Turkey’s Choice: Military Rule Or Liberal Authoritarianism

Even for his opponents, a democratically elected Erdogan is preferable to another military coup

People stand on a tank in Ankara, July 16, 2016. — REUTERS/Tumay Berkin
Jul 16, 2016 at 4:51 PM ET

It seems that regardless of political affiliation, Turkish people from across the political spectrum are celebrating the failure of an attempted coup by junior military officers that left more than 265 people killed and 1,400 injured.

A coup begins

The first sign of something amiss came at 10:30 p.m., as scores of soldiers backed by tanks appeared on two bridges connecting the European and Asian sides of Istanbul, blocking traffic and sparking initial rumors of a terrorist attack. In the capital Ankara, gunfire started in the streets, helicopters hovered in the air, and F-16s began flying low over government buildings at super sonic speeds, all apparently attempts by a faction within the military that was orchestrating a coup.

Half an hour later, Prime Minister Binali Yildirim appeared on state-owned TRT television confirming a coup was being attempted by junior army officers. Pro-coup military units, which appear to be mostly drawn from the gendarme, a force tasked with protecting borders, soon moved to take over government buildings across the country. In Ankara, they stormed the armed forces headquarters and held the Chief of Military Staff, General Hulusi Akar.

At midnight soldiers stormed the TRT broadcast studios in Ankara and forced the anchors to read a statement announcing that the military had “completely” taken over the country to “reinstate constitutional order, human rights and freedoms, the rule of law and general security that was damaged.” The soldiers said they were part of a “Council of Peace,” and announced an indefinite curfew and declared martial law.

But there was only confusion in the streets, as millions were stranded as police and soldiers clashed and public transport came to screeching halt. Military helicopters flew overhead. “Get out of here, run home, don’t look!” shouted a group of soldiers at commuters east of Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport, before beginning an argument with police that ended in gunfire. The scene was repeated at roadblocks eevry few hundred meters on major roads across the country.

It was the beginning of a long and chaotic night, as hundreds of thousands of Turks in Istanbul were turned back from street after another by panicked civilians running in the opposite direction shouting “the military is firing, turn around!”

Across the country, police forces had remained loyal to the ruling AKP party, and special counter-terrorism squads armed themselves, strapped on bullet proof vests, and took to the streets to confront the soldiers.

With state television in control of pro-coup soldiers, President Recep Tayib Erdogan appeared via FaceTime on CNN Turk, calling on “patriots” to take to the streets, and promising he would soon land at Ataturk Airport where he would make a stand.

In Istanbul and Ankara, lightly armed police used armored cars to move into position against soldiers that attempted to take local municipal offices, the Parliament building, the prime minister’s office, the presidential palace, and police headquarters. At least one military chopper fired on a crowd of protesters in Ankara, even as hundreds of thousands poured into the streets, waving Turkish flags, shouting “Oh Allah, in the name of Allah, Allah is greatest!”

The civilian government appointed an interim military chief, and the heads of the air force, navy, and army, gave statements saying a faction of junior officers was attempting a coup and would soon be thwarted.

But the situation was far from under control. Later that night, tanks opened fire on the Parliament in Ankara, the first of three bouts of shelling that night, and pro-government F-16s downed a pro-coup military chopper. Television stations broadcast live footage of high-caliber anti-aircraft fire from pro-government ground forces shooting at pro-coup helicopters in the air above the capitol.

Only with the arrival of daylight would the tide turn against the coup, as government supporters backed by police confronted soldiers in Istanbul and Ankara.

By 5am, at the Bosporus bridge in Istanbul, where the coup had begun, thousands of pro-government protesters took advantage of daylight to come out from a line of buses they had spent the night behind, rushing up the road to confront soldiers, to be met by machine-gun fire. Witnesses described tanks firing on and decimating police armored cars, and civilian bodies lying on the bridge surface. Soon the soldiers on the bridge were disarmed, their tanks decorated with Turkish flags and now serving as the backdrop for selfies taken by protesters.

By Saturday afternoon, about 16 hours after the coup attempt began, the government was back in full control of the country. More than 2,800 military personnel have been arrested, including at least 29 colonels and five generals, many detained on live television after dramatic standoffs with lightly armed police and thousands of pro-government protesters.

Anatomy of a failed coup

“How could you fire on the nation? How could you fire on civilians?” an angry plainclothes police officers asks half-a-dozen soldiers in a video shared on social media.

A faction of officers within the military has been held responsible for the coup attempt. Now under arrest are: former Air Force chief, Akin Ozturk; Rear Admiral Nejat Atilla Demirhan; and General Memduh Hakbilen, the commander of the Aegean military command.

The Turkish government has said the faction was following orders from Fethullah Gulen, 75, a moderate Muslim cleric who preaches an inclusive, modern brand of Islam. He lives in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania. The cleric’s followers in Turkey, known as Gulenists, number in their millions. Earlier this year the Erdogan government designated Gulenists as a terrorist group, accusing them of repeatedly trying to overthrow the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).

Interestingly, Gulen was an ally of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan until a few years ago, when the two fell out publicly over policy matters that included how to handle the war in neighboring Syria, relations with Israel, and the government’s response to massive anti-AKP protests in 2013 that left dozens dead.

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Friday’s coup plotters tried to exploit dissatisfaction with Erdogan’s increasingly autocratic rule. In the past year Erdogan has jailed hundreds of journalists, ordered the prosecution of thousands of critics, and taken control of the country’s top judicial bodies. He has repeatedly called for changes to the constitution that would alter the current parliamentary system so that it becomes a presidential system, with Erdogan at the helm.

In a dramatic early morning appearance at Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport, President Erdogan said the coup attempt had proved the Gulen movement was a terrorist group, no different from the Islamic State that attacked the same airport in June, killing 44 people.

Gulen issued a statement saying he condemns “in the strongest terms, the attempted military coup in Turkey.”

“As someone who suffered under multiple military coups during the past five decades, it is especially insulting to be accused of having any link to such an attempt. I categorically deny such accusations.”

But even with little evidence presented by Erdogan publicly, many pro-government Turks say they believe the cleric is behind the bloody chaos engulfing their country.

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“They want to make a coup here, just like [General Abdel Fatteh] al-Sisi did in Egypt two years ago,” government supporter Mehmet Ali, said in a tea stop in Istanbul’s Fatih district. “Gulen is a traitor, how can he tell people to kill each other like this?”

Ankara has repeatedly sought Gulen’s extradition from the U.S., and thousands of his alleged followers in the military and judiciary, as well as journalists and members of his expansive trade associations, have been sacked over the last two years. In the hours following the coup attempt, at least 2,745 alleged pro-Gulen judges were removed.

Whether or not Gulen was behind the coup attempt, the events of Friday and Saturday are likely to strengthen President Erdogan’s rule, and speed up calls for a Constitutional referendum that would hand his office expansive power.

Erdogan has repeatedly said Turkey faces a host of threats, from a bloody Kurdish insurgency that has displaced 350,00 in the southeast, to increasingly indiscriminate attacks by the Islamic State—and political maneuvering by Gulen’s followers, who the President’s supporters call a “parallel government.”

Much of Erdogan’s fear-mongering has centered around the ever-present specter of a military coup.

Four times in the last six decades, the military has intervened to protect the country’s secular, free-market foundations. Coups in 1960, 1971, 1980, 1997, usually ended in state executions of elected officials and the the disbanding of Islamist and Leftist political parties. Only the last coup, in 1997, was bloodless. It was effected via a simple memo circulated by the military among the civilian government, ordering them to remove the Islamist government of Erdogan’s mentor, the late Necmettin Erbakan. Erdogan himself was jailed in the aftermath of that coup, and a legal ban on his participating in politics was not lifted until 2003.

Since then, Erdogan’s AKP has become popular for the perception that they introduced political liberalization and democratization, which would many believed would put the country on the path to becoming a member of the European Union. Hundreds of top military brass were at one point being prosecuted for a 2003 coup attempt, but most were later acquitted and it was widely believed that Turkey’s days of military intervention were over.

The Syria effect

Recent events in the region have once again sowed the seeds for a military coup. Spillover from the war in Syria, and increasingly divisive rhetoric between a domestic secular opposition and a pro-AKP Islamist majority with a pan-Islamist leaning, has since eroded the country’s fragile democracy and put it on the path towards one-man-rule.

But given the popular rejection of Friday’s attempted coup, popular sentiment seems to prefer seeing Erdogan become a dictator over yet another military coup.

By late Saturday, hundreds of thousands had gathered in squares in Istanbul, Ankara, and other cities, waving flags and chanting slogans in support of Erdogan and “democracy.” Condemnation poured in from opposition parties as well.

“This country has been wracked by coups. We do not want to go through the same troubles again. We’ll protect our republic and democracy; keep our commitment to the free will of our citizens,” chairman of the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu said on Saturday morning. “We should take a joint stance against the coup as we take a joint stance against terrorism,” he added.

Even the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), whose 54 lawmakers had their parliamentary immunity lifted in May and face charges of supporting separatist Kurdish groups, has denounced the coup attempt. “HDP takes a stance against every coup in every condition. There is no way beside protecting the democratic politics,” the party said in a statement.

Around 2:30am early Saturday morning, amid gunfire and explosions, Turkish lawmakers met for an emergency session in Ankara’s parliament building, which has lately been the scene of fistfights between political parties over proposed changes to the Constitution.

Just as lawmakers applauded the passage of a bill in opposition to the ongoing coup attempt, a tank opened fire on their building, sending debris crashing through the roof of the chamber, and underscoring a rare moment of unity in Turkey.

Turkey is already in the midst of a bloody insurgency by the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and regular attacks by the Islamic State, but the coup that began Friday night shattered what had been a veneer of calm in bustling cities like Istanbul.

One thing is almost certain: For Turkey, nothing good will come out of this.