Thoughts On The Failed Coup

LAST FRIDAY a group of officers within the Turkish Armed Forces attempted, and failed, to lead a military coup against the government of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. We know it was not a hierarchical coup, the Birinci Ordu (First Army) stayed in barracks and the head of the armed forces, General Hulusi Akar, was taken hostage. The police force remained loyal to the government and exchanged fire with the golpistas, eventually arresting and rounding up soldiers. It seems MİT (the national intelligence agency) also engaged in armed resistance against the coup. Some sources have claimed MİT were onto the plotters, which spurred them to act.

The discourse of the coup, however, appears to have been of the ulusalcı, centre-left nationalists who see themselves as defending the secular and constitutional legacy of Kemalism – the founding ideology of the modern Turkish state. The coup’s call to ‘reinstall the constitutional order, democracy, human rights and freedoms, to ensure that the rule of law once again reigns in the country [and] for law and order to be reinstated’ is an update on a familiar discourse in Turkish military-civilian relations. The ringleaders described themselves as the Yurtta Sulh Konseyi (Peace at Home Council), after Atatürk’s famous Kantian formula, ‘Peace in the Fatherland, Peace in the World’. This would place the putsch in the Aydemir tradition, after the botched coups of Talat Aydemir in the early 1960s, when military officers tried to establish control but lacked the power, political will and conditions to do so.

However, the immediate culprit in the eyes of Erdoğan is Fethullah Gülen. Gülen is a Sunni cleric and the head of the transnational Hizmet (Service) movement, which preaches a moderate and pro-western version of Islam that stresses the importance of civic virtues. He has often been in the spotlight for his network of schools, both within Turkey and in the U.S. Germany and France. He was once a close government ally, instrumental in the AKP’s bid for civilian control of the military and related attempts to expose and disassemble the nefarious Turkish ‘deep state’. However, Gülenists now stand accused by Erdoğan of filling the vacuum created by civilianisation, infiltrating the state at every level. This narrative is so embedded in Turkish politics that the Gülenists are referred to as the ‘Parallel’ – the state within the state. So far a handful of colonels have been accused as ringleaders, some of whom allegedly have ties to Fethullah Gülen but it is too early to tell the extent of the Gülenists’ involvement. As Andrew Finkle has correctly pointed out, Erdoğan accuses all who criticise him as being part of this shadowy conspiracy. Nevertheless military insiders have insinuated the Gülenists were involved, even if they were not the protagonists.

There are some truly historic conclusions to be taken from the failed coup. Firstly, when Erdoğan asked the Turkish masses to go onto the streets and defy the military, they did. The Turkish people rejected military interference. On 25 May 1960, Prime Minister Adnan Menderes addressed two hundred and fifty thousand of his supporters in Gallipoli at a huge political rally celebrating his decade of electoral success and grip on power. Two days later he was arrested and hanged. Erdoğan has achieved what Menderes could not: establishing a majoritarian autocracy and defending it.

Cihan Tuğal has described the AKP’s rise to power as a ‘passive revolution’, a Gramscian term denoting a significant change that does not occur with a sudden rupture but is gradual. If true, Friday night was the peak of the passive revolution. As many have highlighted, Erdoğan will be unstoppable now. CNN Turkey, which famously played a documentary about penguins during the Gezi uprising, broadcasted not only Erdoğan’s direct call for people to take to the streets (via Facetime), but also the military occupation of their headquarters that followed hours later. The clear anti-democratic narrative that can be spun from this will play into Erdoğan’s hands.

Erdoğan sees himself as embodying the direct and unmediated representation of the national will. He has his own Tiananmen Square-esque scenes to capitalise from – the people standing in front of tanks waving al bayrak. But there are also counter narratives emerging: AKP demonstrators have reportedly beheaded a soldier in Istanbul, and secularists have posted videos of crowds in the streets shouting, ‘Allah Akbar.’

Secondly, the level of violence was remarkable, with tanks firing on the national assembly and live rounds fired at civilians in the cosmopolitan hubs. There is a great deal of pent up violence running through Turkish society. The death toll stands at around 200 with thousands more wounded. If the military can act like this in Istanbul and Ankara, it makes one wonder about the horrors taking place against the Kurds in the east, out of sight and out of mind.

There are already a host of theories on who is behind the coup – the Gülenists are a front for the real Kemalists in the army! The whole thing was an elaborate plot hatched by Erdoğan himself! – but nothing will be answered soon. As one comrade reminded me, it was decades before the secrets of the 1980 coup became clear.

The coming days are likely to see a brutal hunt for traitors, a national rallying cry led by Erdoğan, and greater consolidation of power by the government. Many secularists are teetering on defending the coup as ‘progressive’. This is a mistake. Those of us whose friends and families were affected by the 1980 coup cannot turn round and rehearse the arguments of previous reactionaries. ‘Down with Erdoğan’ and ‘Down with Tanks’ are not mutually exclusive.

—Aydin Emre Osborne Dikerdem


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