Monday, June 24, 2019 - 22:44

Untangling Competing Narratives and Misconceptions in the Wake of the Turkish Coup Attempt

July 2016

The July 15 coup in Turkey launched around 10:30 pm, when soldiers and tanks occupied one of the two bridges that straddle Istanbul’s Asian and European halves—a key thoroughfare in the city of nearly 15 million. For the next 14 hours, the stream of events came to viewers in Turkey and around the world in fragments of news (Explosion in Ankara), rumor (Erdoğan seeks asylum in Germany), and snark (How ironic—a regime that suppresses public speech calling supporters into the streets—over Twitter!).

In the week that has followed, the events of the coup and its fallout have begun to coalesce into a more coherent picture—or, at the very least, several narratives—that seek to explain the actors, rationale, and significance of the coup.

The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP, Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi) under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has indicted the followers of Fethullah Gülen, a Turkish cleric and theologian residing in Pennsylvania. Although the Gülen Movement and the AKP worked toward common objectives after the latter came to power in 2002, the organizations split surrounding a corruption scandal and the Gezi Park protests in 2013. The AKP administration has since decried Gülen’s followers as a fifth column or “parallel state,” working to undermine government and society from within, through propaganda, judicial conspiracy, and now, an armed coup.

Many Turkish and international commentators have sought explanations beyond this official line, conjuring the coup as a CIA sponsored plot1 or a cynical power play by the Erdoğan regime itself.2 A snap poll by a London-based firm indicates that these theories may hold substantial cachet with the Turkish public.3As these narratives compete, new claims emerge, and the circumstances of the coup are superseded by the government’s institutional purge, there are several points (and misconceptions) worth noting for those seeking to understand the coup attempt and its fallout.

First, observers must recognize that the coup attempt was widely opposed by Turkish citizens, from all political and religious affiliations. While many of those who took to the streets did so in support of the AKP regime, others opposed the coup on non-partisan grounds: as an illegal incursion into Turkish democracy. Analysts and caption-writers have since painted these protestors with a broad brush, labeling them as uniformly pro-government. In reality, the leaders of Turkey’s major opposition parties denounced the attempt almost immediately, calling for power to remain in government hands.4 The people climbing atop tanks, demonstrating in public spaces (from famously liberal İzmir to the more conservative Black Sea region), and, perhaps, those brutalizing soldiers in the wake of the coup attempt, should not be lumped together out of convenience, nor should the public outcry be considered an affirmative referendum on the Erdoğan administration.5

Protesters disarmed and even decapitated soldiers who participated in the coup. Photograph:

The force of this outcry stems in part from the traumatic memory of Turkey’s previous coups, as evinced by popular culture6 and the personal retrospectives7 elicited by the events of July 15 and 16. The Turkish public are no strangers to military coups, and memory of their consequences—disruption, arrests, and sometimes executions—is deep. The announcement of the failed coup immediately drew references to its 1960, 1971, and 1980 predecessors, and mentions of the military’s long influence in Turkish politics. Indeed, the military leadership’s intertwined relationship to state power dates back to Ottoman times, and many of the founders of the Turkish Republic—including Mustafa Kemal Atatürk himself—were generals and veterans.

However, it’s important to recognize that military-state relations in Turkey has not been a contiguous pattern of a unified military stepping in to “preserve democracy” or “defend secularism” from an authoritarian leadership. A basic exploration of the four major coups in modern Turkish history demonstrates that they differed substantially in their actors, circumstances, victims, and outcomes.

In fact, from modern Turkey’s founding in 1923 until World War II, the army largely took a backseat in Turkish domestic politics, concentrating on matters connected to national defense. This dynamic began to shift following the war, when Turkey became a beneficiary of the Marshall Plan and NATO member. Trained in a new, Cold War geopolitical environment, young officers came to resent the military’s marginalized position in Turkey’s economic and political life. After the Democrat Party regime ramped up its religious rhetoric and cracked down on free speech and dissent (with an infamous “investigatory commission” into its opposition), these junior officers rebelled against military high command and initiated the 1960 coup. Beset by internal power struggles, the putschists produced a liberal constitution that guaranteed civil liberties, established a constitutional court, and secured a privileged role for the military in governance and the economy. Members of the Democrat leadership were sentenced to prison, and Prime Minister Adnan Menderes and two of his ministers were hanged in 1961.

Over the next decade, the increasingly conservative army leadership became concerned with maintaining its stake in the country’s affairs. Because the 1960 coup had been orchestrated by lower officers against the high command, the new leadership purged dissident groups from the military’s ranks.

In the late 1960s, Turkey was wracked by economic instability and violence among radical political groups. In response, the military high command overthrew the government, which it considered feckless and disrupting. In contrast to the 1960 coup, which produced a more liberal constitution, the 1971 putschists established a right-wing council that assaulted leftist political activity with arrests, bans, and purges. The 1961 constitution was heavily amended, curbing civil rights and media freedom.

Turkey’s political situation hardly improved. Throughout the 1970s, Turkish democracy struggled through the oil crisis, armed conflict over Cyprus, ballooning debt and unemployment, internal violence, and deteriorating international relationships. As in 1971, the conservative high command considered the civilian leadership too weak to overcome the crises, and in 1980, they staged a coup. The 1980 coup outstripped even the mayhem of its predecessors: the military abolished political parties, dismissed provincial and local governments, and replaced the 1961 constitution (disfigured by the 1971 coup) entirely. The putschists arrested hundreds of thousands—some of whom faced torture and execution—and as many as 30,000 citizens fled abroad.8

When elections began anew in 1983, they were under strict military oversight.

The next coup occurred in 1997, following the rise of Islamist parties in Turkish politics. A group of generals, intent on disrupting growing Islamist influence, issued a list of “advised” changes to Necmettin Erbakan’s coalition government. The “advice” came with the implied threat of further intervention, and the government acquiesced. Although this incident has been labeled a “postmodern” and “soft” coup, it had serious consequences:  Erbakan’s prime ministership dissolved and Islamist party politicians (including Erdoğan, then mayor of Istanbul) received prison sentences. 

This glance at Turkey’s previous coups hints at a complex picture of evolving military and state institutions reacting to 60 years of geopolitical and social developments. Yet as journalists and analysts attempt to explain the July 15 coup attempt, there is a tendency to flatten Turkey’s military coups (in 1960, 1971, 1980, 1997) into a tidy storyline of secularist, pro-democracy intervention into state affairs gone awry—that is, corrupted by authoritarian or Islamist politicians. Besides contributing to the tired binary of Turkish politics as a grand conflict between secularism and Islamism (or even more crassly, Atatürk vs Erdoğan), this narrative can mischaracterize the July 15 attempt as inevitable, natural, or typical.

Protesters celebrate defeating coup d'etat. Photograph:


Instead, commentators must understand that the July 15 coup attempt was distinctive, in both its origins9and implementation. The coup attempt differentiated itself from its predecessors in its unprecedented (and odious) shelling of the Turkish parliament building, the relative anonymity of the putchists (with no clear figureheads), and the scale of confrontation between soldiers, police, and citizens. Of course, the coup attempt is also notable because it failed—launching and collapsing in one night. However, any emphasis on the coup attempt’s brevity (or, as has become popular, its ineptitude) must not eclipse its tragedy, with roughly 260 reported deaths and more than a thousand wounded. 

The failure of the coup spared Turkey the trauma of another government overthrow, yet its wake has nonetheless been characterized by purges, arrests, and perhaps, preparations for a constitutional overhaul. In its pursuit of those ostensibly connected to the Gülen movement—and in its effort to preclude any future coup attempts—Erdoğan’s AKP government has called a three-month state of emergency. According to the Daily Sabah’s English language website, the government has closed 1,043 private schools, 19 unions, 15 private universities, 35 medical institutions, and 1,229 foundations.10 Furthermore, approximately 60,000 individuals have been suspended from their positions, including more than 21,000 teachers, 1,500 university rectors, 9,000 police officers, and 2,700 judges.11 The crackdown has intensified trends begun prior to the coup attempt, such as limits on press freedom,12 social media usage, and criticism against government leadership and policies.13 Troublingly, Amnesty International and other international observers have reported that the state of emergency has led to civil rights abuses, including torture and vigilantism.14

Turkey faces several challenges in the aftermath of the failed coup, most of all in civil rights and freedoms. Confrontation between pro-coup soldiers and pro-Erdogan protesters on the bridge over Bosporus. Photograph:

In the freneticism of the counter-coup, Turkey may also witness a constitutional overhaul:  the switch from a parliamentary to a presidential system. For years, President Erdoğan has advocated for a controversial reallocation of power from parliament into the office of the presidency, citing the United States and South Korea as models. Critics, however, argue that the change would open the floodgates to authoritarianism and undermine representative democracy. In May, Turkey’s Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu resigned, purportedly after a dust up with President Erdoğan over these constitutional revisions. As the government refills state institutions with loyalists, we can anticipate a constitutional amendment or rewrite that drastically restructures the framework of Turkish politics.

Factors are stacked against those hoping to understand the July 15 coup attempt and its aftermath. Turkey’s history of military-state relations is complex, many analysts entertain conspiracy or demonization, and new information arises (or is leaked) daily. To make matters more tangled, the Turkish administration has begun recasting events that happened before the coup attempt—such as the shooting down of the Russian Su-24 fighter last November—as the machination of coup conspirators.15 Future studies of the Turkish coup attempt and its aftermath will make tremendous contributions to the scholarship of military takeovers, social media and politics, civilian resistance, government purges, and so on. However, if the passage of time is to provide any clarity, simple answers and grand explanations are best avoided in the meantime.