The Failed Coup and a Democratic Future in Turkey
The numbers tell a dramatic story about July 15 coup attempt.
173 civilians were killed by coup-plotters.
62 policemen and 5 soldiers who resisted the coup are among the total tally of 240 deaths.
24 coup plotters were killed, 50 of them were detained.
Almost 1600 wounded are being treated in hospitals.
The simplistic yet widespread account in Western media that President Erdogan has “solidified his grip on Turkish politics after surviving a coup against his repressive rule” misses a great deal about Turkish politics and society. It is at the same time a shameful shun to those who sacrificed their lives. This account also misses one of the most consequential developments in Turkish politics over the last two decades: All political parties, civil society organizations, and media organizations, regardless of their political convictions or feelings about Erdogan and the ruling Justice and Development Party, took a decisive stand against military intervention in civilian politics. Turkish society’s solidarity and historic stance against this coup attempt spells hope for a truly civilian and democratic system.
Strategic Targets, Symbolic Violence
It was about 10 pm on Friday, July 15 that news started to emerge on social media and on Turkish TV stations that military forces were mobilizing in Istanbul’s two bridges that connect Europe to Asia. Images were broadcast soon showing the military vehicles and armed soldiers blocking the entrance of Istanbul’s Bogazici Bridge. Initial chatter on social media suggested this was a precautionary move against a potential terrorist attack. A similar mobilization in Istanbul Ataturk Airline and the sonic bombs created by low-flying F-16 jets over Ankara, however, made it clear that something else was unfolding. Soon, a TRT journalist was forced to read a statement, apparently under gun-point, declaring martial law on live broadcast after a team of soldiers raided the channel.
It has now become clear that around 4pm earlier in the day National Intelligence Organization (MİT) received intelligence about a potential military coup that would commence early morning hours on Saturday. Despite this intelligence and the subsequent communications and meetings between the head of MİT, Hakan Fidan, and Turkish Chief of Staff, General Hulusi Akar, however, the coup plotters prematurely commenced their operation to topple civilian government around 10pm.
The night would prove to be long and eventful, sometime surrealistically so. Images now abound in social media that show President Tayyip Erdogan Facetiming CNNTurk – which was raided by the military shortly after Erdogan’s appearance on it – in his first appearance through the night. It was not known at the time that Erdogan had just left Marmaris where he was on vacation and had barely survived a fatal attack on his life led by a team of pro-coup elite military commandoes. The hotel where Erdogan had been staying was attacked by three Sikorsky helicopters full of special-ops soldiers. It is reported today that three of Erdogan’s camp-de-aide’s were working with coup plotters and helped compromise his location. It was the MİT tip that allowed Erdogan to leave the hotel 15 minutes prior to the arrival of helicopters.
A few hours into the night three strategic locations in Istanbul and five in Ankara came under heavy attack and most civilian and law enforcement casualties occurred in these locations.
In Istanbul the coup plotters targeted the Bogazici Bridge, Istanbul Ataturtk Airport, and the Istanbul Municipality. In Ankara, where most casualties occurred, the Presidential complex, the National Assembly, the police headquarters, the headquarters of MİT, and finally the headquarters of elite police forces became targets of F-16 jets and military helicopters. The psychological and symbolic meaning of these targets underlines that the coup plotters targeted those institutions that they perceived to be allied with President Erdogan.
What Next? Opportunities and Risks
The July 15 coup attempt revealed a hopeful note for Turkey. As much as the coup attempt is a negative indication for civilian-military relations, it is clear that now “democracy is the only game in town” for those who are involved in civilian politics. De-bunking a simplistic secularist vs. Islamist narrative, the opposition and civil society’s stance against the coup attempt is a positive note for the future of civilian politics in Turkey. The foiled coup attempt also helped unveil the vast and ominous reach of Gulen network across a large segment of civilian and military infrastructure. The opportunities presented by the July 15 coup-attempt therefore are critical for a truly democratic and free future for Turkey.
While the purge campaign in the civilian bureaucracy will help clear the Gulenist elements from positions of influence, a potential risk is lack of proper investigation and judgment in this campaign. The government imposed a state of emergency while also pledging to the rule of law and to conduct trials in a fair and just manner. Second, the government should seek to convert the potential risks to economy into an advantage and take steps to ensure investors of Turkey’s predictability in the mid-to long-range future. While the state of emergency may alarm some investors, it also provides for that predictability. Initial signs from the government indicate that the Turkish government is careful to avoid a potential economic downturn.
Washington should stop reading Turkey through a narrow, anti-Erdoganist ideological lens. Obama administration should approach the question of Gulen’s extradition much more seriously than it has hitherto has done. Shunning Turkish requests for serious consideration carries the risk to systematically damage the US-Turkey relationship. Both sides should reduce the tension and approach the process as a technical one.
The maturity of Turkish society and political elite has shined as a sign of hope throughout the July 15 coup attempt. It is the responsible course of action for all parties involved to keep emphasizing the supremacy of civilian politics, with all its deficiencies and problems. The unified stance against the coup-attempt should be seized as a moment of opportunity by everyone.