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IOS Minaret Vol-1, No.1 (March 2007)
Vol. 11    Issue 06   01-15 August 2016

Turkey’s Failed Military Coup

Professor A. R. MOMIN

As night fell on 15 July 2016, military jets were seen flying menacingly over Ankara and over the Bosporus Bridge in Istanbul and gunshots were heard at some places in the two cities. It soon became clear that a small faction of the Turkish army had attempted a military coup against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the AKP-led government. Rebel soldiers seized parts of Ankara and Istanbul, bombed the police and intelligence service headquarters, attacked Parliament and the Presidential Palace in Ankara and fired at policemen and the public. The plotters had at their disposal 35 military planes, 37 helicopters, 74 tanks, aerial refuelling tankers and 3 ships. They held Turkey’s chief of staff Gen. Hulusi Akar hostage, almost strangling him with a belt, and tried to force him to sign the coup declaration. But a defiant and furious Gen. Akar rebuked the rebel soldiers and refused to sign the declaration. A total of 246 people, mostly civilians, were killed by the rebel soldiers and more than 2000 injured. The dead included young men, women and old men.

President Erdogan, who was holidaying in Marmaris in south-west Turkey, got wind of the coup and managed to leave the presidential palace just an hour before the rebels could capture or kill him. He had the presence of mind to get in touch with CNN Turk, a private television station, on his mobile phone’s video app and gave an interview on FaceTime, in which he urged the Turkish people to come out on the streets to foil the coup. Within minutes hundreds of thousands of people came out on the streets and squares of Istanbul and Ankara and defied the curfew imposed by the rebel group. Protesters sent out messages on Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp and other social media platforms, which greatly helped in mobilising large numbers of people within a short time. Large crowds surged forward, seething with rage and resentment, and surrounded the rebel soldiers on Istanbul’s Bosporus Bridge. Some people lay down in front of the tanks of rebel soldiers to halt their movement. Unnerved and intimidated by the huge crowds, the rebels surrendered themselves to the police. Many of them were thrashed by civilians. In less than 24 hours the coup came to an end, thanks to the swift move of President Erdogan and Prime Minister Binali Yildirim, the courageous action of Gen. Hulusi Akar and, most importantly, the spontaneous and prompt reaction of the Turkish people. It was undoubtedly a historic and unprecedented event in the history of modern Turkey.

In retrospect, it seems the coup was a desperate attempt by a section of the Turkish army to preempt a wave of detentions and demotions of hundreds of army personnel who are suspected of being involved in a conspiracy to topple the elected government that was planned in early August this year.

Immediately after the abortive coup attempt, President Erdogan and Prime Minister Yildirim took a series of swift and strong actions against people who were suspected of being complicit in the July 15 putsch. Nearly 1,700 defence personnel, including 149 generals and admirals, more than a third of the total, were detained and 283 members of the palatial guards were suspended. Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavsoglu said that more than 300 persons in his ministry had links to Fethullah Gulen, who is widely believed to have masterminded the coup. Of these, 88 have been dismissed.

On 20 July President Erdogan declared an emergency for 3 months. Since then more than 60,000 soldiers, policemen, judges and public prosecutors and civil servants have been detained or suspended or have been placed under investigation. At least 3,049 judges and prosecutors have been detained. As many as 1043 private schools, 1229 charities and foundations, 19 trade unions and 35 medical institutions, which are suspected of having links with the Gulen movement, have been closed down. The government has also ordered the closure of 3 news agencies, 45 newspapers, 15 magazines, 29 publishing houses and 16 television channels. The chief executive of Petkim, Turkey’s largest petrochemicals company, has resigned and has subsequently been detained in connection with the conspiracy to topple the government.

Huge crowds on Ankara’s streets and public squares celebrate the victory of the government over the rebels All political parties in the country, including the Republican People’s Party (CHP), Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) and the People’s Democratic Party (HDP), have unequivocally condemned the coup and have expressed support and solidarity with the government in dealing with this unprecedented crisis.

On 28 July, Turkey’s Supreme Military Council, chaired by Prime Minister Binali Yildirim, approved the proposal that Turkey’s armed forces and the national intelligence agency will be brought under the control of the presidency. This would require a constitutional amendment, for which the ruling AK party will have to seek the support of the major political parties in Parliament.

The Coup and West’s Ambivalent stance

Regrettably, the response of Western countries to the 15 July coup and the killing of 179 civilians by the plotters has been rather lukewarm and myopic. There have been no condolences from Western countries or from the European Union. General Joseph Votel, head of US Central Command, said after the coup that the detention of some military leaders could damage Turkish-American military operations. US national intelligence director James Clapper said that Turkey’s crackdown on military officers who were involved in the plot to topple the government would disrupt Turkish-American cooperation in fighting the IS.

For decades, Western governments have cheered and supported dictators and autocratic rulers in the Arab and Muslim world and turned a blind eye to their shameful record of suppression of human rights, largely because such rulers were useful in protecting and augmenting the West’s economic, political and ideological interests and acted as a bulwark against the rising influence of Islamic groups. The Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten released a series of US diplomatic cables from 2006, which show that the US was fully aware of the appalling levels of corruption in Tunisia, but chose to overlook it and continued its support for Ben Ali because of his role in suppressing Islamic movements and dissident leaders. Rachid Ghannoushi, leader of Hizb al-Nahdah, has aptly remarked that “while the West criticizes Islamic governments for not being democratic, it also supports governments that are not democratic and that are keeping Islamic movements away from developing their ideas.” United States, which never tires of expressing its commitment and support for the protection of human rights, continues to support the authoritarian rule of Abdel Fattah al-Susi in Egypt.

In the Introduction to Human Rights Watch’s World Report 2012, Kenneth Roth wrote that Western governments could not credibly maintain a commitment to democracy if they rejected electoral results when an Islamic party does well. The report called on Western governments to come to terms with the rise of Islamic political parties and press them to respect human rights. “So long as freely elected governments respect basic rights, they merit presumptive international support, regardless of their religious or political complexion,” the report said.

Turkish Military’s Impervious Might

The Turkish army, the second largest in NATO, consists of more than 500,000 soldiers and officers and has an annual budget of about $20 billion.

Since the establishment of the Turkish Republic, the army has wielded enormous powers and influence and has blatantly interfered in matters of state, politics and society. Since 1960 the generals have toppled four democratically elected governments on specious grounds. Following the 1980 military coup, 50 people were executed and 500,000 people were arrested, and many of them died in prison. Necmettin Erbakan was forced by the military to step down on the grounds that he and his Refah Party harboured a secret agenda to promote Islamic fundamentalism in the country. Erbakan was prohibited from all political activities and his party was outlawed. In 2007 Gen. Yasar Buyukanit, the then chief of the armed forces, was opposed to the nomination of Abdullah Gul for the presidency on the grounds that his wife wears a headscarf. However, the AK party and Parliament ignored his intervention and elected Gul as President. In 2008 the generals urged the Constitutional Court to ban the AK Party on the grounds that it was pursuing a secret agenda to impose Islamic laws on the country. The plea was eventually dismissed by the Constitutional Court.

Some of the soldiers who participated in the 15 July coup were deceived into believing that they were taking part in a military exercise. Many of the officers who have been detained are connected to the Gulen movement. Some of them had replaced secular-minded officers who were sacked by Erdogan on charges of plotting a coup against the government. The Turkish army, a strong pillar of the Turkish state, is now diminished and discredited in the eyes of the Turkish people.

Fethullah Gulen

Fathullah Gulen was born in 1941 in the village of Korucuk, near Erzurum, in Anatolia. He received his early education, including the elementary teachings of Islam and Arabic and Persian, from his father Ramiz Gulen, who was an imam at a local mosque. He later studied at a madrasa in Erzurum. At the age of 20 he left his village to teach in a mosque at Edirne, and later joined the Kestanepazari Quran School at Izmir as a teacher, where he drew a fairly large number of students, teachers, professionals and businessmen to his fold. He travelled to various parts of Anatolia to give lectures and discourses in mosques and public meeting places. After the 1971 military coup, Gulen was arrested for clandestinely promoting religious activities, deemed illegal by the authorities, and was imprisoned for seven months.

In 1999 Gulen migrated to the United States for medical treatment. While he was in the US, he was charged with plotting to subvert Turkey’s secular constitution and to overthrow the government and to establish an Islamic state. The trial, in absentia, dragged on for many years, and he was finally acquitted of all charges in 2008. Since 1999 Gulen has lived in self-imposed exile in a highly secured sprawling estate in the mountains of eastern Pennsylvania.

The Gulen movement, known as Hizmet (service) has hundreds of thousands of followers in Turkey and in the Turkish diaspora in various parts of the world. His followers include wealthy and influential people who have founded newspapers, hospitals, insurance companies, schools and universities in more than 100 countries around the world. The Gulen movement controls the widely-read Zaman newspaper (closed down by the government), the private Bank Asya, Samanyolu TV and many media and business organisations, including the Turkish Confederation of Businessmen and Industrialists (TUSKON). In 1999 Gulen urged his followers to infiltrate public institutions, including the military, judiciary, civil services, charities and universities.

Gulen’s followers have often been involved in political intrigue and fabrication of evidence. The trial of hundreds of army officers in the infamous Sledgehammer and Ergenekon cases in 2010 are believed to have been orchestrated by Gulen’s followers in the intelligence, police and the judiciary.

President Erdogan has accused Gulen of building a deep state within the Turkish state, a “parallel structure” in the judiciary, military, education system and media. Nearly two-thirds of Turks believe that the failed coup was masterminded by Gulen.

The AK Party and Erdogan

When the AK party came to power in 2002, it was faced with four distinct and formidable challenges: the legacy of a centralised, authoritarian, ultra-secularist state bequeathed by the Kemalist establishment, a constitution drafted by the army generals in the wake of the 1980 military coup, which reinforced the autocratic powers of the government and violated basic human rights and civil liberties, a powerful army that was impervious to civilian control and oversight, and a civil service – judges, public prosecutors, lawyers – that was wedded to the Kemalist ideology.

The 1982 constitution prohibited the teaching of any language other than Turkish in schools. Similarly, it outlawed the wearing of headscarves on university campuses, which reflects a clear violation of human rights. In 2008 the AK party successfully pushed through a proposal in Parliament for an amendment to the constitution whereby women with headscarves could attend university. The proposal was buttressed by the argument that that the headscarf was a symbol of individual liberty and religious freedom. However, later in the same year, the amendments were set aside by the Constitutional Court.

On September 12, 2010 the then Prime Minister Erdogan placed a package of constitutional amendments, which were earlier approved by the Turkish Grand Assembly and endorsed by the then President Abdullah Gul, for a national referendum. The amendments included expanding the sphere of individual rights and civil liberties, gender equality, positive discrimination for children, women and the disabled, the establishment of ombudspersons, collective bargaining for government employees, curtailing the powers of the judiciary and army, and bringing Turkey more in line with the European Union. The amendments gave the Turkish president and Parliament greater say over the appointment of senior judges and prosecutors and over the functioning of the Constitutional Court. According to the amendments, civilian courts have the power to prosecute military personnel for crimes against the state. The amendments were approved by 58 per cent of the voters in the referendum. On May 9, 2013, four main political parties in Parliament reached an agreement to add a clause in the new constitution that will allow women to wear headscarves in positions of public service.

Under the 1982 constitution, the chief of the general staff is not subordinate to the minister of defence and the defence budget is not subject to civilian oversight. The AK party has argued that the principle of equality before the law and the rule of law should be enforced without any exception and that in a democratic polity the military should be subordinate to the civilian government and its powers as well as the defence budget should be subject to civilian oversight. The party introduced a set of constitutional amendments in 2010 that allowed the generals to be tried in civilian courts. The amendments were approved by 58 per cent of voters in a national referendum.

The AK party and President Erdogan have made a highly important contribution to the democratisation of the state and society by carrying out amendments in the constitution, restricting the role of the military in politics and subjecting it to civilian control and oversight, and initiating wide-ranging social and economic reforms in keeping with the aspirations of the Turkish people.

Opportunity in Adversity

Sometimes, adverse and trying situations and circumstances, both natural and man-made, have unintended, unanticipated consequences, both real and potential. Such adversities provide a historic opportunity to societies and nations to engage in collective self-introspection, to draw lessons from past mistakes, to take momentous decisions and to launch a movement for social and political reconstruction and renewal. I believe the abortive coup of 15 July, which has evidently shaken the country, offers a historic opportunity for the governing AK party and the political class and the Turkish people. The crisis has the potential of forging a strong sense of national unity and solidarity, transcending narrow political, ideological and sectarian affiliations and differences.

The Turkish Republic is grappling with several grave challenges, including the terrorist attacks launched by the so-called Islamic State, Kurdish insurgency, the influx of hundreds of thousands of refugees from Syria and Iraq and the clandestine machinations by a section of the military and judiciary to topple the government. President Erdogan can turn this crisis into a historic opportunity by reaching out to all political parties, particularly the opposition parties, in order to deal with these challenges.

The Turkish people showed exemplary courage and determination in confronting the plotters who were armed with guns, tanks and helicopters and rallied behind Erdogan. Erdogan should build on this unprecedented outpouring of national unity and solidarity by reaching out to all sections of Turkish society, including human rights groups and civil rights organisations. In a commendable gesture of goodwill and magnanimity, Erdogan announced on 19 July that he would withdraw lawsuits against people – estimated to number around 2,000 – who are accused of insulting him.

Similarly, President Erdogan should take the initiative of forging closer ties with his senior colleagues in the AKP, especially former president Abdullah Gul and former prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu, in order to iron out and reconcile differences of opinion and to solicit their fullest cooperation in this moment of crisis.

It is important for the Turkish people and for the world to know with certainty who masterminded the failed coup and how it was hatched and carried out. This could be known only when the detailed military officers and their backers are interrogated and brought to justice. The government should then bring out a comprehensive and credible dossier on the coup and the ramifications of the conspiracy that led to it. This would strengthen President Erdogan’s credibility in the eyes of the Turkish people as well as political parties and silence his critics and detractors.

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