To the relief of most Turks and of most of the global community, the military coup attempt in Turkey failed miserably. But the coup attempt itself and subsequent events in Turkey raise a number of questions that are of concern to Turks and the well-wishers of that geopolitically important country. While the elected government of President Erdogan deserved to survive, it does not follow that, in that process, democracy in Turkey got strengthened. If the coup had succeeded, Turkey would have entered an unchartered and perilous territory. It now appears that Turkey is being led by Erdogan in a direction that is dangerous for the country.
To briefly recall the events in chronological order: When the coup started with rebel military units taking control over the Bosporus Bridge linking Asia and Europe at 10:29 p.m. local time on Friday, 15 July 2016, President Erdogan was holidaying in the beach resort of Mirmaris. The rebels took control of some airports and traffic hubs, bombed the parliament and deployed tanks in front of the palace of the President in Ankara. The rebels got the state television to read out their statement by 11:25 p.m., in which they claimed that they had taken over power and advised the people to remain indoors. Only a few minutes later, it became known that the army chief was under detention. By 11:47 p.m., Erdogan whose whereabouts was unknown, availed of his smart phone to address the people through private TV channels. He told the people that he was in charge and exhorted them to come out into the street and defy the ban imposed by the rebels. The mosques too got active and the faithful were told to be on the street to confront the tanks of the rebels. Hundreds responded, the rebels got cold feet, and many of them were beaten up by the enraged citizens. By 03:20 a.m., Erdogan’s business jet landed at Istanbul airport which had been secured by his supporters. By 04:00 a.m., Erdogan addressed the nation on television. By 06:39 a.m., he addressed a large crowd on the street. And by 06:49 a.m., the rebels guarding the Bosporus Bridge surrendered themselves to the police and the people, marking the collapse of the coup. In short, the coup started to collapse when Erdogan talked to the people through his smart phone and the collapse was completed in practical terms when the rebels surrendered at the Bosporus.
The coup failed for a number of reasons, the most important being Erdogan’s resilience and ability to think out of the box. In 2013, when he was weathering a political storm arising from allegations of corruptions against ministers and officials close to him, Erdogan had spoken of his contempt and hatred for the social media and had threatened to close down twitter. If the coup leaders had put down the internet, Erdogan would not have been able to tell the public that he was safe and that they should come out into the street and confront the rebels. By the same reasoning, if the rebels had shut down the private television channels, Erdogan would not have addressed the public from Istanbul airport. In short, if the rebels had acted smartly, the course of history might have been different. It does not follow, however, that even if the rebels had taken physical control of Erdogan, they would have succeeded in taking control of Turkey.
In all this, there is one matter that is rather intriguing. Reuters has reported that two F16 jets surrounded the business jet of Erdogan and that they could have destroyed the president’s aircraft. We do not know the facts, but it is possible that the report originating from Turkish sources was a ‘spin’ to suggest that Erdogan was under divine protection.
Scholars have listed a few other reasons for the failure of the coup: lack of support from the military as a whole; lack of public support; the facelessness of the coup with no known leader projected; and the lack of preparation. All the listed reasons make sense, but the essential fact is that a charismatic Erdogan acted infinitely smarter than the rather clumsy coup leaders.
We still do not know what motivated and who inspired the coup. The only statement we have is the one read out on state television, which claimed that the Turkish Armed Forces “have completely taken over the administration of the country to reinstate constitutional order, human rights and freedoms, the rule of law and general security that was damaged.” Further, a curfew, martial law and the preparation for a new constitution were announced. The rebels also claimed in the statement that they had established a Peace Council at Home, a clear invocation of Ataturk who declared in 1931 ‘Yurtta sulh, cihanda sulh’ (Peace at Home and Peace in the World), a declaration that guided Turkey’s foreign policy during his rule. Obviously, through his interference in Syria and other actions, Erdogan had departed from the policy of Ataturk. However, we do not know whether the invocation of Ataturk was more for propaganda than for anything else.
There is another possible explanation for the timing of the coup. After the coup collapsed, Erdogan had said that it was a gift from God giving him an opportunity to ‘cleanse’ the system of the ‘cancer’ that was spreading. On 16 July, the day the coup collapsed, as many as 2745 judges were sacked. The arrest and sacking of suspected persons has been proceeding briskly. By 19 July, more than 15,000 education staff have been suspended; more than 1500 university deans have been asked to resign; 6,000 military personnel have been arrested, with more than two dozen generals awaiting trial; 9,000 police officers have been sacked; 3,000 judges have been sacked; 24 radio and television channels have been de-licensed; 250 people in the Prime Minister’s Office have been sacked; and Col. Ali Yazici in the President’s office has been sacked. The final tally, as on 20 July, is 50,000 people sacked, suspended, or arrested. This number may increase further with time.
Obviously, it follows that the government has been preparing for a while a list of persons to be sacked. That list included many names in the military. It has been reported that there was a rumour that the purge in the military was to start by 16 July. The question is whether some officers who feared being sacked decided to pre-empt their sacking by resorting to a coup? We have to await more facts before coming to any definite conclusion.
Erdogan has blamed Fehtullah Gulen, living in self-chosen exile in Pennsylvania since 1999, as the instigator of the coup. Even when the coup was on and it was far from certain that it was going to collapse, Erdogan’s followers had accused Gulen. In fact, one minister even said that the US was behind the coup.
Erdogan and Gulen were strongly knit allies for many years until 2013 when a corruption scandal erupted and Gulen’s followers in the judicial system and the police conducted investigations on ministers and officials close to Erdogan. Fifty-two individuals including family members of cabinet ministers were questioned. Fourteen were accused of bribery, corruption, fraud, money laundering, and gold smuggling. Many among the suspects are close friends of Bilal, Erdogan’s son. In March 2016, Bilal, who was doing a PhD at Johns Hopkins at Bologna (Italy), abandoned his studies as Italian prosecutors started investigating him following a case brought Murat Hakan Huzan, a Turkish businessman opposed to Erdogan. In February 2014, Turkey was stunned by an audio recording posted on YouTube in which Erdogan tells his son Bilal to get rid of tens of millions of dollars as investigators might come to his house. Erdogan denounced the recording as a “vile montage.” Obviously, it is rather simplistic to say that Erdogan and Gulen fell out because of the latter’s followers leveling corruption charges against persons close to Erdogan. The more pertinent question is why did Gulen’s followers do what they did? We do not have the answer as yet. The fall out might have started earlier.
Erdogan has spoken to Obama asking for the extradition of Gulen. Erdogan’s argument is that he has been agreeing to extradition requests from the US without insisting on evidence. Turkey has sent a dossier on Gulen to the US. We do not know the contents thereof. The official US position is that any demand will be dealt with on merit. On the whole, it would appear that some of Gulen’s followers were involved in the coup, but it does not follow that Gulen asked them to do it.
Another matter that has come up is the question of death penalty. In 2004, when the Kurdish leader Ocalan, kidnapped from Kenya by the CIA and its Turkish counterpart, was sentenced to death, Turkey was told by the European Union that a state that had the death penalty on its statute would not be admitted. Erdogan yielded and Turkey abolished the death penalty. Erdogan has signaled that he wants to restore the penalty. “Why should,” he asks, “the state feed these traitors till they die?” EU has repeated its warning about the death penalty. It seems likely that Erdogan has calculated, not incorrectly, that Turkey has no chance of getting into the EU even without the death penalty on its statute.
Will there be any changes in Turkey’s foreign policy after the failed coup? It seems unlikely. But the crackdown on dissent has already placed some strains on Turkey’s relations with the EU and US. Though the West has traditionally managed to keep cordial relations with autocrats in the third world, it will be increasingly difficult to do so with one in Europe.
There is also the danger that Gulen’s followers who have not resorted to violence so far might change their mind in the face of persecution and given Erdogan’s preference for suppression we do not know what might be in store for Turkey.
The Turkish lira fell by five percent against US Dollar on the day after the coup but has recovered slightly. Moody’s has started scrutinizing the credit status of the country. There is no reason to disagree that the failed coup and Erdogan’s subsequent actions have been bad news for the Turkish economy in general, especially in terms of foreign investment and tourism. The education system might need some time to recover after such a heavy hemorrhage.
In 1887, Lord Acton wrote, “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Unless Erdogan does some course correction soon, he might be preparing the ground for a better prepared coup sooner or later.
Editor’s Note: The above article was initially published on the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses Website. This article also appeared on August 7, 2016 on Ambassador Fabian: Reflections on International Policies, Books & Lives, a website featuring commentary by Ambassador KP Fabian. It was reproduced here with the consent of Ambassador Fabian.