international analysis and commentary

The July 15 coup attempt: the aftermath and Turkish democracy


What started out as an ordinary Friday evening, on July 15, abruptly turned into a night of confusion and dread as a clique within the Turkish Armed Forces tried to stage a coup d’état. In the following hours, the lifelines of Istanbul, the two bridges uniting the Asian and European sides of town and Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport were cut off, and multiple targets, such as the Parliament, headquarters of the police forces and the National Intelligence Organization were struck. In tanks, armored personnel carriers, helicopters and jets, the coup plotters targeted and seized control of military bases, municipalities, political party offices and major news channels among others, claiming the lives of dozens of civilians and police officers. As a result of the incidents over 250 people were killed and close to 1500 people injured, according to current numbers.

Fortunately the attempt failed to garner the support of the vast majority of the Armed Forces, and was crushed in the next day. Still, the Turkish public, all too familiar with what coups may entail, found themselves lining up at ATMs to withdraw cash and at markets to stockpile food and water, or in some cases, out on the streets to protest. Whilst military involvement and coups were major parts of Turkish political life in a not too distant future, in recent years it was believed that the government had established a firm control over the military and that coups were a thing of the past. This last episode has given a glimpse of yet another endemic problem of the country to the younger generations.

The coup attempt seems to have been poorly planned and executed. Though it appears that there have been attempts to hit Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, none of the Turkish political leadership was captured or co-opted. The plotters were  unable to gather sufficient support and resources among the military ranks or to coerce them. Nor did the plotters have an effective communication strategy with the public. Furthermore, they miscalculated the reaction that critics of the Turkish government would have – even though considerable portions of the public were against the AKP government, they were vehemently against any military intervention.

It has been suggested that this coup was being planned to take place at a later time, but the plotters had to move up the schedule as they were about to face crackdowns in the upcoming days as part of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government’s fight against the Gülen movement. Fetullah Gülen is a controversial cleric who leads the Hizmet (the service) movement and resides in the United States since 1999. It is claimed that his movement recruits new members at a young age through indoctrination at the broad range of schools and educational institutions in Turkey and across the globe, with the ultimate aim of capturing Turkish politics in the long run through its members in high level public and private offices. While the sides were initially in very good terms, Gülen movement and Erdogan’s AKP had a falling out in 2013.

In fact, within 24 hours after the coup attempt, the country faced major purges in both military and judiciary ranks. 2,745 judges and prosecutors were detained, including some members of the country’s top judiciary board. Close to 3000 military personnel were also detained for conspiring with the plotters and having ties to the Gülen movement. Still, many questions remain as the group was not expected to have this level of influence within the Armed Forces. Whilst many theories are out there, with some even questioning whether the coup was genuine or staged, what is clear at this moment is that the event will have major repercussions for Turkey’s future.

Response to the Plot

Though officials cite that the danger may not have passed yet, the Turkish Parliament reconvened on Saturday. In a rare sight against the backdrop of tremendous political polarization in the country, all political parties made a common declaration strongly criticizing the coup attempt. Though it is certainly a positive circumstance that all parties united in favor of democracy, the last few years have seen the country’s democratic institutions being gradually and dangerousy eroded. Thus while the botched coup may be a conduit for unity in furthering the country’s democracy, many remain pessimistic about the country’s future.

During the plot, the government called on the public to take to the streets and stand openly against the coup, using  religious channels and messages in doing so. Mosques were utilized to mobilize supporters through calls to prayer and religious verses. Official statements that praised the involvement of the police forces and the public in the aftermath of the crisis also had numerous religious underpinnings. The public reaction on the street mirrored this religious approach, with protestors chanting Islamic verses and religious dances in public squares. Many similarities with the Muslim Brotherhood’s overthrow by the Egyptian military in 2013 were drawn by both the public and the media – leaving many, most notably secularists, anxious about the country’s future.

The hours that followed the attempted coup  also unearthed the demons lurking in the Turkish society. The lynching of surrendered military personnel – most of whom were conscripts around the ages of 19 and had no say in the coup decision – and the calls for the reinstatement of the capital punishment – which was removed from the constitution more than a decade ago as part of Turkey’s EU membership track – are just two examples of the outburst of the pro-government protesters. There are shocking claims that several soldiers were thrown off the Bosphorus Bridge after they had surrendered. Video and photo imagery show multiple incidents where the police, who were there to intervene against the military personnel, had an immensely challenging time to protect the soldiers from the angry mob after their surrender.

While the vast majority of the public opposed the coup, the violent mobs were less interested in protecting democracy than to protect an ideology. By underlining the religious aspect at every turn and not doing enough to condone the mob violence, the Turkish leadership may be creating a monster that it may not be able to control in the long term. The nightmare scenario would be for this self-propagating religiosity and radicalization, when coupled with immense levels of polarization, to pave the way for ideological and sectarian tensions within the country, which has witnessed many examples of such conflict and quarrel over the last decades.

Outlook for the Future

In a silver lining, the July 15 coup attempt has brought together both the political parties and the vast majority of the public, at least formally, in their support for democracy. The attempt has been criticized strongly by all political parties, the media, and people from all walks of life. This brutal undertaking, that has claimed the lives of dozens of civilians, police officers and military personnel, may potentially unite the country at a time of skyrocketing political polarization and substantial erosion of public security in the face of terror threats that the country has been facing over the last year.

If indeed tied to the Gülen movement, the plot might serve to display how dangerous religious movements with political agendas can get – and how deep the movement was able to penetrate the ranks of the Armed Forces. As such, it would highlight the need for all political parties to stand together in rooting out  this internal threat. Nonetheless, regardless of who plotted the coup, the only surest way forward for the country would be the strengthening of democracy and democratic institutions.

Yet there are many pitfalls that the government may fall into. Critics and pessimists worry that instead of using this as an opportunity to deepen cooperation within the Parliament, the Turkish government may continue to sideline the opposition in its bid to make major constitutional changes to serve its agenda. Instead of calling for peace and calm, it may seize the opportunity to further such policies at a time when support for the government from its core voters was wavering due to the recent rapprochements with Israel and Russia, and the discussion on granting citizenship to Syrian refugees. And instead of carefully combing through the ranks of public officials, military and the police for weeding out coup plotters, it may use the opportunity to make broad range persecutions to intimidate political opposition, disloyal public officers and personnel, and silence the media. In other words, the current political climate may allow the government to mobilize support for its controversial policies, while making it harder for anyone to stand in opposition without being labeled as a conspirator. Officials have already argued that the death penalty could be discussed and that it should be made easier for individuals to acquire small arms to defend against potential future coups.

Both moves would risk putting Turkey on a perilous path. Instead of seizing the opportunity to further its narrow partisan agenda, the government should uphold its responsibility to strengthen the country’s democratic institutions. If this will not be the case, the July 15 coup attempt may be remembered as the event that hammered the last nail in the coffin of Turkish democracy.