By Rashad Mammadov
If you were on the streets of Turkey’s largest city, Istanbul, today, you could be forgiven if you had mixed feelings or asked some embarrassing questions.
While some were celebrating the failed military coup, others were depressed. The conflicting emotions capture Turkey’s polarized society: Half are turning away from Western-style democracy, while others yearn for the return of a secular Turkey.
Just as modern Turkey is split, so are there wildly different interpretations of last week’s events.
Here is the mainstream theory:
Turkey has a history of military coups. There were three coups between 1960 and 1980, then a “soft coup” in 1997 when Prime Minister Najmuddin Erbakan was forced to resign under military pressure.
Since the times of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, Turkey’s first president and the founder of the doctrine of secular government, the military has served as a barrier between religion and power. Almost every previous coup attempt occurred when the military felt the secular state was under threat from religion.
Today is no different. Under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey is evolving into a softer form of the conservative Muslim societies in the region. It was not surprising that the army felt the urge to interfere. What was different was the split inside the military.
Erdogan has been well aware of the possibility of a coup, and he has been working on a response for years. Unlike his mentor Erbakan, Erdogan has managed to weaken the influence of the military on politics. In 2003, several of the most influential generals and several hundred lower ranking officers, journalists and opposition leaders were arrested and sentenced.
The next step was to replace the arrested generals with loyalists, and Erdogan succeeded.
Erdogan’s overall strategy has paid off.
In May, in a widely noticed move, Army Chief of General Staff Hulusi Akar attended the wedding of Erdogan’s daughter to a defense industrialist. Akar’s presence at the event set off a storm of criticism in the opposition press and on social media, as critics said he had violated the historic separation between the military and government.
One of the first bits of news to emerge from Friday’s coup was that insurgents had taken Akar hostage. But the general was released the day after and immediately retook command of government forces.
Despite a deep split in the military — there was some intense shooting between pro- and anti-Erdogan army units during the attempted coup — Erdogan’s overall strategy has paid off.
Even as the outcome of the coup was in doubt, global powers mostly stood behind Erdogan, who was able to rally large numbers of people to gather in the streets in a telling sign of support.
It is possible that that the government knew about the planned coup, but the mainstream explanation holds that the attempt failed mainly because top generals and most of the military did not support it.
Here is an alternative theory:
Some aspects of this attempted coup are inconsistent with the past and make the planners look suspiciously unprofessional.
1. Rebels launched the coup before capturing or isolating Erdogan. It appears that they did not know where he was when the coup was initiated.
2. Rebels seized state broadcaster TRT but did not try to interrupt news coverage by other, pro-government news channels. It allowed continued access to the Internet. A few hours after TRT announced martial law, Erdogan appeared on CNN Turk and called on his supporters to gather in the streets.
3. As a growing number of Erdogan supporters rallied in the streets, the army continued urging people to stay at home. As a result, the street demonstrations were solidly pro-Erdogan.
4. It has been reported that rebels shots civilians — a first in the history of Turkish military coups. Yet despite live coverage from virtually every angle of major confrontation points, there has been no footage of the military shooting civilians. Who shot civilians?
“This uprising is a gift from God.”
Before the coup, Erdogan had reached the limits of change. His efforts to impose religion-based education and the government’s propaganda created an unprecedented level of polarization. About half of the country support him while the rest oppose him. He could do little without tearing the country apart even further.
The failed coup gives Erdogan carte blanche to push change further. In one of his first moves after returning to the capital Ankara, Erdogan removed 2,700 judges from office. This is a step that Erdogan had proposed repeatedly, without success. Now many fear there will be subsequent moves to erode the secular nature of the judicial system.
Erdogan can expect very little resistance.
Erdogan himself saw advantages: “This uprising is a gift from God to us because this will be a reason to cleanse our army.”
Turkey’s president wasted no time blaming U.S.-based Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen of orchestrating the coup. The government accuses Gulen of trying to create a “parallel structure” within the courts, police, armed forces and media.
Erdogan said Turkey would demand that Western countries return Gulen’s supporters living there, and submit an extradition request for Gulen himself to the United States.
But the European Union’s foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, warned Turkey’s government on Monday against taking steps that would damage the constitutional order following the failed coup.
“We are the ones saying today rule of law has to be protected in the country,” she said in Brussels. “There is no excuse for any steps that take the country away from that.”
Whether it was a real or orchestrated coup, or the instigators were simply inept, Erdogan emerges victorious. Nearly 6,000 people in the armed forces and judiciary have been arrested, and Erdogan has begun to purge the military. In the near future, he can expect very little resistance if any from the opposition or a confused society.
(The views are the author’s.)
Rashad Mammadov is a PhD candidate at Indiana University’s Media School, with a research focus on political communication. He holds a master’s degrees in journalism and mass communication. He worked as a reporter and editor for almost a decade in newspapers and magazines covering international politics and media economics.