Photo: A view of the street demonstration against the coup on 17 July 2016. Credit: Wikimedia Commons. - Photo: 2016

Behind Turkey’s Failed Coup and its Puzzling Aftermath

Analysis by Jacques N. Couvas

ANKARA (IDN) – The fourth and latest military coup in the history of the Turkish Republic ended at 8:02 p.m. on Saturday, July 16, less than 24 hours after it had begun. It was bloody. And it failed.

Hardly a week later, the state of emergency has been declared, tens of thousands of state and military personnel have been dismissed and three million servants recalled from holidays.

As the Turkish people recover from the psychological shock following the events, questions and all kinds of theories fill the discussions in the squares, cafés and social media. They are wondering “why” and “why now”? And then, “what is next”? All this on the assumption that everyone agrees with the answer to the question “who did it”?

Two hours into the crisis, at 12:05 a.m. on July 16, security officials revealed to the state press agency the identity of the coup plotters. Four hours later, the Chief Public Prosecutor in Ankara was issuing arrest warrants for dozens of armed forces officers and for judges, alleged to be directly involved in the plot.

They have all been accused of being affiliated with the ‘Fethullah Terror Organisation’ (FETÖ), confirmed by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan as soon as he spoke in public in the early hours of July 16. FETÖ is the designation given by the Turkish authorities to a religious-cultural movement, Hizmet or Cemaat, founded and remotely coordinated by Fetullah Gülen, 75, a cleric and teacher residing in self-exile in Pennsylvania, United States. Hizmet and Cemaat mean ‘service’ and ‘community’, respectively.

Erdogan and Gülen come from similar ideological backgrounds. Both are committed to the supremacy of political Islam in the Middle East and beyond, they have been persecuted by the secular state, and imprisoned. Their alliance in the effort for an Islamic party to come to power in Turkey was, therefore, natural and mutually rewarding.

After the victory at the legislative elections of 2002 of Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), Gülen opted to remain in the United States, where he had fled a few years earlier, and to continue to grow his conglomerate-like organisation, which controls commercial corporations, banks, not-for-profit associations, schools at all levels of education, media groups, and charity foundations.

Hizmet’s official mission is to promote intercultural and interfaith dialogue, and to provide modern and tolerance-oriented high quality education through the operation of 300 schools in Turkey and 1,000 in other parts of the world, with the emphasis on the United States, Europe and in emerging markets, particularly in Africa.

Because of their past experience, both Erdogan and Gülen have been weary of the military who had staged full-scale successful coups in 1960 and 1980 and had subsequently ruled the country for a while. The generals had also succeeded in overthrowing the incumbent pro-Islam government of Ankara in 1997, through a ‘post-modern’, or soft-power, coup, but had failed in one attempt in 1971.

As a result, Erdogan’s successive governments since 2003 systematically pursued the goal of clipping the wings of the officers and subjecting them to civil rule. This was achieved towards the middle of 2007.

Meanwhile, on the demand of ‘Gülenists’, two main judicial cases, known as Ergenekon and Sledgehammer, were opened against 300 commanders of the armed forces, who had allegedly conspired to overthrow the legitimate government. Many of them were imprisoned for several months without trial.

The conquest of power by AKP in 2002 was a social and political revolution for Turkey. But, as in all revolutionary movements, their leaders eventually split over separate doctrinal paths and interests.

The divergence, between Erdogan and Gülen, became apparent in December 2013, after a series of corruption scandals involving ministers in office, and shook the foundations of the Party. Hizmet’s operatives systematically and effectively began to release confidential information about the acts and conversations of state officials, including Erdogan.

The exact cause of this schism remains unknown.

Erdogan has the typical profile of the decisive and tough-minded leader who does not allow himself to be intimidated by adversity or blackmail, but fights back regardless of possible repercussions. His reaction was immediate and merciless. He decided to hit Hizmet at its core, that is, its financial resources and its media infrastructure.

Preparatory schools, a main source of income for the association in Turkey, a major bank, and commercial groups were the initial targets. Newspapers and TV stations quickly followed. But the alleged ‘parallel state’ was still alive, as score of civil servants, judges, policemen, and military cadres remained in their positions.

This has been changing since July 16. President Erdogan is definitely determined to rid the country of Hismet-FATÖ once and forever. The government has sent an official request to the U.S. administration for the extradition of Gülen. Both U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and the American ambassador in Ankara, John Bass, have responded that the request will be examined within the context of the bilateral agreement on extraditions.

Meanwhile, Gülen is denying any involvement in the coup. Speaking to a group of reporters at his home in Pennsylvania on July 18, he speculated that the crisis was fabricated by Erdogan with the aim to consolidate his hold to power.

Conspiracy theories abound, and Turkish people are traditionally receptive to such narrative. The Americans and the Israelis are the ‘usual suspects’ whenever the country is seriously challenged. There was a novelty earlier in the aftermath of the attempted coup, when persistent rumours circulated that Qatar and Saudi Arabia were behind the attempt. The Turkish Minister of Foreign Affairs strongly denied this on the evening of July 20.

Two questions still remain unanswered, nevertheless. The timing for the coup and the reason for its failure.

Many observers concur that the decision to take action was most likely made hastily by a few ‘Gülenist’ commanders whose career was at threat, as the annual officers’ review to be held in August was approaching.

However, all top brass arrested so far had been appointed in the recent past to very sensitive positions, including at high security commands of NATO facilities. It seems improbable that the intelligence services of the country, or of the United States, had no clue of these officers’ affiliation with FETÖ.

By many governmental accounts, the coup was well planned and had foreseen the immediate replacement of higher ranking judges and the creation of ad hoc revolutionary courts to judge Erdogan and his loyalists. Possible.

What went wrong, according to all the evidence, was implementation. There were, apparently, no solid contingency blueprints on commonly foreseeable operational problems, such as units being unable to take-off from a chosen airport or base, or last-minute logistical shortcomings.

Many of the actions of rebel troops during the first couple of hours are consistent with the textbook implementation of a military coup: occupation of the broadcasting stations, control and closing of the airports and of vital roads and bridges, neutralisation of state facilities and telecommunication nodes and exchanges, and so on. These, however, have not kept pace with the infrastructure and communication uses of the 21st century! 

The Turkish public no longer depends for information on state media or on the incumbent telecommunications network operator. There is a plethora of alternative means to communicate; there are dozens of private TV and radio stations, and hundreds of online news outlets. With a couple of exceptions, these were left unchallenged. In any event, it would have been impossible to control them effectively, considering the meagre forces commanded by the coup plotters.

But perhaps the main cause of the failure should be attributed to the poor understanding of the psychology of the masses. A first mistake, most likely, was the choice of the name given to the coup-owners, as it was broadcast live when the state TV studios were occupied: ‘Peace at Home Committee’.

The name did not ring a bell for anyone, and the absence of a signature by military or political personality made it sound irrelevant or phony. ‘Peace at Home’ is reminiscent of the motto of the founder of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk: “Peace at Home, Peace in the World.”

AKP’s voters, who represent half of the population, must loathe whatever is a reminder of Ataturk’s secularist doctrine. The other half, mostly Kemalists, probably felt insulted, or puzzled at best. None was prepared to support a military coup, disruptive of everyday life and of the already weakening economy, without being convinced that a capable hand was steering it.

So, the former went to the streets to oppose the soldiers, while the latter preferred to take their distance from the event and watch the evolution on their TV and laptop screens. The TV announcement incident poses another question mark.

Why would the Gülenists, who had suffered under the armed forces and against whom there was mutual contempt, use a military coup of their own to change the regime? Did they believe that, had they succeeded, they would easily secure the loyalty of the officers and soldiers who did not participate? Or would they have become, in their turn, the victims of a counter-coup?

According to military and academic specialists, the decisive moment for a coup is when a large part of the population perceives one party – perpetrator or defendant – as the most likely victor. The July 15 commandos left their audience perplexed with the TV announcement. They had created neither hope nor fear among the masses.

In the July 15-16 attempt, the critical point came when President Erdogan, whose fate had been unknown for a few hours, reappeared in person and spoke, in a private TV channel, through FaceTime on a smartphone! His brief talk with the journalist on duty went viral. That was the beginning of the tide towards rejecting the coup.

Psychologically, the viewers and listeners, regardless of their political convictions, felt reassured by the presence of a leader whose face they could recognise, as opposed to nameless and faceless adventurers. Erdogan adroitly seized in the following hours the opportunity to mobilise the masses, using the fear dialectic – “the coup is not over, the enemy may try again soon.” This time, only his fans followed suit.

This is now history. There is lack of clarity about the past, but there is also much opacity concerning the future.

The predictable outcomes are the strengthening of the position of Erdogan as political leader, his further control over the military, and the eradication of the Hizmet movement from the state and the business community. Also, a temporary cease-fire by his American and European critics, who have no choice but to publicly support a legitimately-elected leader fighting anarchy.

And, not negligible, the elevation in the popular imagination of Erdogan to the status of national hero and father of the nation, a position comparable only to that of Ataturk. These conditions are favourable to the materialisation of his ultimate goal: becoming the first president of the country to have full executive powers and to change the Constitution according to his vision of Turkey.

But there also are many dark zones, difficult to explore at the present time. The government has succeeded in forcing its rivals to their knees. How many are they? Researchers have advanced in the past an estimate of 10 percent or more of the population. This would roughly be translated into one AKP voter out of five. This may mean internal struggle in the future, especially after the exclusion of thousands of Gülenists from the ranks of prominent party members, state officials and judges.

The failure of the coup provides increased control by the government over the military. This may not be acceptable to many officers, who have been groomed to a political and state governance philosophy formulated by Ataturk.

Moreover, the loss of face among the army corps is most likely not limited to the perpetrators of the coup. It creates ambiguity about discipline within the armed forces, their chain of command, and their capability to carry out successfully a sensitive operation. Resentment is probably brewing among these professionals.

The sanitisation of the society from the ‘cancer virus’ of Gülen and his people, as Erdogan put it, will force tens of thousands of men and women into unemployment, alienation from their skill areas, misery and hatred.

Will these effects be imperceptible, or will they pave the way towards further polarisation of a population that has already begun drifting towards a segmentation that will increasingly divide social, professional, economic, ethnic, and religious groups?

Meanwhile, the real unknown factor in the post-coup period is the true mind set of the 50 percent of the Turks who did not elect AKP in November 2015. For them, a military dictatorship was an abject alternative. But this does not mean they are thrilled with the status quo. The actual prime minister, Binali Yildirim, will have to master the skills of a prestidigitator in order to keep the country together. [IDN-InDepthNews – 21 July 2016]

IDN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate.

Photo: A view of the street demonstration against the coup on 17 July 2016. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Related Posts

Begin typing your search term above and press enter to search. Press ESC to cancel.

Back To Top