Tuesday,14 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1304, (21 - 27 July 2016)
Tuesday,14 August, 2018
Issue 1304, (21 - 27 July 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Turkey’s coup attempt

The failed coup attempt last Friday in Turkey could presage the end of the Ataturk secular state, writes Ahmed Eleiba

Al-Ahram Weekly

The attempted military coup led by some senior officers in the Turkish armed forces began and ended during the same night. Although the initial images of the coup attempt indicated that the insurgents had secured control of most sovereign agencies and succeeded in airing their takeover declaration via the main state broadcasting station, the military command that did not take part in the coup, supported by forces from the national intelligence agency (MIT) and internal security forces, quickly recaptured vital installations and regained control. The plotters, steadily forced to retreat from their positions of strength, soon realised the impossibility of persisting in their plan and began to surrender and turn in their arms. A few managed to flee the country.

Clearly we have witnessed a totally different chapter in Turkey’s modern history that features a coup virtually once per decade in the latter half of the 20th century. On 27 May 1960, four decades after the founding of the Ataturk republic, the military overthrew the elected government and dissolved the Democrat Party on the grounds that it was conspiring against the country’s secular order and plotting to establish a theocratic state. This accusation would resurface in all subsequent coups of that century. Eleven years later, in 1971, in what became known as the “coup by memorandum”, not a single tank appeared in the streets. The army command merely issued a memorandum ordering the government to hand over power to the army. The third coup that occurred nine years later was the most violent and deadly in Turkish history. Led by General Kenan Evrim in 1980, the army asserted its hegemony over all key government institutions. Some believe that if last week’s coup had succeeded it would have been as fierce and dictatorial as that one. The fourth coup, in 1997, forced the Islamist government of Necmettin Erbakan to step down.

Up to this point in the history of Turkish coups, the military establishment acted as a single unified whole under the command of the top brass whose names and faces were familiar to the public. This element was absent in the recent coup attempt, which suggests a deficiency in the command and control mechanisms governing the basic cogs and gears in the military establishment, from the chiefs-of-staffs through the branches of the armed forces down to the various regiments and units. This question requires closer inspection of the nature of the military and security system in Turkey, its internal relations and its political stances on current developments in that country.


Military organisation: The Turkish military structure clearly lacks cohesion and homogeneity in its ranks. There are wings or factions that have diverse and distinct views on political developments in the country, not just from the perspective of the relationship between the military and power but also from other standpoints concerning a range of issues, such as commitment to the constitution and the democratic process.

The wing that staged the coup lacked full control over the various forces and branches of the army and was unable to compel them to rally behind it. This applied to the navy, for example, which generally remains outside such conflicts. In addition to the obstacle of the regimental divides in the Turkish army, the plotters were unable to seize effective control of the central army command, which gave the impression that orders it issued were given at gunpoint. From this point, the gaps in the plan began to expand into breaches.

This does not refute the fact that there was considerable regimental solidarity among the potters, given the number of arrests in the military ranks. So far, more than 6,000 have been taken up in the sweep. Even if exaggerated by the Turkish president in the framework of a purge that seeks to restructure the army, the figure indicates that the coup rested on a fairly extensive base though its leaders were few in number.

The plotters were not even able to gain control over regiments and units under the charge of insurgency commanders. For example, some branches of the air force acted immediately to counter rebel elements in the air force. They intercepted and downed three military helicopters and an F-16 that was on its way to target President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s plane when it took off for Istanbul airport (Erdogan was on holiday in Marmaris on the Aegean when the coup erupted. Helicopters attacked the hotel he was staying in there, two hours after he had left for Istanbul. The F-16 that supposedly targeted his presidential palace in Ankara missed by a wide mark.)

Equally, if not more importantly, the failed coup totally lacked any base of popular support, including among the opposition parties, for any military-style overthrow of government. The coup-makers totally miscalculated if they imagined that they would be welcomed by mass public support and that other segments of the army would act in unison with them at zero hour due to widespread anger against Erdogan. Evidently, they failed to appreciate the fact that democratic culture in Turkey has engendered other types of factors, even if they ultimately work in favour of Erdogan whose person and policies have engendered considerable discontent. The insurgents triggered intense anger for targeting parliament, the major symbol of democratic life in the country, as well as for opening fire on some locations in the streets.

The Turkish army is one of the largest and most important military organisations in the world. It has one of the largest ground forces in the world and it is the second largest army in NATO after the US army. It has major military bases, such as the Incirlik airbase that participates in many international and regional missions. It also possesses some 50 nuclear weapons.

With its substantial hierarchy, from a political perspective is suggested an interest in Turkish political life. But if the insurgent wing failed to appreciate prevailing balances, and was therefore unable to rally the whole military organisation behind it, it also proved unable to secure external support. In part this is due to recent developments in Turkish-Israeli and Turkish-Russian relations. But in large measure, too, it has to do with Turkey’s military roles, especially in the international coalition against IS (the Islamic State group).


Security organisation: The internal security system in Turkey — the intelligence agencies and the internal security agencies and forces — appear much more cohesive and better able to coordinate with each other. Even if taxed with responsibility for the unstable security conditions that the country has been experiencing for some time, these agencies are able to act quickly to contain an eruption of anarchy of the magnitude of a military coup that succeeded in securing control over television and broadcasting buildings, parliament and other strategic sites. The security agencies were a crucial factor in offsetting and restraining any potential insurgency on the part of other sectors or branches of the army.

Internal security forces are clearly highly skilled and well trained to cope with major outbreaks of unrest in the country. It is also clear that the conspirators understood that the internal security agencies would oppose their operation, which is why they did not attempt to draw support from them in planning or carrying out their plans. In fact, the insurgents chose to confront those agencies militarily, bombarding the main special security forces centre and MIT headquarters in Ankara.

In addition, one of the purposes of the insurgents’ attempts to seize control of major civilian facilities such as the airport was to confuse and distract security forces. Nevertheless, it appears that security agencies were anticipating a major coup scenario because of Erdogan’s disputes with many opposition forces, especially the Kurds, as well as with a number of senior brass. Such factors, on top of two previous coup attempts against Erdogan during the last decade, combined to ensure that the security forces were prepared to respond to a threat of this kind.

It is also important to understand here that the army’s traditional status and prestige as the guardian of the Turkish republic and its secular order have been severely shaken. This may have strengthened the hand of the national security and intelligence agencies and it certainly would have strengthened the resolve of all political forces, including the Kurdish opposition, which is vehemently opposed to Erdogan, to rally firmly and unequivocally in favour of the democratic process.

There is also a perception that the success of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) in permeating all these agencies played an important role in the operating mechanism of that system. This is especially evident in the coordination between the intelligence agencies and security agencies, which enhanced the ability of these agencies to gradually gain the upper hand and defeat the coup movement and to regain control over state institutions and facilities.

In the long run the very status and nature of the secularist Ataturk state may be up for review in view of the erosion of the image of that state in favour of the expanding Muslim Brotherhood-like Islamist trend epitomised by the ruling AKP, on the one hand, and by the Sufi trend led by the Turkish opposition cleric Fethullah Gulen. According to some estimates, there are 25,000 to 40,000 Gulenists infiltrated into the various organs of the state, especially the army and the judiciary. If they are proven to have been involved in the coup attempt, as Erdogan claims, Turkey could soon be gripped by a fierce battle between various institutions and the executive, which could have repercussions on all.

In light of the foregoing, what happened last Friday night might be the last of Turkey’s military coups for many decades to come. The relationship between the military establishment and the government has been deeply damaged. In fact, the same applies to the relationship between that establishment and the internal security/intelligence establishment. Some observers fear that this could have grave repercussions, especially on the army’s performance of its required tasks and duties. However, the most significant — and perhaps far-reaching — rift is that between the national army and the civilians who moved quickly against the military rebels, a movement that was taken to some extremes of retaliatory vengeance, especially in Istanbul.


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