Issue Briefs

Turkey: The coup attempt and the future of democracy

Turkey: The coup attempt and the future of democracy

Cenk Karatas

July 18,  2016

As shocking as it sounds, Turkey, a NATO member and a rare democracy in the Middle East, experienced an attempted coup a few days ago, on Friday, July 15.

At around 10 pm local time, when millions of people were out enjoying a warm summer night, or at home with their families, both bridges across the Bosphorus Strait in Istanbul were blocked by military vehicles manned by dozens of soldiers. Meanwhile, thousands of civilians were watching tanks on the streets all around Istanbul and the capital Ankara. There were reports of low flying military jets and Cobra helicopters, as well as unusual activity in front of the Military Headquarters. In a matter of hours, it was known that this was an uprising by a group of officers with the Turkish military.

Army takeover

An announcement was posted on the Chief of Staff website, claiming that the Turkish army had taken over the control of the country. State television was taken over by soldiers, and the news anchor was forced to read the same announcement on the air.

However, this coup was not directed by the top Turkish military commanders. Indeed, it is clear by now that the coup was planned outside of the chain of command and that top commanders were not even aware of the plot. In fact, their whereabouts were not known. The Chief of Staff was believed to have been taken hostage at an unknown location.

Strong resistance

Eventually, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the government took rapid counter action to mobilize loyal police forces and civilians to counter the coup organizers. Shortly thereafter, the streets of cities all around Turkey were full of citizens protesting against the coup. There were TV images of clueless young soldiers laying down their arms. But people on the streets could not stop desperate coup plotters from dropping bombs near the presidential palace, and even on the Turkish parliament building in Ankara. Sporadic clashes continued through the morning.

When night turned into day, the attempted coup was mostly thwarted, leaving at least 208 dead and many more injured. By the end of the day, the coup was completely over.

Gulenists blamed

President Erdogan and other government officials were quick to blame the Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen, a past ally of Erdogan who now lives in the US on a self-imposed exile, as the perpetrator of this coup attempt. The Turkish government has been conducting a fierce crackdown against Gulenists in the last few years, claiming that the group have been injecting their loyalists at various levels of the Turkish state structure in order to create a “parallel state”.

Since Friday, thousands of soldiers have been arrested by security forces for their alleged involvement in the coup attempt. Some of those soldiers are known to be close to Gulenists, according to sources familiar with the investigation.

Why now?

Now the question is, why now? Why did Gulen people decide to try to overthrow the government at this particular time?

There are some speculations regarding this question. But the widely accepted theory is that high level army officers who are loyal to Fethullah Gulen learned that they would be forced out of the military soon, so that they took a final shot before losing their positions.

Turkey passed the test

Whatever the reasons behind the plot, we must accept the fact that Turkish democracy has passed a critical test last Friday night. Some may say that, with such lack of organization and minimal military discipline, it was a sloppy attempt to overthrow the elected government. However, this does not change the fact that Turkish people and Turkey’s institutions were under attack by some generals. And they successfully resisted these general’s plans.

In the final analysis, what should we expect as the consequence of this attempted coup?

In the face of the coup, we have witnessed Turkish people and political parties swiftly uniting against the coup plotters. From this vantage point, this unfortunate coup attempt could be an opportunity to strengthen Turkish democracy. This violent affair may become a turning point to bring people with different political ideas together and put an end to the increasing polarization of the Turkish society.

The government has a “free pass” now

But it may also be a perfect time to roll out a political agenda that would have been impossible to pursue before such a coup attempt. That is, right now the Turkish government has a so-called “free pass” to justify whatever extreme measures they deem necessary to ensure national security. We hope this “free pass” will be used for good purposes, which are for the benefit of the entire nation.

A new dialogue about the country’s future?

As a matter of fact, it is time for leaders of Turkey, especially President Erdogan, to seriously discuss what Turkey will look like in the future, along with its position within the international community.


Cenk Karatas is a Global Policy Institute Analyst, and the director of Education for Integration Foundation in Washington DC. For over 9 years, Karatas worked as a reporter in Istanbul, Turkey for the leading Japanese daily The Asahi Shimbun. He covered Turkish politics and regional affairs, reporting from conflict zones including Syrian and Iraqi borders, as well as Kurdish areas. @KaratasCenk