What the Coup Attempt Revealed About the Turkish State, Once Again


Certain things about Turkey are very difficult to communicate to the wider world. Chiefly among them is how it is desired and fought for at all costs by its political actors, military officers and shadowy and secretive networks.

While words like Islamism, Ottomans, Secularism, Sultans dominate op-eds on Turkey, the naked truth of its fierce public and elusive tensions is prebendalism, in which the grabbing of state power and revenues is only possible through a complex network of clientele relationships and can only be maintained when a term in office predominantly serves the interests of that network and its wider constituency. It is executed within a modernist story of strong state, effective bureaucratisation, top to bottom grandeur nation designs, brutal maintenance of differences and elimination of threats.

This is the sad summary of all political phases in the country from 1923 to now.

The dreadful coup attempt on 15 July has revealed these bitter truths about the Turkish state once again. Turkey is no stranger to men in uniform seeing themselves as the guardians and owners of the nation, even if the nation itself does not see them so.

The last coup in 1980 had horrendous outcomes for all and has taken decades to undo. Since then, the military has continued to interfere in politics. In 1997, a carefully orchestrated ‘post-modern coup’ by the Armed Forces led to the collapse of the then coalition government that had an Islamist prime minister, namely former Turkey Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan. That coup unleashed a crackdown on religious Turks, creating both a strong grievance and a political momentum for Islamists to reform to be able to assume power again. All of that was done without physically taking control of the state.

The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) was founded in 2001. It rapidly saw electoral victories shortly after that and faced fierce pressure from the previous owners of the state power.

Yet, neither well organised protests in defence of ‘secularism’ (which means the ‘old order’), nor desires for a new post-modern coup by soldiers to force the Government’s impeachment, nor a court attempt to shut it down, worked. It made the AKP only stronger and able to win even more votes. The majority of the public did not have an appetite to return to the past, and opposition parties failed dramatically to offer an alternative future.

From 2008 onwards, a series of court cases against soldiers and civilians accused of planning coups saw a large number of high-ranking officers lose their posts. Most of the cases did not result in convictions. Eventually it became clear that the arrests had expanded beyond legitimate questions onto weaker and weaker grounds all with a clear political agenda.

It was within such a context that both AKP supporters as well as secularist AKP critiques began voicing their beliefs that these court cases were attempts by the Gulen movement to expand its networks within the state structures, particularly military and judiciary.

Former Chief of Defence Staff General İlker Başbuğ, who was convicted of heading a ‘terror organisation’ and coup attempt in August 2013 then cleared in March 2014, recently said that he had warned Erdogan that the Gulen movement networks were taking control of the military and ousting non-Gulenists, and that they will next seek to oust President Erdogan,which Erdogan shrugged off.

Subsequent legislative changes and wide public support made both the closure of parties more difficult, but also curbed the military’s political reach. With an unprecedented levels of votes, seeming defeat of the old Kemalist state elite and rapid economic growth, the AKP’s power seemed unstoppable. Initially a party pursuing positive reform projects while facing continual challenges, it went on to assume the role of the party that governs the state comfortably and enjoys powerful state structures.

But with great power came great failures, most of which could have easily prevented. The AKP soon began to draw criticism both domestically and internationally for its own prebendal tendencies both culturally and economically, and ambitious foreign policy moves that dangerously punched above Turkey’s weight. The AKP success story had lost its lustre, and now was reminiscent of a system it was once a victim of.

We might have not foreseen a new coup on the horizon back then. Retrospectively, it is clear that a new competition over control of the state was unfolding with increasing intensity. The first visible signs of a clash between a new secretive network and the elected AKP government were in February 2012.

At that time a prosecutor went beyond his remit and requested to question the head of Turkish National Intelligence Agency (MIT) Hakan Fidan on a peace process he had led in direct talks with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (the PKK).

When Fidan refused to give a statement, a large group of police officers attempted to arrest him and a few others. Arresting him would have been a major blow both to Erdogan and the Government’s entire attempt to address Kurdish issues.

Then in December 2013, mysterious (well, anonymous) social media accounts started leaking phone conversations and recordings not only between President Erdogan and his son, but also ministers, and even security meetings over Syria that included ministers, the head of MIT and military officers. While the carefully selected and narrated leaks made a case for corruption among cabinet ministers in the AKP government, other leaks and spin continued to fuel narratives around the Government policies on Syria and this time even included claims of weapons being sent to Nigeria with a hint of wild claim that AKP was supporting Boko Haram.

Then on 19 January 2014, a group of Gendarme soldiers stopped trucks heading to Syria accompanied by MIT agents following the request of a prosecutor who again went beyond his remit. The entire operation and attempted case against the Government were clearly political and reflected a serious clash within state structures.

All these incidents since 2012 were clear attempts to lead to an impeachment of the AKP Government. Yet, the March 2014 local election saw a surprising outcome for the AKP with the party winning more than 40 per cent of the vote, demonstrating that voters stood by the party even though corruption claims, Turkish policies on Syria as well as the handling of peace talks with PKK were critically discussed by party’s supporters.

That electoral success gave President Erdogan a strong hand in his clampdown of the Gulen Movement, which he and many others saw to be the main actor behind all these incidents. The state began seizing newspapers, schools and charities affiliated with the Gulen movement. Thousands of police and judicial officers were removed from their posts and scattered across the country on suspicion of having Gulen links, and some lost their jobs.

The years 2015 and 2016 were truly precarious for Turkey. Not only did AKP-Gulen tensions continue, but Turkey also faced terror attacks from ISIS and the PKK. Hopes for a breakthrough had given way to a total collapse of peace talks with the PKK as both the state and the PKK willingly entered a full on clash in urban spaces with high risk and damage to civilians. It was clear that the Turkish state was now using an assertive military security strategy to contain the PKK, which was now seeking to maximise the goodwill it had gained internationally due to PKK-related groups fighting ISIS in Syria and expanding its territorial gains in Turkey’s southern borders.

Within the context of this renewed and high casualty war against the PKK, the Turkish military and the AKP government were seem to be moving on from former animosities and the military was once again showing its influence, particularly in policies on Kurdish issues. Tensions between the AKP and the Gulen Movement had also meant a sense of shared concern, thus increased partnerships between at least the nationalist wing of the military and the AKP.

A new series of U-turns were appearing with the appointment of a new Prime Minister, Binali Yildirim, in May 2016, including Turkey wanting to ease tensions with neighbouring countries from Israel to Russia. In fact, it was the positive signs in 2016 that the AKP might be postponing its aim to change the constitution to give more powers to President Erdogan, and that it needed to focus on a normalisation of tensions within and outside of the country as economic and security risks were truly high, that made the coup attempt in July 2016 utterly out of sync with developments.

Initially, the first question was why now. If it was prior to 2008, even prior 2010, it would have been clear why some soldiers would have attempted a military coup. Yet, July 2016 did not make sense and did not follow the pattern of previous coups and interventions.

Some see an answer to this in the news that a legal process that had just began which meant that in a few days time a numbers of officers were going to be arrested, and in early August, the Supreme Military Council was set to decommission and retire a large number of officers for suspected Gulen ties. Therefore, some officers would have seen a last chance in this coup attempt.

The hurried nature of the attempted coup eventually made sense when it transpired that the plotters brought it forward after discovering that their plan was known by the MIT.

The crumbling plans and chaotic attempts led to truly harrowing scenes of use of force against civilians and landmark sites such as the Turkish Parliament. They had completely underestimated how the public and rest of the military would react. The Government was saved and a bloody civil war and utter chaos were prevented both by the brave public and vast majority of the military and police that stood against the coup plotters.

Now, the question that is still difficult to fully and firmly answer is who was behind all this? The military culprits have been caught red-handed, yet clearly they have partners across state structures from the judiciary to ministries.

The government seems set to pin it all down on Gulenists. There are plenty of confessions by the coup plotters and former Gulen followers in the news in Turkey, though they too pose a complex challenge. Some are unreliable, some clearly have carefully crafted statements, while others include plausible claims. Some are inadmissible due to allegations of physical abuse suffered by some of the soldiers involved in the coup attempt.

The challenge to tease the truth out from these, however, does not diminish some legitimate and real questions over the Gulen Movement. It is difficult to deny involvement of Gulenist officers in the coup. Given the nature of Gulen movement, it is implausible to think that such high ranking officers would have acted on their own without at least informing or seeking at least tacit approval from their higher up leaders within the movement.

While direct links between Gulen and the coup attempt is yet to be proven, very public political lines Gulen, his followers and media outlets have taken since the start of fall out between Gulen and Erdogan seem to have lead vast majority of the Turkish public to mistrust statements by Gulen followers denying any involvement in the coup attempt whatsoever. There are peculiar links in events since the trials of soldiers to Hakan Fidan incident to corruption scandals that raise serious questions about Gulen movement involvement in attempts to shape the state and oust an elected government. That is why purges of Gulenists across state structures, closing of businesses giving substantial funds to Gulen and Gulen media outlets are still widely supported by the Turkish public even with not much public direct evidence of Gulen leading the coup attempt thus far.

Apart from Gulenists, the coup attempt also clearly included non-religious officers angry at the Government for the direction the country was heading in, opportunists who joined the coup attempt thinking it will succeed and thus could mean promotions, and the clueless who found themselves following orders without knowing what was going on. This was particularly so for the poor conscripts which make up the largest portion of Turkish military man power. Thus, clearly other factors came to play here, such as the weakened and chaotic state and legal structures that have continually seen political moves rather than rule of law and fair order. The coup emerged as a ‘freak storm’ with the coming together of many tensions since 2013 with the never ending undercurrent of soldiers and secretive cliques wanting to “save” (i.e. control) the state.

More than a month after the coup attempt, there are worries that the Government is now exploiting the coup and pushing its own agendas further while so many things are still not clear about what happened. Purges and arrests continue, while some legitimate, some looks out of proportion. There are worries that people who have nothing to do with any of these sinister projects are facing life-long damage from the fall out of the coup. Questions of who will now fill up all these empty state posts are being asked: AKP loyalists? Other religious networks that support AKP? If so, is Turkey set to repeat the same mistakes?

We, the public, who do not see the full picture but can only try to make sense of the tangible facts before us, will always be puzzled and uncertain about the exact details and truth of the claims we hear from all sides. Government pressure on media and self-censorship it leads to make it very difficult to sort out the truth from misinformation.

The full picture might still be blurred, but why the coup happened is simple. Many Turks have found a comfortable explanation in conspiracy theories involving foreign governments. Some are pushing their agendas against the US and NATO by claiming they were behind the coup. There are even some who think President Erdogan masterfully engineered it himself to bolster his popularity. Fethullah Gulen, who lives in the US and leads his global network from there, described the failed coup to be a staged scenario like “Hollywood movie” with “a few jets and soldiers” in an interview with CNN, thus hinting at Erdogan as the instigator behind it all.

But the truth is really boring, as usual. It is yet another episode in Turkey’s history of competition for state control. While purges and reforms could patch some of the damage suffered in this latest attempt by secret networks, the main ill that has haunted Turkey for decades and continually resulted in assassinations, dirty secretive political games, aggressive state clampdowns and dangerous provocations that lead to street clashes and violence remains unchallenged. How can the Turkish state be made less appealing, open to less prebendalism, less all-consuming, but serving all citizens equally, recruiting and appointing on merit not on identity, acting within rule of law and under no clique’s dominance?

Unless this question is answered and solved, the Turkish state will continue to see new networks, new dark games, new ambitions to power and control, poisoning the pious and secular alike with its seductive appeal.