“Nobody expected it!” This is the phrase making the rounds in global analyses of the failed coup attempt in Turkey last week.
However, there may be evidence that at least some people, among them President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, might have expected it, though perhaps not at that precise date.
That Erdogan must have had at least some inkling that something was afoot is instantly clear from the speed with which his security services managed to arrest more than 6000 of his real or suspected opponents in just 24 hours. Such an operation must have been prepared long in advance, just in case.
Also prepared long in advance was the purge of the judiciary, army, the gendarmeries and the secret services. By the time of this writing, almost 3000 judges and more than 7000 officers, some up to the rank of general, had received their dismissal notice.
Some Turkish observers believe that Erdogan had planned to round up his opponents in what he calls “the parallel state” within the next few weeks. The starting shot was supposed to be fired on 15 August, the date at which the High Council of National Security which he chairs is due to consider plans for a massive re-structuring of the military and security organs. Such meetings also approve lists of military promotions and retirements.
Thus, observers believe that some of officers who had been destined for the axe decided to launch a pre-emptive coup. The core of the coup consisted of 48 senior officers, including five generals. At least two of the generals are known to have been involved in the last major coup in 1980 led by General Kenan Even.
This is perhaps why the coup-leaders used the classical blueprint established more than 30 years ago. They copied that blueprint in major ways, including by ordering a curfew, announcing the formation of a Military Junta and seizing strategic buildings such as radio and TV stations, the telephone exchange and offices of major newspapers.
However, they left out two important ingredients of the previous coup plans. The first was to ensure credible political backing for the coup before ordering the tanks into the streets.
All other previous military coups in Turkey had been conducted in close cooperation with the People’s Republican Party (CHP), the political vanguard of the Kemalist elite and the Turkish army’s interface with society at large.
In 1960, General Cemal Gursel, the Chief of Staff who led the coup against President Celal Bayar’s government, had already agreed on the formation of an interim government sanctioned by the CHP before he struck.
A similar pattern was observed in 1971 when the coup leader General Memduh Tagmac in effect ordered the politicians, in a pronunciamento, to form a new government under the military’s supervision.
The 1980 coup, led by General Evren produced a largely technocratic government but enjoyed significant political support nonetheless. The Turkish military had always avoided direct rule, claiming only the presidency of the republic which has always been a largely ceremonial position.
Last week’s coup had no obvious political support. This is, perhaps, why it decided to bombard the Grand National Assembly (parliament) building in Ankara to terrorize the politicians. Even before its failure had become apparent, the coup was condemned by all the political parties present in the parliament.
The second ingredient of the previous coups that was left out consisted of the proposed junta’s identity. In 1960, 1971 and 1980 the coup had been led by Turkey’s most senior general and in the name of upholding the republic’s secular institutions and Kemalist culture.
This time, none of the top 100 generals were involved. More importantly, the putschists sent mixed signals regarding their political identity. That made it easy for Erdogan to accuse them of operating on behalf of the “parallel state” led by the exiled cleric Fethullah Gulen.
The fact that some Gulenists both at home and in exile rushed to support the attempted coup gave greater credibility to Erdogan’s claims. Gulen himself opted for a tardy reaction, again helping Erdogan sell his narrative of a “plot” by the “parallel state.” Having stuck the Gulenist label on the putschists, Erdogan had little difficulty isolating them.
Many Turks saw the coup as a fight between two branches of the Islamist movement linked to the Muslim Brotherhood. Kemalists saw no advantage in getting rid of Erdogan only to end up with his alter ego, Gulen who had initially helped the AKP come to power.
Despite their disaffection with Erdogan, the broader democratic consistency in Turkey was also unable to develop any sympathy for the putschists because of their suspected links with Gulen and his murky network of business, security, religious and military contacts.
That constituency had been able to endorse the previous coups because of their promise of a return to constitutional rule and the holding of free elections. This time, no such promise was on the table.
As things stand now, Erdogan has won another round against his former mentor and ally. However, despite making his four-finger gesture, which he developed as a symbol of hoped-for victory for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Erdogan remerges from the last few days significantly weakened.
He is trying to depict his tactical victory as a product of popular support because of the few thousands who took to the streets of Istanbul and Ankara to oppose the coup. However, he knows full well that the coup failed not because of AKP crowds but because of its rejection by the Turkish armed forces and the political elite.
One sign that Erdogan emerges diminished from this round came when he had to telephone opposition party leaders asking for their support and suggesting meetings to discuss the future. This is significant because for at least two years he has refused even to talk to opponents he has made a habit of copiously insulting.
Erdogan also had to almost beg the military chiefs to arrange air transport for him to return to Ankara, an Olympian deity hitching a ride home.