Turkish coup attempt: my hot take

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Yesterday was a typically beautiful example of Bozeman in the summertime. It was gorgeous out. Cool, clear, nice and dry. I'd worked at home in the morning and then met up with a friend for beers in the afternoon. 

I'd left my phone at home, but by the time I'd returned I could tell that something weird was going on. There were a bunch of cryptic messages in my email and on Facebook, as well as a number of calls from friends. All
of them were just asking: have you heard the news in Turkey? 

I hadn't, but soon I would get entirely sucked in, whiling hours away in front of my computer Friday evening and through much of the night. Mainly, I was streaming videos from news services in Turkey, scrutinizing the statements from President Erdogan and others, and trying to gain some sense of what was going on. 

I'm still, in fact, trying to do this, but so far I can at least say that I have a few thoughts about things that might provide some insight into the events. 

A self-coup? 

One of the most consistent themes coming out of all of this is the accusation--at least from Erdogan's critics on social media--that the coup attempt was an inside job, a false-flag operation designed to justify a crackdown on opposition. 

I'm not one to rule anything out categorically, but this idea frankly sounds crazy to me, even given the standards of Mr. Erdogan's tumultuous rule. The reason I feel this way is because of the Ergenekon trials, the series of investigations which began as an examination into alleged crimes by the state against its citizens and somehow ended up getting transformed into--you guessed it--a trial of supposed coup-plotters. Thousands of people were detained for years without ever going to trial, and the defendants were not only military officers (there were many of them) but also university professors, journalists, NGO types, and even university rectors who didn't allow headscarves on their campuses. 

When you have something like Ergenekon--which for years was taken seriously by journalists and US-based Turkey experts--why do you need an actual false-flag operation? I think that if Erdogan and his people really wanted to create a crisis in Turkey and then use it as an excuse to crack down on politics, they wouldn't need to create an actual coup in which people are shooting at each other and dying. Something like that, after all, would have the potential to spin out of control. Instead, all Erdogan would have to do is publicly state that there was a coup plot against him and that the security forces were taking care of it. This is what happened with Ergenekon, and it went on so gradually that--at least internationally-- nobody even started calling it a witch-hunt until it was almost over. 

So, the idea that Erdogan would risk everything by staging a coup just doesn't make sense to me, although I do understand why people who don't like Erdogan would prefer to believe this. For years, I think a lot of people in Turkey--again, I'm talking about Erdogan's critics here--have been secretly hoping that a coup would take him out. When this failed to happen yesterday, the reaction on social media was incredulous. The coup must have been fake, they reason, because if the military had really wanted to overthrow Erdogan they would have. 

These are the views coming from otherwise well-educated Turks who consider themselves Kemalist opponents of an Islamist politician--the profile that many of my friends from Turkey fit into. They're smart people but they've been left somewhat unhinged by more than ten years of Erdogan. Like birthers in the United States who look for any reason to undermine President Obama's legitimacy, they still cannot believe that a majority--or at least a sizeable plurality--of their fellow citizens could actually support that man! 

But in attributing every development--the coup attempt, the recent attack at the Istanbul airport, the other attacks that have occurred over the last year--to Erdogan, the president's critics are assigning him a power that is well beyond even his means. Nothing, they think, happens in Turkey without Erdogan and his backers having a hand behind it. 

Frankly, I think it kills Erdogan's detractors that the world media is being saturated right now with images of Turks taking to the streets in defiance of military tanks--and in support of Recep Tayyip Erdogan. After all, it was just three years ago that the Gezi kids were the darlings of the world media, fighting the good fight against their autocratic oppressor. And now, to have your heroic-victim-in-the-face-of-power status appropriated by the great unwashed of the AKP electorate must be particularly galling. 

On left: Gezi parkers in 2013
On right: anti-coup protesters yesterday

Who knows? The conspiracy theorists might be right, but I doubt it.  I could be wrong, but I don't understand why anyone would take such a risk when you've already proven that you have the power to jail thousands of people on trumped-up charges without even firing a shot. Moreover, the Turkish government has been trying hard lately to bring a bit of stability to their country. Their recent deals with Israel and Russia were designed to mend fences and give Turkey a bit of breathing room. It would seem totally idiotic to throw gasoline on the fire by setting up a "fake" coup. Especially--and it's worth repeating this--when you already basically have autocratic powers. 


Now this is something that makes me suspicious, and puts just enough doubt in my mind to make me qualify some of my comments above. During his bizarre and hastily-organized press conference at Istanbul airport President Erdogan--flanked by sketchy-looking dudes in civilian clothes brandishing machine guns--already seemed to have a pretty clear idea about who was behind all of this. "Turkey will not be run from Pennsylvania?" said Erdogan. 

Pennsylvania? Huh? Some of my American friends were a little perplexed by this. What grudge could the president of Turkey possibly be nursing against the Keystone State? 

You've been warned, Pennsylvania 

The "Pennsylvania" comment was a reference, of course, to Fethullah Gulen, someone that I've written about a few times on these pages. Gulen--a preacher with an army of supporters in business and education in Turkey--was a former ally of Erdogan who was chased out of Turkey in 1999 (to Pennsylvania) after a military intervention in 1997. For years, the Gulenists--who controlled a number of media outlets and businesses in Turkey--were important backers of Erdogan's AKP government. Indeed, the Gulen-controlled English-language newspaper Today's Zaman was a reliable cheerleader for the Ergenekon trials while thousands of innocent people were rotting behind bars. This didn't stop a parade of journalists and academics--some of them well-meaning, others who just seemed like hacks--from the US and Europe who lent their names and talents to this newspaper's masthead and provided the publication with some credibility. Even as Today's Zaman was selling the world a bill of goods regarding the so-called "Ergenekon gang" that is now generally understood to have been a witch hunt. 

It was, in fact, the rotten international coverage of Ergenekon that spurred me to begin writing more frequently on this blog. Throughout the course of Ergenekon, Today's Zaman uncritically re-transmitted the Turkish government's claims that all of those jailed in Ergenekon were vicious coup-plotters, a narrative that proved stubbornly resilient. It was only once the trials were basically over that most American commentators finally got around to viewing these trials with a more critical eye. 

For reasons that are still not entirely clear, but which most likely have to do with money, the Gulenists and Erdogan's AKP developed an increasingly acrimonious relationship in recent years, culminating in the arrest of several government ministers in December of 2013. The Gulenists, you see, were largely in charge of Turkey's national (based within the Ministry of Internal Affairs) police force by then--the common estimate was that about 90% of the cops were Gulenists. 

Why do you think Erdogan relied so heavily on police back during the Gezi Park protests of June-July 2013? Don't you think he would have used the military if he'd felt he could trust them? But after the police bailed him out during the summer of Gezi, they apparently wanted a large piece of the pie--in terms of jobs and other benefits which come from having friends in high places. What I've usually heard is that it was mainly a result of the inability of Erdogan's AKP and the still-somewhat-underground Gulenists to agree upon how to divide the spoils that led to their confrontation in the fall of 2013. 

The AKP responded by closing the cram-schools that had been a lucrative source of income for many of the Gulenists, and ever since that time the "parallel state" of the Gulenists has been one of Erdogan's favorite bogeymen. Just like the so-called "Ergenekon gang" was supposedly behind everything that was wrong in Turkey prior to the AKP-Gulenist split, and since the beginning of 2014 their ranks within the police force have been thinned considerably. 

We'll see what happens with the investigation into the coup, but here's a spoiler alert: the blowback on this is going to be very big and very wide, and will eventually provide, in all probability, some support for those who claim that this was all staged to begin with. Why? Because I have no doubt that large numbers of people who probably had nothing to do with the coup will end up getting blamed for it. 

A long history...

Yes, Turkey has a long history of coups, as all of the Turkey-for- Dummies type of analysis is currently reminding us. Every military intervention (in 1960, 1971, 1980, and 1997) has been different, with the upshot being that some people supporting, retrospectively, each of them. Leftists approve of the coup of 1960 because it took down an increasingly authoritarian right-wing leader and helped bring about the adoption of a more liberal constitution in 1961. Rightists approve of the intervention of 1971 and the coup of 1980 because they supposedly brought an end to the "youth violence" of the late 1960s and 1970s. Secularists cheered the intervention of 1997 because it ousted Necmettin Erbakan, an Islamist politician whose Refah Party was the predecessor of sorts to Erdogan's AKP. 

Erdogan, by the way, was himself arrested in the aftermath of the 1997 intervention. At the time, he was the mayor of Istanbul, and he served four months in prison for reading, in the heated aftermath of the intervention, a poem by Ziya Gokalp--someone who is generally considered to be one of the greatest thinkers in Turkish history. So while it might be tempting to dismiss Erdogan as a paranoid autocrat, it's worth bearing in mind that he's been in the clink before and probably doesn't really feel like going back. 

But getting back to the point I made above about everybody in Turkey having their favorite coup: this is a real problem. Because rightists, leftists, and secularists so frequently have their "pet" coup that they defend, there is a tendency for many people in opposition to look to the military to solve their problems (like Erdogan, in the minds of his critics) for them. Can't beat someone at the ballot box? Hold your nose and wait for the Army to settle matters, then hope for the best.  

What now? 

First off, let's remember that hundreds are dead. My biggest fear last night, frankly, was that this would have the potential to turn into a protracted conflict, but at this point it doesn't look like that will be the case. For that, at least, maybe we can be somewhat thankful. 

As for the coup attempt itself--whether it was real or fake--there will definitely be hell to be paid. One way or another politics in Turkey--already a blood sport lately--is going to take a very ugly turn in the weeks ahead. If you want a historical precedent for this, maybe look to the various assassination plots allegedly hatched against Ataturk in the 1920s and 30s. As a historian looking at those events I would probably care less about the question of state involvement, and more about how the assassination attempts--real or not--were employed by state authorities to crush dissent, even among people who posed no real threat to anyone.  

Recep Tayyip Erdogan: whatever else you might think of him, it's hard to deny that he's a product of the political system in which he grew up. 

Also see: 

Turkish Politics and the News Trilogy 

 Isyanbol/Gezi Park articles

Long NYT piece on Gulen schools in USA

Turkey: On to the next crusade

Menderes thesis: still around today

Erdogan's interview with Charlie Rose

Pass the Kleenex

Erdogan vs. Putin: the streetfighter and the agent face off

190 librarians can't be wrong. Order a copy of Turks Across Empires today. 


More commentary, photos, and links can be found at the Borderlands Lounge

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