a speech in parliament, again accusing Gülen of being behind the coup. A few minutes later, it was announced that Erdogan had landed in Istanbul. By then, hundreds of thousands of people were marching in Turkey’s streets, surrounding tanks and armoured vehicles and making it difficult for the troops to manoeuver. These chanting crowds forced the army to withdraw from the airport, where Erdogan appeared in public. Protected by tens of thousands of his supporters, the airport became his sanctuary for the rest of the night.
Opposition parties declared from the start that they were opposed to the coup, whereas it took time for the international community to condemn it. The mutineers began surrendering by the score and the kidnapped chief of staff was released. A hopeless helicopter attack targeted the headquarters of the intelligence forces in Ankara in the early hours of Saturday morning, but by then the coup was already largely over.
A few pockets of resistance persisted on Saturday, but Erdogan was back on track. He and several members of his government and party made several public appearances to denounce Gülen and to strengthen his supporters’ morale, while a purge of suspected pro-coup figures was carried out, involving thousands of army officers, soldiers, policemen, judges, etc. General Akin Ozturk, former head of the air force, was arrested on Saturday and accused of executing the coup. Erdogan was neutralizing the army, but weakening it as well.
It appeared that the coup plotters had not secured enough support inside the army, and it is certain that they lacked political and popular backing. What prompted them to play this Russian roulette was not immediately clear; what was clear was that they had given President Erdogan carte blanche to expand his powers. His authoritarian grip will only tighten after this event, and the large number of people arrested indicates that he is settling his scores. It is a divided Turkey in an explosive and unpredictable region that will come out of this failed coup attempt.
The prospect for the Turkish Republic, although it escaped a military takeover, does not look bright.