How the military coup attempt may change Turkey

The violent bid to oust President Erdoğan has exposed weaknesses in his divisive rule – and could test Turkey's stability at a time of unprecedented threats at home and in the region.

Emilio Morenatti/AP
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (in plaid shirt) leaves an Istanbul mosque Sunday after attending a funeral for people killed Friday while protesting Friday's attempted coup.

The battle for Turkey’s soul, a la President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has been revealed in a flash during a coup attempt.

Bloody footprints still stained Istanbul’s Taksim Square as thousands of Turks heeded the call by President Erdoğan to celebrate a “victory of democracy” over an attempted military coup that failed before dawn on Saturday, just hours after it began.

For a brief period, it looked like the end of Erdoğan’s transformative, controversial rule: soldiers blocked a bridge over the Bosphorus, took over Istanbul’s main airport, attacked the parliament in Ankara, and claimed total control on state TV. 

It was an old-style effort with tanks and guns, defeated by a cellphone video message in which Mr. Erdoğan called on loyalists to pour onto the streets to “protect” their democracy. Pro-Erdoğan Turks swarmed outside, overwhelming the tanks and disarming the soldiers, and losing at least 265 to gunfire as they marched on the would-be putschists.

In a stroke, some members of Turkey’s military – the second-largest force in NATO, and a powerful bastion of secularism that has toppled four civilian governments since 1960 – showed that they were unhappy with Turkey’s Islamist and authoritarian trajectory, and believed they were in a position to stop it.

Yet almost as quickly, the man who for years has fought to eclipse the military’s role in politics in the name of democracy used FaceTime to foil the coup – at the same time exposing the weaknesses of his divisive vision of majoritarian rule. The attempt comes as Turkey faces an unprecedented array of threats, and its stability is critical to a region reeling from the Syrian civil war, the refugee crisis, and the presence of the self-declared Islamic State.

While many argue the event will help Erdoğan consolidate power, as a pretext for further crackdowns against opponents, others note that the coup attempt also reveals cracks in a leadership edifice that, until now, appeared increasingly invincible. Additionally, the swift arrest of more than 6,000 Turkish soldiers and officers showed glaring cleavages within the second-largest military of the NATO alliance. 

"There is huge division in the Turkish military and in Turkish society, and they don’t go away, but they make the person who’s in charge more likely to respond erratically to threats," says Brian Klaas, an expert on coups at the London School of Economics. “It’s hard for Erdoğan to not overreact to threats now. Even if this seems that it was doomed to fail, there was a possibility that he could have been ousted, and he’s not going to take that lightly."

No longer a model

Long forgotten now are the heady days at the start of the Arab Spring uprisings in 2011, when Turkey was viewed as a model to emulate of a strong and enlightened nation, successfully blending Islamist roots and modernity.

Instead, Turkey today is mired in strongman politics, suffering more than a dozen bombings in the past year while it clamps down on Islamic State jihadists and fights Kurdish militants, all the while deeply engaged in a Syrian war that has flooded Turkey with 2.7 million refugees. 

And now, such problems will be compounded for a leader whose longstanding paranoia of plots and conspiracies will be – justifiably, many argue – intensified.

“This aspect of being paranoid [means] he can never focus comfortably on anything, without an eye to, ‘What is the military doing?’” says Mr. Klaas. “When you are making policy, you have to think, ‘Am I going to cross this red line that the military decides to act again, but in a much more robust way next time?’”

Erdoğan called the coup attempt a “gift from God,” because it revealed those still plotting for his overthrow, despite 2-1/2 years of purges in state and security organs of followers of Fethullah Gülen, a cleric and former ally of Erdoğan and the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), who now lives in exile in Pennsylvania. Erdoğan accused Mr. Gülen and his movement for responsibility for the coup, and said relations with the US would be damaged without his extradition to Turkey. Gülen, who has lived in the US for 16 years, denies any role.

Followers of the cleric in the judiciary and the police, known as Gülenists, were instrumental in producing wiretaps in December 2013 that appeared to show high-level corruption, right up to Erdoğan himself. Purges have removed thousands of policemen, prosecutors, and judges accused of loyalty to Gülen. On Saturday, within hours of the attempted coup collapse, officials declared that another 2,745 judges and prosecutors had been dismissed.

The impact of uncertainty

The resulting uncertainty is "going to affect him psychologically,” says Henri Barkey, a Turkey expert and director of the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, speaking in Istanbul. He notes that the AKP believed it had won its tussles with the military by 2007, finally emasculating the institution that had claimed itself the ultimate protector of the secular aspect of the republic since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk founded modern Turkey in 1923.

“So Erdoğan has to think now that the dragon has not been slain,” he says. “And if this happens now, tomorrow it can happen again. How do you prevent that?”

Senior commanders repudiated the coup, but there were humiliating scenes as conscripts ordered out on what they thought was a counter-terrorism mission were captured and sometimes beaten by civilians. Soldiers on the bridge finally gave up at dawn, marching with their hands on their heads; elsewhere they were stripped to their underwear when surrendering.

The fact that July 15 has now been declared a “festival of democracy” anniversary shows a degree of weakness, says Mr. Barkey, by indicating what a momentous event surviving the coup attempt has been.

The AKP has won repeated victories at the ballot box since 2002, but under Erdoğan’s leadership the party, which has Islamist roots, has often applied that mandate as majoritarian rule, angering critics and alienating a substantial portion of Turkish society with non-inclusive measures.

“You have a push and pull now between NATO’s goals and Erdoğan’s goals,” says Klaas. “With many despots, you need to make sure you have a weakened military, to make sure you are going to be top dog,” achieved by rotating generals so no one creates their own independent power base.

“But if you do that, you are basically decapitating the military and its effectiveness,” says Klaas. The result is a “a hugely consequential event, even though it was a failure.”

Strength in the streets

There was something else on display as well, from those who heeded Erdoğan’s call to the streets Friday night.

"I saw something about [Turks] ... I saw their power," says Sadik, a bookseller on Istiklal street who wanted the coup to succeed and Erdoğan to be removed, even if by force.

It wasn't a physical strength he says he saw; otherwise crowds never would have challenged the heavily armed soldiers and risked tank or helicopter fire. It was a fearlessness of the president's supporters, based on belief and faith.

"They were not afraid," says Sadik.

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