Special thanks to Malcolm Fleschner, Sergio Kays and Daniel Nakamura for putting up with my awful writing errors.
Over the weekend, a small group of insurrectionists staged a coup d’etat in a failed effort to overthrow the Turkish government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. More than 6000 individuals with alleged ties to the coup have been arrested, while the death toll, according to the Turkish foreign ministry, stands at 290.
But before we talk about why the coup happened, let me tell you a little bit about Turkey’s military culture. Turkey has a unique military tradition dating back centuries to when the area was ruled by nomadic central Asian Turkic tribes. The military is a source of great national pride, and all able-bodied men over 18 are required to serve. The military also plays an important role in the nation’s government by providing an additional layer of checks and balances. In the past 40 years the military has staged four successful coups, all of which resulted in the prompt turnover of power to elected civilian governments. Because of this, coup d’etats in Turkey are unlike coups in any other country, in the sense that they’re usually welcomed by the people. The military protects the citizens from oppression, and has repeatedly intervened to preserve the secularist values of the nation’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.
Having said that, the coup plotters claimed to be acting to protect secularism and democracy, but a number of unusual characteristics of this coup suggest that their motivation may have been other than to overthrow the government.
For one, the timing of this coup was unusual. Coups in Turkey are typically launched after midnight on Sunday nights while citizens are in the safety of their homes. Everything takes place under cover of darkness - you wake up in the morning to go to work and a military official tells you that martial law has been declared and to go back to your home. In this way, civilian casualties are typically minimized. By contrast, this coup was launched on the nation’s most crowded bridge on a Friday while traffic and gridlock are at their worst.
Second was the lack of arrests. Rounding up key figures of the government as hostages is traditionally the first objective of a potentially successful coup. If you get those at the top, the rest follow. The coup plotters had no list of high profile government officials to detain, nor did they conduct more than a couple of cursory arrests. Despite controlling Ataturk airport, they allowed Erdogan to fly in and land, and then conduct a press conference where he condemned the military, depicted himself as a national hero under attack, and then urged the citizens to take to the streets to support him. If normal citizens like me could figure out exactly where Erdogan was, how could an organized military force conducting a coup d’etat not be able to take down his plane when they controlled all airspace around Istanbul? What allowed for the soldiers that descended on Erdogan’s villa in Marmaris to arrive an hour after he left? The evidence suggests that these coup plotters were either incompetent or merely wished to APPEAR as though they were genuinely attempting to overthrow the government.
This coup was also terribly disorganized. There was a lack of clear leadership, and no singular message that defined the objectives behind the coup. The military itself was also divided. A failure to gain support from certain factions within the military, paired with a lack of unity and message allowed Erdogan to blame a “parallel state” or whatever other boogeyman he wished to blame for the coup. And he did. The coup quickly turned when the plotters lost the messaging war, allowing Erdogan to turn public sentiment against these factions within the military, which he depicted as armed oppressors of the Turkish people.
The final mistake was to open fire on the citizens and the parliament. A military force that seeks to restore democracy and secularism does not target the citizens or the democracy it intends to protect and the symbolism of this attack enraged even the staunchest Erdogan opponents.
Erdogan was quick to name the culprit and mastermind of the coup as Fethullah Gulen: the self-exiled Sunni muslim cleric who leads a movement known as the Hizmet from his home in Pennsylvania. To the American government, Gulen represents the cultivation of a modern, moderate Islamic path; to others, namely Erdogan, Gulen sits atop a movement that threatens to undermine his complete control over the nation and its government. Gulen condemned the coup and denied suggestions of his involvement.
Also, to many Kemalists, Erdogan and Gulen represent two sides of a religious coin that not only threatens Turkey’s future, but also indicates wider instability across the globe, considering Europe depends on Turkish stability to deal with ISIS and the Syrian refugee crisis.
There were a couple very important conclusions here. Erdogan and Gulen’s “parallel government” have been shadowboxing for the past three years after their initial falling out. Erdogan had successfully weeded out the Gulen influence from the Turkish judiciary and the police force and the military was the remaining body of power that posed a threat.
The Turkish military has long been a bastion of Secularism and a source of national pride - and rightly so. However, Erdogan had been using trials and forced retirement to weed out most Kemalist leaders from the military while filling the ranks of top Turkish military positions with his supporters. Gulen’s “golden children”, a group of rising cadets educated in Gulen’s top schools in high ranking positions STILL posed a threat to Erdogan’s control over the military. It’s no coincidence that this coup followed in the wake of a military tribunal where some generals are promoted and others eased out, and can be seen as a last ditch effort by Gulen supporters to retain their powerful positions in the armed forces.
The most important outcome of this failed coup is that Erdogan will likely be able to fulfill his ultimate objective of rewriting the Turkish constitution and permanently shift the government from a parliamentary system to an executive presidential system with Erdogan at the head. For the populist leader with a ruthless track record, this inevitable outcome represents a dramatic shift for the future of Turkey.
Erdogan rose to power in textbook neo-autocratic fashion. He’s not even trying to disguise what he’s doing any more. In recent years he has been imprisoning opponents, seizing newspapers and controlling the media through threats, all the while building palaces like a mad sultan. He’s made himself and everyone around him wealthy beyond imagination and his entire family is implicated in corruption. Many of the charges center on his son Bilal, who reportedly fled to Italy on a forged Saudi passport to avoid the possibility of arrest for money laundering.
So, regardless of who’s to blame for the failed putsch, this will be Erdogan’s Reichstag Fire moment, the pivotal point where Turkey’s dangerous populist leader consolidates all the necessary power to change Turkey’s political system into a full blown autocracy fueled by Islamic sentiment.
How do we know this? To begin with, a predetermined list of names allowed Erdogan’s agents to swiftly arrest nearly 3000 judges, military coup plotters and others, clearly suggesting Erdogan has anticipated or prepared for an opportunity to rid himself of any opposition. Further, he’s already called for the reinstatement of the death penalty and you can bet your ass you’ll see more and more tyrannical policies across the board in Turkey’s future. He’s also demanding that the American Government hand over Fetullah Gulen.
Erdogan may believe that this counter-coup will deliver on all his dreams of solitary, autocratic rule, but if history is any guide, he could be mistaken. Most likely he’ll continue to overstep his bounds, cause an even larger rift between the government and its people, and further undermine relationships with foreign allies. If so, Turkey would likely experience a reduction in foreign investment, further crippling the Turkish economy. In that case, it may not be long before Erdogan finds himself facing another attack on his rule - only this time ending with him as the one facing the gallows.