Just as darkness was about to settle along the Bosphorus Friday evening, a faction of officers within Turkey’s military launched a coup d’état against the state. In the ensuing chaos, which included the bombing of the Turkish parliament, gunfights between soldiers and police officers, and a violent exchange with unarmed protestors, 265 people were killed and over 1,400 wounded. As is the case with most defining events in Turkey’s history, the finer details of the coup—in particular the who and the why—will be subject to intense debate for decades to come, but there is little question that it managed overnight both to strengthen the position of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and thrust his country into the unknown.
The coup, rushed by its organizers perhaps out of fear they might soon be found out, was a failure. And yet it came very close to decapitating Turkey’s leadership. Special Forces reportedly raided the hotel where Erdoğan was vacationing, and two F-16s harassed the president’s jet while he was en route to Istanbul. For reasons unknown, they didn’t open fire, but the threat was very real.
What the leaders behind this putsch seemed to overestimate was the support they would receive from the Turkish public. Instead, they found themselves alone, rejected by a population still traumatized by previous coups. Every major political party spoke out against the plot, demanding respect for the democratic process.
The putschists also underestimated Erdoğan, whose swift response amidst the chaos managed to reverse the tide. His decision to go on-air via FaceTime while the state television network was being held at gunpoint proved to be a masterstroke, galvanizing his constituency to take back the streets despite the very real threat of being fired upon by armed soldiers and tanks. Equally shrewd was Erdoğan’s directive to the Diyanet (Turkey’s religious authority) to conscript a people’s army by turning minarets across the country into megaphones for the cause. By the time he landed at Istanbul’s Ataturk International Airport, the coup had been transformed into a nationwide mass protest.
Mobbed at the airport entrance in manner that resembled Ayatollah Khomeini’s return to Tehran in 1979, Erdoğan, with unbridled optimism, told a sea of iPhone-wielding supporters that “This uprising is a gift from Allah to us because this will be a reason to cleanse our army.”
Erdoğan’s performance wasn’t entirely improvised. After all, much of his previous political success was built upon challenging Turkey’s secular institutions, in particular the military. In December 1997, Erdoğan (then mayor of Istanbul) recited a controversial quatrain from a nationalist poem during a public address in the southeastern city of Siirt. “The mosques are our barracks,” he told the crowd, “the domes our helmets, the minarets our bayonets, and the believers our soldiers.” Threatened by this rising political star, the state summarily tried and convicted Erdoğan for “inciting hatred based on religious differences.” But the move backfired, turning Erdoğan into a national figure. When he journeyed to Thrace to begin serving his four-month sentence in 1999, thousands escorted him to the prison gates.
This isn’t to say that Erdoğan contrived the recent coup in order to advance his goal of one-man rule, as some have argued. But Erdoğan was certainly ready to seize the opportunity once it presented itself.
An Erdoğan-directed purge has already begun. Working from what can only be assumed a partially preconceived list, the Turkish government has already detained 30 provincial governors, 47 district governors, 103 high-ranking military officials, and more than 3,000 soldiers. By the end of the weekend 2,745 judges were dismissed from their posts. So far, the government’s attention has been focused on identifying affiliates of the Islamic cleric Fethullah Gülen, Erdoğan’s partner-turned-rival and the coup’s alleged mastermind. But if previous trials of the Erdoğan era are any indication, many innocent individuals will likely find their names added to the list, as well.
It is natural for a government that has survived a coup to take extraordinary measures in order to reassure the people of its legitimacy. Nevertheless, a purge that further weakens the country’s institutions and polarizes an already divided public will have a negative impact on Turkish democracy and make larger portions of the population vulnerable to radicalization. The latest events have already sent Turkey’s economy into a massive freefall. Hunting down real or perceived putschists will also draw vital government resources away from other critical challenges, most notably the ongoing campaign against the PKK and the threat posed by Islamic State.
All coups, successful or not, generate uncertainty. Erdoğan may have succeeded in overcoming a deadly challenge to his authority, but in the process he has only confirmed a great many existing fears about where Turkish democracy is heading in the future.