Protest in any society arises from discontent with the status quo, unlike a coup, in which there is an armed push to overthrow the state with the help of the military. The recent botched putsch in Turkey simultaneously falls into both categories and neither – something inbetween but with a catch: The true winner of the overnight coup, President Erdogan, is using this “God-given gift” to reinvigorate his version of democracy and further the exact actions that caused the protests in the Turkish society in the first place.
Underneath the facts that we know about the messy and short-lived coup-that-wasn’t, there is a more dramatic series of events yet kept in the dark. Many believe that it was not an actual coup d’état as it lacked the real defining characters of one; and even if we can call it a coup, it was doomed to fail since the very beginning as it was nothing comparable to Turkey’s previous military interventions in politics – in 1960, 1971, 1980, and 1997.
Every novice in politics knows that all politics is about contrast. And to turn a contrasting voice to durable political power in a democracy, you need popular support, which would be garnered if your promised changes to the status quo that capture the essence of what people truly want.
This was not the case in Turkey as the plotters seemed to be following a checklist from a very outdated version of Coup d’etat for Dummies –and very incompetently too. Waiting for the president to leave the town for a holiday. Check. Seizing the main airport, sealing off internationally-significant routes – here Istanbul’s Bosphorus Bridge and Fatih Sultan Mehmet Bridge. Check. Sending tanks to the parliament. Check. And taking over the offices of Turkish Radio and Television (TRT), the country’s national public broadcaster and broadcasting a statement declaring a curfew. Check.
But the putschists had no planning to capture important figures in the authority or major government buildings, no one to lead the endeavor, no strategy for communication and social media, no popular fan base in society – or even in the military itself, and no coordination among their ranks. Even the creation of their executive body, the Turkish Peace Council, was announced by a news anchor at the TRT news channel during the coup, allegedly at gunpoint.
Istanbul-based military affairs researcher Gareth Jenkins says, “This coup was obviously planned quite well but using a playbook from the 1970s,” and Sinan Ülgen, a Turkish foreign policy scholar with the Carnegie Europe think tank, believes that the plotters’ biggest flaw was their undefined line of authority and lack of control over the key levers of power. He says, “Their blueprint was also ineffective since they failed from the outset to capture any military installations in Turkey or any of the (political) leadership” as they were acting outside the military chain of command.
Erdogan, who is frequently accused of muzzling media and journalists, turned out to be more tech-savvy than the plotters as he managed using the media to change the narrative and outflank his enemy forces on the streets thanks to an app on his smartphone.
Rebel without a cause?
According to claims by some of the soldiers who were detained following the turmoil, they were told by commanders they were part of a military drill, and they only understood that it was an attempted coup when they faced popular resistance. Moreover, as much as he insists on the role of erstwhile ally Fethullah Gulen – living in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania – Erdogan has not provided any solid evidence proving his involvement.
Nobody still knows for sure who the brain behind the bungled attempt was, or even whether it was staged by Erdogan or by a cleric from the United States. It is not yet clear how much control the plotters managed to gain over government’s institutions, or how the coup would affect Turkey’s relations with the European countries and the United States – given the fact that a reliable army is of utmost importance for the NATO ally.
With their support, the US and EU – and almost everybody who supported Erdogan against the plotters — sent a signal to the potentate that they prefer a flawed democracy to military rule; that they care more for stability than freedom; that any successful coup would be more disastrous for the region than Erdogan’s existing state of affairs.
Reborn from the ashes of his long campaign to kill and jail Kurds, critics, adversaries, and journos, Erdogan is now hoping that the failed plot would give him the clean slate he desperately needs for a new era in modern Turkey. The plot still seems like an Erdogan-versus-Erdogan tale as he is the sole beneficiary but it may have set in motion another narrative: Can Erdogan keep on selling his democracy to the world?