What happened? What do I need to know?
Late at night on July 15, a group of Turkish soldiers took over several institutions in Istanbul and Ankara, in what appears to have been an ill-planned attempted coup. Police forces—aided by a huge show of support from ordinary Turkish citizens—managed to foil the overthrow. Responding to a call by Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, huge groups of Turkish men took to the streets to prevent army units from entering government buildings. The coup was declared over early on the morning of July 16.
So the Turkish people stand with President Erdogan?
Thanks to a long history of coups, Turkish people hate military intervention far more than they dislike their autocratic leader. Turks across the political spectrum share the feeling that a terrible democracy is better than military rule.
Why did the military try to take power?
The explanation changes according who you choose to believe.
A statement reportedly made by the military claimed its purpose was “to reinstall the constitutional order, democracy, human rights and freedoms.” But president Erdogan and his network of pro-government media have bombarded the Turkish people with claims that this was the doing of a clandestine group that infiltrated all state institutions, organized by a Muslim cleric named Fethullah Gulen, now retired and living in Pennsylvania. Little solid evidence of that conspiracy has been offered yet.
Gulen has denied any involvement. In fact, he and other opposition groups allege that the coup was actually orchestrated by Erdogan as an excuse to subjugate political opponents, and to ultimately shift Turkey’s system of governance into an executive presidency (which would effectively turn Erdogan into a modern sultan). This explanation is also not entirely convincing. The claim that Erdogan plotted a fake coup against his own government to cleanse opposition in the army and the appellate judiciary is too big to take at face value.
What do the Turkish people think?
Turkey is extremely polarized. Half of the population believes whatever the president tells them, while the other half tends to believe the opposite. Positions for and against the Erdogan regime have become so entrenched that there is no way to convince either side with evidence and logic.
Erdogan is like okra: Some people love him dearly, and for some he is disgusting. No one in Turkey is neutral when it comes to the president.
Where did this split in public opinion come from?
Traditional social divides in Turkey include religious against secular, Turkish against Kurdish, and poor-periphery against rich-urban-center. Together with the Arab Spring and the 2013 graft investigation, a new split emerged: pro-Erdoganism and anti-Erdoganism.
These divisions came to a head in May 2013. Erdogan wanted to demolish a Republican-era park in the Taksim Square of Istanbul and rebuild an Ottoman-era barrack, which also included a mosque. Though Taksim Square is a symbol of secular, left-wing Kemalism, many religious people joined what later became known as the Gezi Park Revolt to preserve the park as it is. There, secular, Kemalist, Kurdish, Alevite, and religious groups—including the Gulen movement—crystallized their coalition against Erdogan.
Unfortunately, this sector of Turkish society is only able to agree on its opposition to Erdogan, and little else. Thus, these groups haven’t been able to create a political alliance that could shake his firm grip on power.
What’s the history here?
Until the Arab Spring, Erdogan was a remarkably democratic leader. But after the Arab Spring began in 2011, he started to accuse Europe, America, and Israel for their involvement in the Muslim world. He appealed to the unhappy crowds in the Arab streets and started to behave as an unelected leader of the Muslim world—he was almost an undeclared caliph. Turkey’s axis started to move away from the West and towards Middle Eastern dictatorships.
In December 2013, a group of prosecutors and police officers started a huge corruption investigation related to the laundering of Iranian money and the bypassing of international sanctions against Iran. Reza Zarrab, a Turkish-Iranian who is currently detained in the US on charges of conspiring to violate Iran sanctions, was allegedly involved.
Erdogan claimed that this was a conspiracy against him orchestrated by “foreign powers” and a religious movement led by Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, and launched a witch hunt for traitors among the police and judiciary. In the three years that followed, new courts with just one judge (Turkish) were created to simplify prosecution of critical and dissenting figures, newspapers and TV channels were seized, and about 3,000 journalists lost their jobs.
What’s up with all these coups and conspiracy theories?
After a series of real military coups in the past, Turkish people now react to any sign of military intervention with the immediate alarm of a post-cancer patient discovering any slight bump or lump.
Their allergy to military movements on government has been exploited by Erdogan—he tends to frame any public unrest as an attempted coup. In 2001, Erdogan was jailed by the secular regime for a poem he recited, which made him a hero in the streets. But many claim that this arrest was a show designed to lionize him in the eyes of the people. In 2007, the military tried to interfere with presidential elections through an e-memorandum, and Erdogan won. He is a man whose reputation has grown with every apparent adversity.
In 2013, he accused the Gezi Park Revolts of being a coup attempt. He said the same thing about that year’s graft allegation. He even said it in February this year, when villagers in the remote city of Artvin protested gold mines being opened in their village. This time, Erdogan is playing on the same sentiments to demonize his arch-enemy, Fethullah Gulen.
What happens now?
With the government apparently back on its feet, Erdogan has already won. Efforts are undoubtedly being made to silence all opposition groups in the name of national security, including any local and national media that are not openly pro-government.
From now on, there won’t be any meaningful opposition to his witchhunt of opposition groups. On July 16, the Minister of Interior declared that 2,839 military officers who are allegedly members of the Gulen movement, including dozens of generals, had been arrested. The Higher Board of Judges and Prosecutors sacked 2,745 judges and prosecutors, including ten of its own members. The Chief of General Staff who resisted earlier calls from Erdogan to cleanse the army has now given in. Rumors about other detentions abound.
One thing is for sure: The overall number of detained people will reach into the tens of thousands by the end of next week.