By Afro-Middle East Centre
The evening of Friday, 15 July, saw one of the most severe attacks on Turkey’s democracy since 1997, as a small faction of the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) attempted to wrestle control of the state. With more than 200 people killed and 1 500 wounded, a state of emergency was declared days later for a period of three months. As the government began its clampdown against those it accuses of being participants in or complicit with the coup attempt, questions have already been raised about the nature of the democratic process in Turkey, the clampdown by the state, and the stability of the strategically important Eurasian country in an already politically volatile region. Much of this discussion is spiced with a range of conspiracy theories.
How the coup attempt unfolded
The coup operation began around 19:30 Turkish time, and was initially met with shock as many citizens assumed the military presence suggested an imminent terrorist threat; the terrorist attack on Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport two weeks earlier was still fresh in Turkish minds. But as tanks rolled onto two Bosphorus bridges in Istanbul, and social media showed military planes flying low over Istanbul and Ankara, it was clear something was awry. A short while later Prime Minister Binali Yildirim confirmed that Turkey was under threat of a coup d'état. The coup plotters did not, however, expect a strong civilian opposition to tanks, attack helicopters and armoured vehicles. After President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s public call on citizens to oppose the military action by those he claimed were members of the movement of US-based Turkish businessperson and preacher Fethullah Gulen, Istanbul and Ankara streets became sites of determined civilian resistance.
The coup plot seemed to have been organised well in advance, and was supported by a significant number of senior officers of the TSK’s air, navy and ground forces. Importantly, the chief of staff, and the heads of the airforce, naval and ground troops refused to cooperate with the plotters, resulting in the breakdown of communication within the army. Had the heads of these strategic arms of the army cooperated, a substantially different picture might have emerged. The putschists incorrectly assumed that they would receive the support of a significant part of the armed forces.
The execution of the plot seemed to have been accelerated by about six hours because of security warnings issued by the National Intelligence Organization (MIT) to senior TSK commanders that afternoon. The operation was planned to begin in the early hours of Saturday morning. The confusion resulting from the change of plan helped make the coup a failure. Another failure followed the disorientation of conscript soldiers who faced public resistance, and who were unaware of the intentions of the putschists, having been told they would be performing an anti-terror exercise. The plotters’ strategy was severely weakened by the fact that they failed to shut down satellite communications, and media was was able to broadcast messages from the prime minister. Further, they seem to have been blindsided by the calls from minarets around the country for civilians to oppose the coup. The Turkish media played a major role in encouraging resistance to the coup, and, in a rare show of unity, media outlets from across the political spectrum declared the coup illegal and a threat to Turkey’s democracy. (In contrast, some western and Arab media such as CNBC and Al Ahram falsely reported Friday night that Erdogan had fled, and sought asylum in Germany.)
Whose coup is it anyway?
From the first announcement about the unfolding coup by Erdogan, Yildirim and other government sources linked the operation to Gulen and his Hizmet movement. His followers around the world are estimated at between three and six million. US court records estimate his institutions’ worth as being between 20 and 50 billion dollars in the USA alone. Some figures put the total global assets as 150 billion dollars. Some opposition groups, notably the fiercely secular Hurriyet newspaper and the opposition Republican Party (CHP) – both extremely critical of Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) – also pointed fingers at Hizmet. Hurriyet’s Ahmet Hakan, one of the loudest critics of the AKP and Erdogan, also dismissed the theory posited in western media that the president had planned the coup to strengthen his grip over the state. A number of other theories also allege conspiracies, with some accusing the USA, including the claim that the CIA had plotted with Gulen; and others adding that the MIT had been pre-emptively informed of the coup by the Russians as part of their attempt to strengthen relations with Turkey. These theories were spurred on by the fact that western politicians waited for the coup to fail before condemning it, and that the aircraft involved in the coup took off from Incirlik military airbase where the US airforce fighting the Islamic State group (IS) is based.
The timing of the coup attempt is likely linked to the fact that the government already had plans to shake up the top ranks of the army before the end of 2016, with a number of officers, it is suspected, being dismissed, retired or tried. In addition, the annual meeting of the Supreme Council of Ministers, which is tasked with the appointment of military personnel, is to take place in August 2016, and Gulenists expected that meeting to result in a purge of their members in the army. An MIT list of alleged Gulen ‘infiltrators’ was to be used at the meeting, and it is likely that a number of the putschists’ names were on that list. The July coup would, then, have been their last opportunity to protect their positions and oppose Erdogan and the government. Many of the coup plotters, government sources claim, had graduated from Hizmet schools.
The Gulen-AKP alliance and split
The Gulen movement – now outlawed in Turkey as a terrorist organisation – has a long history in Turkish politics dating back to the early 1970s when Gulen's exceptional oratory skills made him a popular preacher, and his network of schools was started. Gulen’s views on the need to mainstream Islam within the major organs of the state in the 1980s, when the Turkish state was a secular fundamentalist state ruled by an anti-religious military junta, gained it favour with Islamists such as those from Necmettin Erbakan’s MilliGorus (Felicity) Islamic Party. Erdogan, a former student of Erbakan, became the mayor of Istanbul in 1996 on a MiliGorus ticket. Although Erbakan remained sceptical of Gulen’s ideology, the AKP, a MiliGorus breakaway that won national elections in 2002, perceived Gulen as an ally against a hostile state that positioned the military as the guardian of the republic.
Erdogan saw Gulen as politically significant precisely because Hizmet, although never openly contesting for space on the Turkish political stage in its forty-year history, was regarded as apolitical. This perception allowed the preacher to cross the boundaries between politics, religion, power and influence. A core arm of Hizmet is its huge school network which includes around 930 schools in Turkey – many catering to the upper echelons of Turkish society, and whose graduates have occupied significant positions in the state apparatus since the mid-1980s, as well as about 2 000 schools in 160 other countries around the world, including South Africa. These cater for a total of around 1.2 million students.
There is little doubt that Gulen wields significant influence, and that millions of dollars flow through his global education network and associated business, media and other organisations. The ease with which Gulen schools operate around the world, employing hundreds of teachers, enrolling thousands of students, and with strong government and civil society contacts, has resulted in allegations that its activities are convenient for intelligence gathering and exercising political influence. Unlike various Middle East Islamist parties which have usually been met with sanctions, Hizmet has become an influential lobby in the USA. It cultivates the image of a ‘moderate’ Muslim group led by a ‘moderate’ Muslim personality who focuses on what Hizmet calls ‘cultural Islam’ – as opposed to ‘political Islam’ . This brand of Islam made Gulen popular in the West, particularly in post-9/11 USA where Gulen became a significant voice in the US ‘war against terror’.
The Gulenist emphasis on interfaith dialogue and its relaxed attitude in some circumstances on issues like alcohol attracted the attention of states that view Erdogan and the AKP as more extreme. As important for his critics is the fact that Gulen never criticised Israeli policies or US foreign policy in the Middle East – even when this seemed detrimental to Turkish interests. Gulen was scathing in his criticism of the ‘Freedom Flotilla’ that attempted to ferry aid to the besieged Palestinian territory of Gaza. In contrast to global condemnation of the murder of nine (Turkish) civilians on board the Mavi Marmara, the lead ship in the 2010 Freedom Flotilla, by Israeli security forces, Gulen blamed flotilla organisers because they did not obtain Israeli permission. He also said those in the flotilla knew that they had put their lives at risk, suggesting they deserved the treatment they received from the Israelis.
The AKP’s first decade in power helped strengthen Gulen’s power base in Turkey. The AKP-Hizmet alliance proved useful for both parties – even after Gulen criticised Erdogan for the Mavi Marmara debacle – until 2012 when MIT head Hakan Fidan was arrested. Fidan was leading secret peace talks with the leader of the banned Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), Abdullah Ocalan. The arrest was seen by the government as an attempt at sabotage by Gulenists within the judiciary who were loathe to see reconciliation between the Kurdish rebel group and the state. In response, the government sponsored a bill which, after it was passed in 2014, threatened closure of Hizmet’s chain of preparatory schools in Turkey. This was followed by corruption allegations against AKP politicians, leading to the arrests of top AKP officials, and a number of resignations and dismissals of officials. The AKP alleged this was a campaign by Gulenists in the judiciary who were part of what the AKP began calling a ‘parallel state’. Relations between the former allies descended into distrust and acrimony, with tit-for-tat actions that included banning of pro-Gulen media and judicial attacks against AKP members.
Aftermath and impact
The most obvious result of 15 July was the mass arrests that include people from the military, police, judiciary and the education sector. The coup attempt provided the AKP government an opportunity to crush Hizmet and get rid of its members in state structures, and also to clamp down on other dissenting voices. Around 10 000 people have been detained, with around 9 000 of those being soldiers, and there have been allegations that some detainees are being tortured. In addition, around 40 000 military officials, police officers, judges, governors, teachers and academics have been suspended or dismissed.
While most Turkish opposition parties have expressed support of the government’s security efforts after the defeat of the coup attempt, various western governments have been vocal in their criticism of the mass arrests and clampdown in Turkey. In particular, European and US spokespersons have repeatedly insisted that Turkey must deal with the coup within the ‘rule of law’ – even before the arrests had begun.
This places Turkey on a collision course with the USA. Although a formal extradition request for Gulen has not yet been submitted to the USA, various Turkish officials – including Erdogan – have emphasised that it will be. US officials, including secretary of state John Kerry, have responded by insisting that such a request will only be considered if sufficient evidence is provided that Gulen is guilty as claimed. Relations between Turkey and the USA – fellow NATO members and ostensible allies – have been rocky for the past few years. Despite the US use of Turkey’s Incirlik airforce base to launch attacks against IS, the relationship is fraught. An extradition demand, together with the warming of relations with Russia, will likely make US-Turkish relations even more tenuous.
Turkey’s relations with the European Union and various EU member states are also likely to sour. Erdogan’s ignoring of European demands regarding the mass arrests are set to be significantly readjusted. Anti-EU sentiment has risen in Turkey, reflected in the opinion columns of newspapers. This is a result of what many in Turkey see as the hypocritical stance by the EU that was reflected in its slow reaction to the attempted coup, and threats that Turkey might will disqualify itself for EU accession should it reinstate the death penalty will help ensure that Turkey becomes even more distant from the possibility of EU membership. However, the manner in which . Turkish officials believe that if their country had not been able to join the EU after fifty-three years, it is unlikely to succeed now. EU accession has been used as a carrot by the bloc and its members, they believe, to garner Turkish support in the Middle East with little benefit to Turkey. Turkey, meanwhile, has been a benefactor for NATO states. With Turkey’s interest in the EU waning, the country seems more concerned in rebuilding relations with its neighbours.
Relations with Russia are set to improve. The coup attempt came three weeks after Turkey began a rapprochement with Russia, following a break in relations after Turkey’s downing of a Russian fighter jet. Turkish-Russian relations have been tested by Russia’s airstrikes on the Turkmen region of Bayirbucak in Northern Syria. However, the soldiers responsible for downing the Russian jet have been arrested on suspicion of being part of the coup network. Some Russian officials suggest that their government has accepted the Turkish version that the Russian jet was shot down as part of a Gulen plot. Russia having been one of the first governments to condemn the coup, and with Erdogan and Russian president, Vladimir Putin, set to meet in weeks, Turkey will seek to advance its political and economic relationship with Russia. Turkey’s suggestion that it will improve relations with Syria will likely be taken forward – with Russian help. And relations with Iran – with whom there is already booming trade – will also likely improve.
A key question relates to the seeming intelligence failure that allowed the plot to proceed as far as it did. Erdogan’s irritation at the lack of intelligence has been plain. Fidan’s role as MIT head will likely be reviewed, with questions already raised about why, if Fidan’s office had information about the plot, it was not timeously directed to the presidency.
The instability in the intelligence sector and armed forces will definitely impact upon Turkey’s war on the PKK, with the Kurdish group being handed an opportunity as a large number of senior officers are removed from the army. As the instability is exploited by Turkey’s southern nemesis, Syria’s president, Bashar al-Asad, matters will be further complicated for Turkey by the PKK’s links to the Syrian Democratic Union Party (PYD). Syria has, previously, successfully used Kurdish grievances against the Turkish state.
Domestically, the AKP will use the fallout from the attempted coup to its advantage. With Erdogan riding a wave as a saviour of Turkish democracy, it is possible that at the end of the state of emergency there will be either a snap election or a constitutional referendum on the question of a presidential system, which Erdogan could not have won before the coup attempt but which could now turn out favourably for him. Already there are indications that most opposition parties will support constitutional amendments, although it is unclear what precise amendments they are referring to.
There is no doubt that after the dust has settled in the squares and the sense of unity that is generally being felt across the country in response to the coup becomes less tangible, Turkey will be faced with greater challenges than the overt violence of a week ago. The Turkish state is fragile, and state institutions could either be stabilised or could further weaken as a result of the current purges. Should the Gulen movement be legally charged with subversion, its networks in Turkey and globally could be seriously affected. This could have implications for Turkey’s foreign relations, especially its policy towards countries that maintain links with the Hizmet movement, and, in particular, with the USA where Gulen resides. Turkey’s view of and its role within NATO could also be considered more carefully, given that no assistance was given to a member whose institutions were being attacked from the air by hostile forces. Whether Turkey will be able to weather the storm in the long term will depend on the willingness of all political forces to cooperate in the best interests of the broader society, and whether the government considers the rights of its citizens as important as it does the security of the state. Of course, as long as the legitimate grievances of its Kurdish population are not addressed, the Turkish state will remain in a state of uncertainty and instability. It also remains to be seen whether Turkey decides to reprioritise its domestic and regional imperatives over those of its global alliances.