1:50 AM Not all of the rebel soldiers have surrendered yet, but the government seems firmly in control. The Kemalist era in Turkish history lasted for almost 100 years, but finally came to an end in the last 18 hours. The Turkish military, it appears, has lost the role of ‘guardian of the nation’ which it assumed in the interest of making Turkey a modern European country. Atatürk’s Turkey marginalized the pious Anatolian peasants; now their grandchildren and great grandchildren are building a new Turkey. They see themselves storming the citadels of cosmopolitan, urban privilege in much the same way that Sultan Mehmet Fatih, the Conqueror, took Constantinople from the last Byzantine emperor. They have come to the cities like Mehmet and his warriors, and they are remaking them in their image.
One of the things that Ataturk gave Turkey was stability. In late Ottoman times Turkey was embroiled in endless wars, and vicious ethnic and religious conflicts between Christian Greeks and Armenians and Muslim Turks scarred the land. The great retreat of Islam and Ottoman power from the Balkans and southern Russia sent millions of penniless refugees fleeing into Anatolia. In a last great orgy of killing and ethnic cleansing, Turkish power was destroyed in the Balkans beyond Thrace and the hundreds of thousands of Greeks and Armenians were murdered or driven away — as hundreds of thousands of Turks fled or were forced to flee Europe. The Ottoman Empire was destroyed in the Great War; Kemal Ataturk rallied the remnants of the nation, defeated a Greek invasion, forced the Allies out of Constantinople and made Turkey a secular republic and an ethnic nation state on the European plan.
The wars of Anatolia never quite came to an end; there were violent encounters with the Alevi, there has been a long, slow burning war with the Kurds. But on the whole, Ataturk’s republic minded its own business and concentrated on the work of developing its human and natural resources.
Kemalist Turkey died of success. Its goal was to educate the Turkish people and raise their standard of living. As that mission was accomplished, as electricity and schools spread out across the vast spaces of rural Anatolia, a new consciousness was born. In Ankara and Istanbul the generals, the statesmen and the businessmen lived international and largely secular lives. Women went bareheaded, and, for the daughters of the upper middle class, the freedom of western secular life beckoned. But in the cities and villages far from the metropolitan centers, in places like Konya and Gaziantep, something else was happening. New Turks were coming onto the scene: armed with the education and the business acumen of the modern world, but steeped in the piety of their roots. For the Kemalists, achieving modernity was an urgent and necessary task. Turkey was being ripped into pieces by the imperial western powers. Like Japan in the 1850s, Turkey either had to learn from the west or be conquered by it. As ruthlessly as the leaders of the Meiji Restoration, the Kemalists made war on everything that kept Turkey backward, determined to build a modern state that could defend itself. The power of organized Islam was, for the Kemalists, one of the forces that a modernizing Turkey had to overcome.
For the New Turks, that is all old hat. Turkey has a modern economy and a modern state; these are no longer distant goals to be struggled for; they are assets to be deployed. And there is no need anymore, they believe, to suppress their Islamic identity and piety. The word ‘Istanbul’ is said to come from the old Greek expression, ‘eis ten polin’, ‘to the city’. Turks have been traveling toward the city for hundreds of years, and now they have arrived.
To a foreigner, their choice of Erdogan as leader is a sign that the Turks have not made it all the way to the city just yet. He strikes Europeans and Americans as a rube and a bully, an expression of a political culture that is still immature. He looks like a menace to democracy and a throwback to a more primitive form of politics. But to millions of Turks, he is something else: a man of the people who has never forgotten where he came from, and who is working to help others follow in his footsteps. He is rough and assertive because those are the qualities you need in the hard world of crushing work that for many Turkish people is a basic fact of life.
What the New Turks will make of themselves and their country, we do not know. But the failure of yesterday’s coup means that nobody can stop them from doing what they want. We can hope that the New Turks will ultimately take the flawed and imperfect Kemalist democracy and make it a more vivid and popular democracy, and we can hope that the example of a successful democratic society in the Muslim world will spread from Turkey to neighboring states. Life is rarely that simple, though, and it appears that there will be more populism and authoritarianism than Madisonian republicanism in Turkey’s immediate future. One hopes that Erdogan and his allies will take note of the loyalty that other democratic parties displayed to the constitutional order during the coup, and that the worrying tendency toward personal rule will give place to a new appreciation of constitutional order. One hopes, but one does not expect.
Turkey is not out of the woods, The war in Syria and the tension in the region have the power to destabilize Turkey. With wars against ISIS and the Kurds to the south and east, and with a rising Iran challenging the regional balance of power, Turkey has more than enough to worry about. The tensions between Sunni Turkish nationalism and the Alevi and Kurdish minorities continue to threaten the country, and with millions of refugees from Syria crossing the frontiers, Turkey faces an avalance of social and political problems. Meanwhile the regional economy is a disaster; with Syria, Iraq and Greece as neighbors, making Turkey prosperous is not an easy job.
President Erdogan will have plenty to think about as he settles back into his palace. We congratulate him on his survival, and we wish him wisdom and peace.
10:16 PM Dawn breaking in Ankara. Gunfire continues. Coup seems to have no hope of victory, but given the threats of vengeance coming from Erdogan and allies, there is little incentive for failed coup plotters to stand down. Erdogan claims that the place in which he’d been staying on vacation was bombed shortly after he left it. If so, this could be a sign that the coup plotters hoped to eliminate him early, simplifying their task of taking over government. Isolating, killing or otherwise incapacitating the current ruler is one of the subjects you study in Coup 101; it is, however, easier to imagine a perfect plot in your head than it is to make one work on the ground.
9:30 PM Erdogan now broadcasting threats of dire punishment and retribution to all involved in the coup attempt. He’s unlikely to stop with the officers who organized it; Erdogan sounds as if he will take full advantage of the opportunity to fill the ranks with his loyalists.
9:11 PM The main question now in Turkey is what happens next. The most likely scenario, and it is an ugly one, is that Erdogan and his followers use the putsch to consolidate the strong man rule that Erdogan clearly hungers to build. Purges of real or accused Gülenists from the military, journalism and civil service, crackdowns on any public criticism, constitutional ‘reform’ that reduces freedom and shores up Erdogan’s personal power: these goals will all now be easier to accomplish. There is a more hopeful alternative: that the commitment to democracy and the spirit of civic activism that helped break the coup attempt will stay mobilized and push Turkey back toward the goal of democratization which so many of its people share. Over the years I’ve traveled across Turkey and through Turkey for both business and pleasure; few countries can match its mix of scenic beauty, fantastic cuisine and friendly people. Compared to most of the countries in its region, Turkey has long been an oasis of tolerance and respect, and it remains a model for countries wishing to embrace modernity without losing touch with tradition. It has its share of problems, and these are well known, but as someone who has seen Turkey from Trabzon to Cappadocia, from Gallipoli to Adana, and who has driven from the mountainous east to the stunning Mediterranean coast, I can’t help wishing Turkey well, and hoping for the best.
8:58 PM Adjacent Hürriyet facilities also taken over by coup supporters.
8:54 PM It isn’t over until it’s over. Explosion at Atatürk Airport after Erdogan lands, and the military seems to have taken over the CNN studios.
8:37 PM In our last historical update (7:55 PM), we looked at Erdogan’s increasingly autocratic tendencies. Here are some other factors that may have been at work in the coup:
- As Erdogan has grown more autocratic, he has also grown increasingly erratic and megalomanaical. He built himself a palace four times the size of Versailles in Ankara (it’s been attacked several times tonight, per reports) that he defended with outlandish claims such as that he did it to save Ankara from pollution. He acquired another palace, this time the former home of a 19th century Ottoman sultan, in Istanbul. And who can forget his dress-up palace (Sultan’s?) guard:
— Nicholas Gallagher (@ngallagherAI) July 15, 2016
- In another series of bizarre episodes, Erdogan sued a German comic who read an obscene poem about him over the air, thus invoking the Streisand effect: thousands-fold more attention was paid to the incident, in which the President was accused of pederasty and a predilection for goats, than otherwise would have been. (Boris Johnson even won a limerick contest about it—something that may cause awkwardness for the new British Foreign Minister if Erdogan survives the coup.) He refused to let it drop, went on to seek an injunction against a major German media mogul for commenting on the incident, and then demanded Geneva get rid of artwork criticizing him, again provoking media storms each time. Erdogan was turning into the princess that really felt the pea. Meanwhile…
- Fighting the Kurds has never been something that the strongly nationalist Turkish military blames a President for. But picking a fight with them for personal gain (see the 7:55PM post) and then losing, as Erdogan has been doing lately, is a different story. Weakness breeds contempt. (It also probably doesn’t help that Erdogan and his cronies have occasionally spoken of the Kurds in barely-veiled threats of genocide—which looks both evil and hysterical at the same time.)
- And then Turkey shot down a Russian plane this fall over what was claimed to be Turkish airspace, prompting brief near war-level tensions between the two nations and months of frostiness. Then, hurting from a slowing economy that Russian sanctions weren’t helping, Erdogan had to back down. Again, not a strong look.
Any and all of this may have contributed. In another update, we will discuss the role of the refugee crisis and Syria—another thorny set of issues where ultimately, Erdogan probably eroded both trust and fear.
8:27 PM As Turkish coup slowly subsides into a putsch, it seems clear that the organizers made some key mistakes.
- They had too small a base of support in the military. In a country like Turkey, overwhelming military force is necessary for a coup to have much chance of success. Planes, tanks, marching rows of soldiers: the show of force needed to be massive, a clear indication that the organized weight of the entire military machine was involved in the coup.
- They failed to coordinate with the political opposition. If the opposition parties had been ready to offer democratic and political legitimacy, and street demonstrators had supported rather than opposed the troops, they might have had better success.
- They failed to develop a strategy to neutralize religion. If, as Erdogan supporters say, the Gülen movement supported the coup, they needed to organize a program of ‘Muslims for Military Rule” who could counter the pro-AK imams in the mosques and offered religious legitimacy to the coup forces.
In days gone by, when Turkish civil society was less robust and when broadcasting and communications facilities were more centralized and more easily taken and held, a tightly organized small force might have been able to take over the country. That is no longer true.
8:23 PM Your tax dollars at work:
Ban Ki-moon is following closely and with concern the fast-moving developments in Turkey. https://t.co/3wvPKXfVS6
— United Nations (@UN) July 16, 2016
8:11 PM What may be Erdogan’s plane is headed for Istanbul… apparently. The government has clearly regained its political balance; spokesmen are flooding the zone with stories that everything is under control.
7:58 PM Momentum continuing to desert what some commentators are already calling the ‘putschists’ behind the Turkish coup. Captured senior officials have been rescued, television stations retaken. Unless momentum shifts again, Schrödinger’s Cat may soon be giving up the ghost.
7:55 PM With Kerry now calling for respect for the democratically elected government of Turkey, it’s time for another historical update: just how democratic is the current Turkish government? As TAI‘s Nicholas M. Gallagher has noted on Twitter:
Friendly reminder: Erdogan was in the process of gutting his country's Constitution, and had reignited a civil war to legitimize his 1/
— Nicholas Gallagher (@ngallagherAI) July 15, 2016
attempt to do so. That may or may not justify the coup, but it’s a vital component of what’s going on here. Erdogan served as Turkey’s Prime Minister from 2003-2014. When he ran up against the Prime Ministership’s term limits, he ran for and won Turkey’s ceremonial Presidency, on a more or less open plan to transform it into the center of the country’s political power. But in order to do that, he had to win a supermajority in Parliament, which would let him alter the country’s constitution. Not only did he fail to do this in the June 2015 elections, but to the great shock of many, he failed even to retain a Parliamentary majority for the AKP. Largely, this was because the Kurdish party, the HDP, won enough protest votes to cross the 10% threshhold for entering Parliament (set that high largely to keep it out.)
So Erdogan maneuvered to prevent the formation of a coalition government and throw the question back to the people for a November do-over election. In the months that intervened, Erdogan, who had spent much of his early career mending fences between ethnic Turks and Turkish Kurds, turned tensions between the two groups, which he had already been playing on before the June elections, up to the point where regular violence erupted internally. The result: AKP won a strong majority back, if not a super-majority. But by that point, Erdogan cared less and less about keeping up Constitutional appearances.
Meanwhile, the Turkish justice ministry submitted a measure to Parliament that would lift the immunity of the leaders of the Kurdish HDP Party. The leaders have immunity as Members of Parliament; Erdogan is now alleging that the HDP (which thwarted AKP ambitions in the first of two elections last year, but not the second) is an offshoot of the PKK, the armed Kurdish group.
And on Friday, the Turkish government seized control of Today’s Zaman, the largest circulation paper in the country. The paper has been linked to the Gulenist movement, which is also opposed to Erdogan. It’s also one of the more important and influential opposition sources: we cited a story Zaman (after checking it) just the day before it was closed.
Seizures of opposition media sources became more and more common, while Erdogan concentrated power within the state and within his AKP party. This culminated in the resignation this spring of Turkey’s nominally-in-charge, increasingly emasculated Prime Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, and the installation of an Erdogan crony in his place. Even before tonight’s coup, the state of Turkish democracy was not good, to put it mildly—and in its own strange way, the Turkish military sees itself as the custodian of the country’s (secular, modern) democratic character. In another update to come soon, we’ll look at other factors that may have driven the military over the edge.
7:49 PM From the Daily Beast: “The Pentagon thinks the coup was attempted by a fairly small faction of the army, and was amateurishly executed, a senior U.S. military official told The Daily Beast. They expect it will be suppressed fairly quickly, but concede there’s still a lot that’s unknown about the mutineers. The official spoke anonymously because he was not authorized to speak about the incident publicly.”
7:47 PM Turkish Prime Minister spokesman blames the uprising on the Gülenists. As to the explosion: “Just some explosions, not a bomb.”
7:45 PM Powerful explosion heard near Taksim Square. This is the main square in Istanbul and is a traditional site for political protests and demonstrations.
7:41 PM More signs that the coup is losing momentum. Senior military officials disassociating themselves from the rising, reports that government forces have retaken television studios in Ankara. Pentagon officials say they expect the coup to be put down fairly quickly.
7:33 PM It’s not actually clear what outcome bodes best for Turkey’s fragile and increasingly endangered democracy. Before the coup, Erdogan was setting world records for locking up journalists; if he holds onto power through the coup he’s unlikely to mellow. More likely, the reverse, and democracy may be the biggest loser, whoever holds power when this settles down. There’s a case to be made (which is not the same thing as supporting the coup) that a military coup offers the greatest hope for Turkish democracy. In the past, the Turkish army has returned to its barracks and restored civilian government.
7:30 PM Gülenists now coming in against the coup. In the last half hour, the momentum seems to be swinging against the coup, but there is much that we still don’t know.
7:28 PM Earlier NBC reports that Erdogan had fled in a plane first to Germany and then to London looking a little less likely now, but his whereabouts are mysterious.
7:25 PM Strong statements from POTUS and DoS suggest that US thinks the coup will fail:
— Department of State (@StateDept) July 15, 2016
7:21 PM Kurds against coups: crowds assemble in major Kurdish city to support the government.
Raucous crowd supports govt in heavily Kurdish city of Diyarbakir, where neither military or Islamists beloved pic.twitter.com/equFLDcbj7
— Borzou Daragahi (@borzou) July 15, 2016
7:19 PM Latest report: Turkish navy commander says he is not backing the coup.
7:14 PM The continuing resistance around the country, organized both from mosques and by pro-democracy movements including opposition forces, will be a problem for the military. Military coups usually need to win fast and win big, or the possibility of failure grows. Worst case scenario: a coup that ignites a civil war. That is what happened in 80 years ago in Spain when a military coup against the republican government ignited the Spanish Civil War. Something like that in Turkey would be an unmitigated disaster.
7:07 PM Here’s some background information from old TAI posts and essays that may be helpful as everyone tries to keep up with the news tonight.
Although the military is the face of this coup, Erdogan’s faction is blaming a group called the Gulenists—followers of an exiled Islamic scholar and former ally of Erdogan’s. There may be something to this, though Gulenists have been blamed for everything that has gone wrong in Turkey for several years now. For a deep dive into the origins of Gulenism, see this essay by Berna Turam. In 2014, a rift opened between the two, one that widened as Erdogan used the Gulenist conspiracy as a combination scapegoat and stalking-horse, blaming it for a scandal and using its supposed machinations to garner more power:
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s recent anti-journalistcrackdown had its origins in a December 2013 corruption scandal that ran right up to the heart of the AKP establishment. Rather than submit to the inquiry, Erdogan launched a year of purges of police and civil servants, claiming a Gulenist conspiracy to overthrow his government.
Stay tuned for more backgrounders on the recent Turkish elections, the refugee crisis, Turkey-Russia tensions, and Erdogan’s increasing megalomania—any or all of which may have helped spur a faction of the military and/or Gulenists to decide it was time for Erdogan to go.
7:03 PM Iran said to have closed its border with Turkey.
Iran: Government Closes Border With Turkey, Reports Say https://t.co/CqHeU9CuwJ
— Alan M Bevin (@AlanMBevin) July 15, 2016
7:00 PM A coup attempt like this one is driven by many different factors: there has certainly been a group of officers thinking about overthrowing the AK government from its earliest days. When that latent discontent becomes active, and when whispering about a coup turns to talking about a coup, making contingency plans and then giving the orders to begin a coup, many things have had to happen. We can’t know, at least not yet, what the thinking was that led the military to launch this final attempt to preserve the Kemalist legacy in Turkey, but there were clearly a number of factors at once.
One is the increasingly erratic and dictatorial behavior of President Erdogan. Like many strong men in the twilight of democracy that seems to be falling over so many countries these days, Erdogan has been taking lessons from Vladimir Putin: pressuring the media, concentrating power into his own hands, punishing attacks on him as attacks against the state. It’s likely that a number of officers who were on the fence about the overall direction of the AK Party have lost personal confidence in Erdogan, and felt that to remove him from power was to save Turkey from falling into the hands of a dictator. (If Erdogan and his allies beat back the coup, this outcome is a distinct possibility.)
Additionally, Erdogan has been quarreling with some of his Islamist allies. In particular, the Gülenist movement, based around the teachings of an elderly Turkish Islamic scholar now living in exile in Pennsylvania, supported the AK Party in its early days. Gülenists, who operate networks of schools and have a presence in the police, courts, civil service and the military, and Erdogan are now at something close to open warfare. The military may be hoping that support from the Gülenists will help contain the backlash from pious Muslims who support Erdogan and fear the return of secular rule.
6:50 PM For those who don’t follow Turkey carefully, the tension between President Erdogan and his AK Party government and the army has deep roots. Modern Turkey was founded as a secular state by Kemal Atatürk in 1923. He overthrew the last Ottoman Sultan-Caliph, replaced traditional law with a secular code, mandated western clothing for both women and men, and replaced the traditional Turkish script (Arabic letters) with the Roman script still used today. The military has seen itself as the guardian of Ataturk’s legacy, and in the past has overthrown governments and banned political parties seen as challenging Turkey’s secular status.
Of all the challengers to the secular legacy, Erdogan has been the most clever, the most determined, and the most successful. This coup represents what is likely the last chance for the military to block the changes Erdogan has been trying to make. The military has staked everything on this coup; if it fails, the Kemalist era in Turkish history will have come to an end.
6:35 PM This is a Schrödinger’s Cat moment for the Turkish coup. We can’t know whether the military takeover will succeed or fail. Turkish society is deeply divided; slightly under half of the population supports Erdogan, but there is also a solid base of support for a secular state. If the coup succeeds, one of the biggest beneficiaries will be Egypt’s Sisi and his government. An anti-Islamist Turkish government would be a powerful ally for Egypt, and likely cement a relationship with Saudi Arabia. Among the big losers: Hamas, which will be almost entirely isolated if its Turkish patrons also fall.
6:30 PM Video of shots apparently fired toward protestors in Istanbul
— Vocal Europe (@thevocaleurope) July 15, 2016
6:28 PM Opposition parties denounce the coup:
CHP and MHP say they oppose the coup. https://t.co/MEkVCY64Tl
— Oren Kessler (@OrenKessler) July 15, 2016
6:23 PM While NBC reports Erdogan en route to London, CNN Türk has the following:
UPDATE Turkish President Erdoğan says there was no attempt against him, he will join public in Istanbul or Ankara. pic.twitter.com/WIE21AYiQq
— CNN Türk ENG (@CNNTURK_ENG) July 15, 2016
6:20 PM Reuters reports tanks firing by Turkish parliament. Other reports of gunfire at the Istanbul airport.
6:17 PM Latest report: Erdogan now flying to London. Mosques across Turkey are calling on people to come out and demonstrate against the coup. Interesting to think of Boris Johnson, author of a prize-winning goat limerick, greeting Erdogan at the airport.
6:10 PM The social media war is becoming more bizarre. Fethullah Gülen, the spiritual leader of the Muslim group that once backed Erdogan but is now fighting him, is giving phone interviews from Pennsylvania. Erdogan is phoning it in to Turkish news media from an undisclosed location. As reports swirl that Erdogan has asked for, and been denied, asylum in Turkey, he is telling reporters that he is still in control.
6:00 PM The revolution may not be televised, but it is being live-tweeted and Facebooked. The Turkish coup is unfolding across social media in real time, with the whole world snatching at scraps of information. From what we can tell so far, the army and the navy appear to be backing the coup; the intelligence services are resisting, and the attitude of the police is unknown. AK party officials have been cleared from party headquarters in Istanbul, but remain active in various places around the country. The mayor of Ankara has joined President Erdogan’s call for citizens to gather in public to resist the coup. The military has declared martial law and told citizens to clear the streets.