When I saw the tanks rolling in streets last Friday, I could not believe it was happening. The scenes were surreal. The land of my birth became a war zone.
Had the coup been successful, a civil war would have erupted in Turkey, making the one in Syria look like a cartoon.
Why is all this important to the United States?
Turkey is a NATO member and has the second largest standing army in the alliance after that of the U.S. Traditionally, the Turkish Armed Forces (TAF) assumed a role of keeping the country in line with the principles of secularism, Turkish nationalism and pro-Western orientation. Turkey has been a strong ally for the U.S.
This is not the first time the armed forces have intervened in government. At one time the clout of the military over the politicians was so great that the chief of staff of TAF ranked second after the president in the Supreme Security Council. The council determined Turkey’s domestic and foreign policies. The balance of power between the military and the civilians began to alter when pro-Islamic but liberal Tayyip Erdogan managed to win a landslide election in 2002, granting him and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) a super majority in the Turkish parliament.
At first, Erdogan chose to enthusiastically pursue policies for Turkey’s accession to the European Union, which, among other things, required the demilitarization of politics. The EU membership negotiations created a legitimate ground for Erdogan to minimize the military’s influence without angering them too much. After all, the pro-Western Turkish Armed Forces would not oppose Turkey’s ultimate integration with the West. Erdogan was able to fully subdue the power of the TAF by 2010 through strategic appointments of generals who were pro-Erdogan.
Who is Gulen and why is Erdogan assigning blame to him for this attempted coup? In order to reinforce his political power, Erdogan began to appeal to an influential moderate Islamist scholar by the name of Fethullah Gulen, whose thousands of followers established an empire of educational enterprises not only in Turkey but across the world. Gulen is known to aspire to infiltrate in-state institutions, including the military, judiciary and the police force, thus establishing his own version of governance. Gulen fled to the U.S. in 1999, two years after the military coup that had purged the Islamists in Turkey.
The Gulenist movement, over the decades, had become successful in placing its members in key positions in the military, police forces and the judiciary. The ever-growing Gulenist movement began to challenge Erdogan for supremacy, which heralded the power struggle between the two. The power struggle to control the country reached its zenith when the pro-Gulenist police and members of judiciary issued arrest warnings for some members of the AKP government, claiming that they had received bribery in return for allowing the transfer of gold from Iran.
Evidently, this move was aimed to force the AKP government to step down and eventually lose its majority in the parliament. Erdogan responded to this move by outlawing private cram schools in Turkey, the majority belonging to the Gulenist movement. The government claimed that these schools were recruiting the pro-Gulenist individuals who later moved to important state institutions as well as lucrative businesses that provide the money necessary to run the movement.
In retaliation, in 2014 the pro-Gulenist soldiers intercepted a convoy of trucks carrying weapons from Turkey to Syria to be delivered to the Syrian-Turkomans, who fight against ISIS as well as the Syrian government. The Gulenist movement claimed the weapons were en route to ISIS. Several high-ranking officers were later arrested for treason. Gulen, who now resides in Pennsylvania, creates friction between Turkey and the U.S. Ankara has repeatedly asked Washington for Gulen’s extradition but has received no positive answer. It will be interesting to see if this attempt and Gulen’s connection will change Washington’s mind.
So why did the plot fail? The coup attempt came in bold defiance of Erdogan and the AKP government. First of all, what makes this unique is that for the first time in the history of Turkey, a pro-Islamist (Gulenist) faction in the Turkish military attempted to overthrow the pro-Islamic government. This is in stark contrast with the previous coups that were carried out by the Kemalist/secular military against weak or pro-Islamic governments.
However, Erdogan and the AKP have a strong constituent base and are very popular. More than half of the country supports him. Therefore, unlike the case in Egypt, the coup did not receive popular backing.
Second, the business and media circles denied their support to the coup. Turkey’s relative stability compared to her neighbors Iraq, Syria, Greece and Ukraine, has rendered the AKP government an ideal choice for these circles.
Third, while the coup was attempted by quite a few officers, very few were high ranking. Most of the top generals in the military, including the chief of staff of the Armed Forces sided with Erdogan. This drastically reduced the hopes for a successful coup.
Finally, during his tenure, Erdogan paid close attention to strengthening the police force, which came in handy to counter the military.
The popular opposition to the coup showed the zeal of the Turkish people for democracy. You could see and hear thousands of people in the streets. They stood against the coup.
However, what happens now will determine the future of Turkey. A widespread crackdown on the members of the Gulenist movement in the country has already begun. Thousands of judges and ranking officers have already been arrested for treason and it is evident that Erdogan became much stronger out of this.
What he chooses to do with that strength will determine the future of Turkey.
Ali Demirdas is a member of the International Studies faculty at the College of Charleston.