Turkey’s Cyclical Coups

Turkey’s Cyclical Coups

Istanbul residents surround a tank abandonded during the coup attempt, July 16 (Eser Karadağ)

Turkey has faced an unprecedented number of crises in the last year. The spillover from the war in Syria has undermined a peace process between the government and the country’s Kurdish community, with the success of Syrian Kurdish militias on the border with Turkey producing fears of separatism among Turkey’s Kurds and prompting the government to relaunch a counter-insurgency campaign (read: war) in the largely Kurdish southeastern provinces. Nationwide, the country has experienced at least five major Islamic State attacks since June 2015. Meanwhile, Turkey now hosts some 2.7 million Syrian refugees. Turkey has also experienced increasing political polarization since the 2013 protests against the government that began in Istanbul’s Gezi Park revealed a deep split in the country. All of these challenges have destabilized the country’s economy and unnerved its population.

Yet almost no one expected, one Friday night in mid-July, to turn on their televisions and see Turkish jets dropping bombs on the country’s own parliament building. Government reforms over more than a decade had civilianized control of Turkey’s military and the armed forces were already embroiled in a brutal war in the southeast. The attempted coup of July 15 and its aftermath has eclipsed the previous crises of the last few years in its magnitude and potential to radically transform the country.

The violence of the failed coup attempt left more than 240 people dead and another 2,000 injured in Turkey’s principal cities. The sound of sonic booms over Istanbul and Ankara traumatized the residents of the country’s largest cities. Airstrikes on government buildings in Ankara and a protracted battle between soldiers and civilians, including police, over control of Istanbul’s bridges have been seared into the memories of the Turkish public. The failure of the coup is as much a testament to resistance among ordinary Turks to military rule by the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) as it is to the survival skills of the current government under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Yet for progressives who were relieved by the defeat of an attempted military coup, the results have been bittersweet at best. The aftermath of the failed coup has exacerbated the creeping authoritarianism they have long opposed, as the government asserts a new mandate to restructure state and society.

Had the coup succeeded, Turkey would likely have been plunged into a bloody civil war. A popularly elected president from an Islamist party (the governing Justice and Development Party, or AKP) would have been toppled by force, demonstrating, as in Algeria and Egypt, that democratic commitments give way to military coercion when Islamists succeed at the ballot box. The lesson that Islamist electoral victories are easily reversed and only extra-political violence can secure representation for large publics committed to Islamist politics would likely have unleashed new paroxysms of violence across the Middle East and beyond. That this worst-case scenario was avoided should be a source of some comfort beyond Turkey. Within the country, the majority of the public opposed the coup attempt, understanding that its success would have been more dangerous than the repressive countercoup currently underway. Yet the countercoup itself shares many of the key characteristics of military repression from earlier periods, including mass purges. In Turkey, opposition to military rule is not enough to overcome the cycles of top-down coercive governance that have formed a key part of the country’s state tradition.

Shifting Military-Civilian Relations

Turkey has a long experience with coups. Having undergone bloody military coups followed by periods of repression in 1960, 1971, and from 1980 to 1983, the country also experienced the toppling of an elected government by the military in what was deemed a “postmodern” coup in 1997. The military leaders who undertook these coups argued that they were necessary correctives to constrain elected governments from betraying the founding ideological commitments of the republic—known as “Kemalism,” after the founding statesman Mustafa Kemal—chief among them secularism. Civilian elites who identified as secularists and shared Kemalist commitments often supported those earlier coups.

In 2007, the military attempted to block the elected government’s choice of presidential candidate on similar grounds. Unlike in earlier episodes, this time the public’s tolerance for military intervention in civilian politics had waned. The AKP overcame the military’s challenge at the ballot box by calling early elections, garnering an increase in its vote share (from 34 percent in 2002 to 47 percent in 2007) and demonstrating public support for the election of Erdoğan’s predecessor, Abdullah Gül. The 2007 showdown between the armed forces and the government was an abortive coup rather than a failed one. Yet it was a sufficient public repudiation to send the military back to its barracks. And, for good measure, the AKP government took additional steps to ensure that the TSK would be purged of any elements harboring coup ambitions.

From 2007 to 2013, the ensuing trials—presided over by the AKP and known as the Ergenekon/Balyoz trials, after the alleged coup plots they disrupted—occasioned the detention, prosecution, and conviction of hundreds of military officers, journalists, and opposition lawmakers, who were accused of belonging to a clandestine secularist organization plotting to overthrow the government. As a result, the senior ranks of the Turkish military were purged, the hold of secularists on the ideological makeup of the top brass was broken, and more junior officers deemed sympathetic to the AKP were promoted to fill positions emptied by the trials. In light of the abortive attempt to block the AKP’s presidential candidate, and with evidence of some weapons stocks discovered by investigators, the initial charges seemed plausible to many Turks. But as sweeping arrests broadened and the alleged conspiracy grew beyond the military, the trials came to represent the government’s willingness to employ partisan prosecutors and judges to repress secularist opponents on the basis of fabricated evidence.

Establishing civilian control over the military was something a broad swath of the Turkish public supported, including Kemalists and Kurds as well as the AKP’s own constituency. However, the Ergenekon/Balyoz trials showcased the lengths to which the AKP would go to crush opposition, with troubling implications for Turkey’s constitutional order: politicized prosecutions called into question the independence of the country’s judiciary. The trials marked the deepening of polarization in the country, as the AKP honed a narrative of battling against shadowy conspiracies led by secular elites—said to be targeting not only the party’s rule but also its pious constituency—and thereby consolidated its base through a politics of fear. For the AKP’s secularist opponents, the trials undermined confidence in the courts and heralded a period in which the government seemed determined to blur the line between political opposition and treason. For Kurdish communities the violations of procedural protections and the imposition of summary justice echoed their own experiences of trials before military or national security courts as civilians repressed as part of the country’s counterinsurgency operations.

The purges of Kemalist military officers and their civilian allies came to an abrupt halt in 2013. Beginning in 2014, convictions were reversed and those who had been detained were released. A six-year witch hunt against a set of secularist adversaries and purported coup plotters ended as a new and more far-ranging set of purges began, this time against a group that were part of the AKP’s governing alliance for its first decade in office. The “Gülen movement,” as it is most often described in the English-language press, has come to the attention of many Western audiences only in the wake of July’s failed coup. In Turkey, by contrast, it has been the subject of an intense campaign of government demonization for the last three years. The sweeping purges since July 15 are an extension, and escalation, of these efforts.

The AKP-Gülen Relationship

The Gülen movement is an Islamic community whose membership draws on Turkey’s Sunni majority, a group that also makes up much of the AKP’s base. It clusters around Fethullah Gülen, an Islamist cleric and student of the Turkish sufi scholar Said Nursî, who lives in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania. Over four decades, Gülen’s followers have built a network of educational and financial assets, based initially on investments from Anatolian businessmen, that have made the movement a formidable private-sector presence in Turkey and beyond.

The AKP’s core constituency comes from a different, more orthodox Sunni tradition of political Islam that formed the basis for Turkey’s National Outlook (Milli Görüş) movement. That movement supported earlier Turkish Islamist parties like Refah and Fazilet that were subject to constitutional closure on accusations of anti-secular activities. When the AKP was formed it initially embraced a center-right, pro-business ideology that was less identified with National Outlook and more attractive to Gülenists. The two groups formed an alliance that was credited with the rise and consolidation of the AKP in its first decade as the premier center-right party of the Turkish political landscape. There were also widespread claims that once in government, the AKP helped appoint Gülen’s followers to key positions in the state bureaucracy, judiciary, and police.

Tensions in the alliance between the AKP and Gülenists sporadically came to light, beginning with a public dispute over foreign policy in 2010 (around the Mavi Marmara incident and relations with Israel) and in a subpoena issued by allegedly pro-Gülenist prosecutors against the AKP stalwart heading Turkish intelligence, Hakan Fidan, in 2012 (signaling a dispute over the handling of the PKK). Following the AKP’s resounding electoral victory in 2011 (with 49.8 percent of the vote in a three-party race), many speculated that the party no longer needed Gülenist support and had come to feel threatened by the community’s loyalties to the exiled cleric. The true rupture between the two groups burst into the open when the AKP announced in November 2013 that it would shut down the college prep schools that were a central element of the Gülen movement’s education and recruitment network. A month after that announcement, a criminal investigation was made public that implicated cabinet ministers and even Erdoğan’s relatives in wide-ranging corruption allegations, complete with televised images of shoeboxes filled with money taken out of homes in pre-dawn raids. Erdoğan, as prime minister, immediately declared that the allegations were false and were part of a politicized effort by Gülenist police, prosecutors, and judges to conduct a “judicial coup” against his government. By this point, the two groups were in active, open struggle.

The AKP eventually quashed the corruption probe by removing or demoting the police, prosecutors, and judges involved in the investigation. Under Erdoğan’s leadership, the government began to craft a new narrative concerning a shadowy conspiracy of coup plotters, dwarfing the Ergenekon/Balyoz cases even as it once again brought them into the headlines. The government identified those who had attempted the “judicial coup” against the AKP as members of the Gülen movement. Repeated public statements by AKP officials alleged that Gülenists had sought to infiltrate the civil service, creating a “parallel structure” within the state whose loyalty to Gülen superseded their duty to the elected government. The AKP now disavowed the Ergenekon/Balyoz trials, which it attributed retrospectively to this parallel structure. Almost overnight the government embraced the claims concerning fabricated evidence, procedural violations, and politicized trials that secularist opponents had pressed throughout the Ergenekon/Balyoz prosecutions but that AKP leaders had dismissed at the time. This reversal also allowed the government to initiate a rapprochement with the military’s top brass, building a new alliance as it shifted gears to battle Gülenists. One medium-term casualty of the government’s renewed reliance on the military has been the Kurdish community, with the AKP dropping its much-vaunted “Kurdish peace process” and resuming a strategy of military counterinsurgency in the country’s southeastern provinces in mid-2015.

As the government’s claims of the breadth of the Gülenist “parallel structure” grew, those swept up by claims that they had some affiliation with the Gülen movement were designated by AKP-controlled institutions—from ministries of the executive to courts increasingly staffed by AKP appointees—as enemies of the state to be removed from government positions and subjected to intimidation and repression in the private sector. The purges that removed police, prosecutors, and judges connected to the corruption investigation grew as many more hundreds and eventually thousands of judges and prosecutors were demoted or removed between 2014 and 2016. Media groups accused of being connected to the movement were shut down, their assets seized and journalists and editors prosecuted. A month before this summer’s failed coup, the government submitted a bill to parliament to remove all members of the country’s two highest appellate courts except for their presidents, chief prosecutors, and department chiefs. The changes would have affected 700 judges, allowing new appointments that many expected would reward those ruling favorably to the government and clear out anyone believed to have ties to Gülen. In May, the government officially designated Gülenists as a terrorist organization (members of the Fethullah Terror Organization, or FETÖ), enabling police and prosecutors to deploy the tools of counter-terrorism against the movement.

From Slow-Motion to Fast-Paced Coup

The bitterness over the years of the Ergenekon/Balyoz cases left many scores to be settled. Secularist elites had long complained that the AKP had consolidated its power by infiltrating a wide range of state institutions with Islamists (many of them Gülenists) through biased appointments procedures and rigged civil-service exams. The partisanship of prosecutors and judges involved in the trials of the military and their civilian allies from 2007 to 2013 only served to confirm these views. The Kurdish community, too, viewed alleged Gülenist officers, prosecutors and judges as responsible for earlier bouts of anti-Kurdish repression, including a set of counter-terrorism prosecutions against the KCK (Koma Civakên Kurdistan, an umbrella organization for Kurdish groups) that resulted in the arrests of hundreds of journalists, politicians, academics, and lawyers from 2009 to 2014. So the AKP’s opponents largely welcomed the party’s about-face against the Gülen movement as their interests momentarily converged. The fact that those purged have been replaced for the most part by AKP loyalists has not blunted the zeal of many Turks for punishing Gülenists. Even when the AKP has broadened its framing of enemies of the state to non-Gülen-affiliated opponents in the media, academia, and beyond, the sweep of its attacks have met with little public resistance. In January 2016, for instance, the government declared that 1128 Turkish academics who had signed a peace petition calling for an end to military operations in the country’s Kurdish provinces were guilty of “terrorist propaganda” and initiated criminal investigations against university professors across the country. Progressives who voiced criticism of the AKP’s increasingly authoritarian turn warned that the trials of academics and journalists, the purges of state and judiciary, represented a slow-motion coup against Turkish democracy. Since the failed July 15 coup, these voices, too, have been largely silenced by the reigning atmosphere of hyper-nationalism, fear, and repression accompanying the ever-widening purges.

The attempted coup marks the first time in Turkey’s history that elements within the military set out to depose an elected government by force and failed. While the blame has fallen squarely on Gülenist officers—some of whom may have been promoted to their positions in the wake of the Ergenekon/Balyoz trials—the government has taken the opportunity to remove both purported Gülenists as well as any opponents or critics within the state bureaucracy, the military, and the judiciary with full public support.

The resulting purges have been so extensive that they are hollowing out the Turkish state and reaching deep into society. A quick survey of the measures taken by the government, some of them through executive decree under a declared state of emergency, provide texture to the dizzying statistics. Over 22,000 people have been detained; under the state of emergency, they may be held for up to thirty days without charge. Over 40 percent of top-ranking generals have been dismissed and more than a third of all generals and admirals in the country are in detention. (The majority of senior officers removed have been described as “Atlanticists,” favoring Turkey’s NATO ties, while those who remain are “Eurasianists” more in line with the AKP’s reorientation of the country’s foreign policy.) Of the more than 75,000 people who have been suspended or removed from their positions, over 27,000 come from the Ministry of Education, over 8,000 from the Ministry of Interior, and over 10,000 from the armed forces; nearly 3,000 judges and prosecutors, as well as over 1,100 members of the Directorate of Religious Affairs (the department of the executive that governs all mosques in the country) have also been purged. Most other ministries have had between 100 and 600 staff suspended, including ambassadors from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, senior officials at the Treasury, and even staff of the state-owned Turkish Airlines.

In the educational sector, over 40,000 K-12 educators will have to be replaced in time for the new academic year (next month) as a result of the suspension of public school teachers and the over 21,000 private school teachers whose licenses have been revoked. At the university level, all 1,577 deans of the public and private universities in the country were forced to resign and their replacements will be determined only after candidates are vetted for Gülenist ties. Fifteen universities, 1,000 private schools, and over 1,200 charities and foundations including medical centers, labor unions, and other civil society associations have been subjected to enforced closure and asset seizure. One-hundred and thirty media outlets, encompassing both broadcast and print as well as nearly thirty publishing houses, have been shut down and their assets transferred to the Turkish treasury. Forty-eight journalists have been arrested and 330 have had their accreditations revoked. With each day since the coup the lists of suspensions and detentions have grown. Many are now waiting to see how far the government will go in dismantling financial networks and private-sector businesses with alleged ties to Gülen. Nor have AKP members been immune, as the party’s leadership has directed its own officials to identify and remove alleged moles within their ranks. Such purges may soon extend to the main opposition parties, targeting their elected representatives.

Whether or not the purges expand further, the measures already taken have hollowed out the state, dismantled the autonomy of civil society institutions, and eliminated checks and balances within the constitutional order. The space and tolerance for critical thinking and dissent has diminished. Under the state of emergency, the executive rules by decree and the judicial and civil service purges already undertaken will likely give way to new appointments that will stack the state bureaucracy, prosecutorial offices, and courts with AKP loyalists. Strikingly, all of this has been accomplished with widespread popular support.

Rallying the Public

Primed by a decade of official narratives about coup plots, much of the Turkish public accepts the argument that the coup revealed a dangerous menace that must be eliminated. In some respects, especially given the violence of July 15, this support is understandable. Yet broad acceptance of the proposition that coup-plotters and their affiliates number in the tens of thousands and are present throughout every level of government, the schools and universities, the media and the private sector remains deeply troubling. Few can seriously believe that the growing numbers of those suspended or detained could have played a direct role in the coup plot. Rather, the basis for suspensions and detentions is guilt by association.

The us-and-them framing of the purges has proven unifying in Turkey for the moment. The main opposition parties (with the possible exception of the pro-Kurdish HDP) have lent their support to the measures taken by the AKP to date. So much of the public agrees with the profound “other”-izing of Gülenists that the purges have reportedly decreased political polarization in the country. Here, too, events are playing out in a familiar pattern: the designation of discrete groups as internal enemies of the state has a long history in Turkey. Deployed at different times against the country’s Kurdish ethnic minority, its Alevi religious minority, leftists, and, in an earlier period, political Islamists, the use of this framing to consolidate mass support while mobilizing the state machinery to repress an excluded other is a familiar and depressingly successful strategy. The wide-scale purges are a necessary part of the government’s “democracy vigil” to save the state from its internal enemies, according to the AKP. Suppressing Gülenists, leaders promise, will set the country back on a path of stability and prosperity. These narratives resonate with a Turkish state tradition that stretches back much farther than the AKP’s time in office.

Has the current countercoup itself achieved coup-like proportions? The purges and detentions following the 1980 military coup involved far larger numbers than have been affected, as yet, by the AKP’s revanchism. Yet the resemblance to the repression, purges, and top-down, coercive restructuring of state and society occasioned by earlier coups, most dramatically in the routing of the left following the 1980 coup, is certainly striking. In those earlier episodes, much was made of the support given by the Turkish public to the military, whose interventions in politics were described as a sort of guardianship of the state’s republican commitments against enemies from within unleashed by the irresponsible policies of civilian governments. In 1997, Kemalists framed military intervention in civilian politics as a call to order against Islamist politicians, resulting in their removal with public support. As we have seen, the roles were reversed in 2007, with Islamist politicians purging Kemalist military officials in a set of trials that enjoyed public support. Since 2013, the cleavage pitting the AKP against Gülenists resulted in the purges that have now dramatically accelerated. The constant across these episodes is the willingness to resort to coercion and purges to assert control of the state.

Turkey’s cycle of military coups may finally have ended with the failed coup of July 15. That surely is something to celebrate. But Turkey remains in the grips of a cyclical pattern whereby those in power view the state as an asset to be seized, hollowed out, and remade in their image. So long as governing is equated with excluding and eliminating opposition and democracy is defined in strictly majoritarian terms, this cycle will continue. The end of Turkey’s era of coups heralds a victory of civilian governance but not of democracy.


Aslı Bâli is Professor of Law and Director of the Center for Near Eastern Studies at UCLA.

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