Turkey at a crossroads: A look inside the night of the coup and its aftermath

Turkey finds rare unity in defeat of coup attempt a month ago, but dissidents worry about the future.

People pose near a tank after troops involved in the coup surrendered on the Bosporus Bridge in Istanbul on July 16 (photo credit: REUTERS)
People pose near a tank after troops involved in the coup surrendered on the Bosporus Bridge in Istanbul on July 16
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Maj. Mehmet Karabekir was tired of the weakness he smelled in his colleagues. “No compromise, no hesitation,” he texted. “Hit them, crush them, burn them.” Just after midnight on July 16, he stood with a group of Turkish soldiers in Acibadem, a neighborhood in Istanbul.
A small crowd had gathered to watch Karabekir and his soldiers as they were attempting to secure a building belonging to Turk Telecom. The civilians had heard a coup was under way. A man with a smartphone ducking in and out of the little crowd filmed as Mete Sertbas, a local mukhtar for the neighborhood, approached the soldiers. Words were exchanged and Karabekir raised his bulky G3A7 rifle. The man filming ducked behind someone and a single shot rang out. Karabekir shouted at the mukhtar, who stumbled backwards, keeled to one side and collapsed on his back, dying.
“Show no compassion,” the major texted his co-conspirators. “We are about to win…as someone who is in the field, I am firing, firing into the crowd and waiting.” Less than 12 hours later, in the midday haze of Istanbul, the major was dead and his comrades were being rounded up by police commandos and crowds of civilians. The Turkish coup was over.
“Every coup that does not kill us makes us stronger,” Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim told millions gathered in Istanbul at a “democracy and martyrs” rally on August 7. Almost a month after the failed coup in which 240 were killed, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his prime minister are riding a wave of support. It is being called a “second war of independence” for the country, with comparisons to a new era of nationalist strength harking back to the time of former general Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, founder of the Republic of Turkey. The country is awash in seas of red flags with the white crescent.
“The world is looking at you now,” Erdogan told crowds. “Each and every one of you fought for freedom and democracy.”
On hand were leaders of the main opposition, Kemal Kilicdaroglu of the Republican People’s Party (CHP) and Devlet Bahceli of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP); a rare show of unity. Kilicdaroglu agreed that today there is a “new Turkey.” Absent from that new Turkey on Sunday was the mostly Kurdish opposition People’s Democracy Party.
Elsewhere in Anatolia, more than 16,000 people were detained following the coup. In what has been called a “purge,” more than 21,000 teachers, 504 doctors, 300 employees of TRT and even sports referees have been suspended.
On July 16, 2,754 judges were dismissed for alleged links to the coup, and 89 journalists have been charged.
There isn’t a sector in society, including academics, that has not been affected by the roughly 70,000 suspensions and arrests. Erdogan has said he wants the death penalty brought back. Already an unmarked cemetery near a dog kennel has been earmarked. Among the first interred there was Karabekir, the killer of the mukhtar.
The forces at work on both sides of the July coup attempt have deep roots in modern Turkish history. Founded by Atatürk in 1923, the secular republic has always had deep tensions between Kurds, Islamists and radicals on the Left and Right. Coups aimed at “reestablishing the nationally desired democratic regime” toppled governments in 1960, 1971 and 1980 and sought to influence governments through memorandums in 1993 and 1997 in the name of secularism.
The 1980 coup led to 600,000 arrests and 50 executions.
Erdogan, whose Justice and Development (AKP) party came to power in 2001, was at odds with this secular “deep state” tradition. He told a crowd in 1997 “the mosques are our barracks, the domes our helmets, the minarets our bayonets and the faithful our soldiers.” This poem was an obvious rejoinder to the military’s role in politics, in a sense saying to the generals: We also have an army. Between 2003 and 2011 Erdogan’s allies, among them men allied with an Islamist cleric Fethullah Gülen, claimed to have uncovered a plot named “Sledgehammer” and a secret group called Ergenekon in the military that sought to remove the AKP. Hundreds of military officers, some retired, were arrested.
US-BASED CLERIC Fethullah Gülen (Reuters)
US-BASED CLERIC Fethullah Gülen (Reuters)
Burak Bekdil, a Turkish columnist for Hurriyet Daily News argues that we have to understand the 2016 coup attempt against this background.
“You must note that Erdogan and Gülen were best allies for several decades, until they broke up over methodology to reach a common goal… When the two camps [Erdogan and Gülen] fell apart, it became evident that the Gülenists are a small elite group within the state bureaucracy. They do not have any massive popular support.”
Gülen was born in a small village in eastern Turkey in 1938 and established an Islamic movement that went on to found schools in more than 140 countries.
In Turkey he told his followers in 1999 to “be more fruitful on behalf of Islam and carry out a nationwide restoration.”
The government accused him in 2014 of running a “terrorist organization” and infiltrating more than 1,000 schools. US diplomatic cables published by Wikileaks claimed on December 30, 2004, that Gülenists had penetrated the state bureaucracy and in 2008 were embedded in police and intelligence units.
A confidential US diplomatic cable from September 14, 2009, notes, “Our contacts all agree [that Gülenists] are everywhere in Turkish society, including the strongest bastion of Kemalism – the military.” The source told the Americans that the military leaders were worried about infiltration. They told of complex Gülenist conspiracies whereby the inwardly Islamist Gülenists would dress immodestly, encouraging their wives to wear bikinis, and pretend to drink alcohol, to confuse state institutions who sought to ferret them out.
For Kurdish activists such as Kani Xulam, the founder of the American Kurdish Information Network, the lead-up to the coup attempt and the results have a deeper meaning as well.
“The words of Erdogan definitely herald a new beginning in Turkey. Today he has put the Gülenists in the crosshairs of his vengeance. Tomorrow or sooner he will add the Kemalist [secular] Turks and recalcitrant Kurds.”
Xulam argues that Erdogan sought to remake Turkey into a neo-Ottoman empire but had to control the army’s coup mentality to do so.
“The Turkish Army, the largest in NATO after the United States, used to run the country, like the Bolsheviks of the Soviet Union, with an iron fist. Now, it is brittle and on the verge of a break up.” Erdogan’s conflict with the army and Gülen gave others a respite.
“The Kurds, the Alevis and the leftists who suffered in its hands through successive coups are probably pinching themselves to make sure that what befell it is real.”
Before the coup attempt, Erdogan seemed to be lurching from crisis to crisis. He had diplomatic spats with Israel and Egypt and became a leading supporter of the Syrian rebellion against Bashar Assad.
A MAN holds a banner proclaiming solidarity with the government on July 27 (Reuters)
A MAN holds a banner proclaiming solidarity with the government on July 27 (Reuters)
In November 2015 Turkey shot down a Russian Sukhoi Su- 24 fighter jet. After peace talks with the Kurds broke down, he launched a war against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party.
Islamic State terrorists targeted Turkey in several attacks and tourism declined 40 percent. Erdogan concentrated power in the presidency, ditching his longtime ally and prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu in May in favor of Yildirim.
So how did Erdogan, at the seeming height of his power in July 2016, almost become victim of a coup? The army had been neutered through waves of prosecutions relating to the Sledgehammer and Ergenekon trials. Xulam sees the coup as the work of a combination of factors.
“There is no question that the Gülenists dislike Erdogan. They are also not beyond using Kemalist symbols for their own Islamic ends. But there were also a lot of disgruntled officers, as we now find out. The military, in spite of what happened in Turkey when Erdogan and Gülen clipped its wings, remains a bastion of Kemalist dogma. The officers disliked Erdogan telling them what to do. They resented the creeping Islamization of Atatürk’s republic.”
Yasin Aktay, a leading member of the AKP, wrote on August 1 in Al-Jazeera that the hands behind the coup can be seen in the words of a Turkish judge named Ilhan Karagoz, who declared Gülen to be the “Mahdi” on July 4, a week and a half before the coup.
“The Mahdi is the name given to a holy leader who, according to some Muslims, will be sent by God to guide humanity, calling them to follow Islam before the end of the world. Karagoz incorporated himself in this fiction by designating himself as the so-called harbinger of the Mahdi.”
The judge ordered that Erdogan, “together with all cabinet and parliamentary members, hundreds of mayors, journalists and businessmen be taken into custody.”
At 9:15 p.m. on July 15, Major Murat Celebioglu in Istanbul created a WhatsApp group named ‘Yurta Solh’ (Peace at Home), a term coined by Atatürk and used as a slogan in the Turkish armed forces. He began adding officers of the 3rd corps of the 1st army based in and around Istanbul.
“You can provide important updates here; I’ll pass them on to Ankara,” he wrote at 9:15 p.m. in texts that were found after the coup and published on the Bellingcat website.
The first act of the plotters in Istanbul was to block traffic entering Istanbul on the E5 and E80. By 9:29 p.m., the 6th Motorized Infantry and other units had been activated to block roads and take down communications targets. It was a Friday night, and the city was just getting ready for a night out.
What we know now is that more than an hour earlier, 1st Army commander Umit Dundar had contacted Erdogan, who was on vacation in Marmaris and warned him that something was not right.
“You are our legitimate president,” Dundar said. “I am at your side. There is a huge coup and the situation is out of control in Ankara. Come to Istanbul.” Erdogan also had other hints that something was amiss when his brother-in-law had called him earlier and told him of unusual military activity.
A MAN looks at newspapers at a kiosk in Diyarbakir in November 2015. (Reuters)
A MAN looks at newspapers at a kiosk in Diyarbakir in November 2015. (Reuters)
After receiving the call, Erdogan consulted with the owner of the villa he was staying at, Serkan Yazici, who also owned the nearby hotel Yazici Mares.
“I offered the president to take him to the Greek islands,” Yazici told media after. Rhodes is only 20 kilometers off the coast. According to reports, Erdogan opted instead to take a helicopter to Dalaman Airport, where his Gulfstream IV jet was waiting.
Just 15 minutes after Erdogan left, the neighboring hotel was assaulted by 29 soldiers descending from Blackhawk helicopters.
The coup supporters from the Special Forces Command, soldiers from a search-and-rescue team, as well as underwater commandos, raided the wrong hotel. Even if they had struck the villa, the president was already gone.
Oz Katerji, a 29-year-old journalist, was getting home from a long day of work. “It was a quiet, regular night in Besiktes on the European side of Istanbul,” he recalls.
“It was on Twitter that began the rumblings [of the coup],” recalls Katerji.
“I didn’t expect anything to happen that night. I saw a report that the bridges were closed by the military and that seemed odd. I had never seen anything like that. All the bridges were now closed across the Bosporus, a city that never sleeps. The idea that it was acceptable to close every bridge from Europe to Asia was bizarre, and then people started asking if I was OK, so I started realizing something was awry.”
The coup was plunging into traffic chaos a city with a population of 14 million and around 400,000 cars crossing the two bridges every day.
Katerji and a neighbor thought it might be a terrorist threat. On June 28, 45 people had been killed in a terrorist attack on Atatürk Airport and there was a constant threat of attacks from Islamic State and fears of Kurdish terrorists.
Around 8 p.m., reports came that F-16s had buzzed Ankara.
“In all my life covering terrorism, I’ve never seen a reason why F-16s would be scrambled over a city. If there is a bomb there, it’s useless. I thought, ‘Holy sh--, it may be a coup.’” Katerji says that he had heard stories about coup threats before, but people had been dismissive. “It’s 2016, it couldn’t happen.” Katerji left his house and decided to make his way to central Istanbul. Then TRT, the major state broadcaster, went off the air.
In Ankara, Mohammed Ruzgar, a Syrian journalist, saw TRT go black and thought it was a “bad sign.” Turkey has been the main recipient of Syrian refugees since the war broke out in 2011, and it has also been a supporter of key rebel groups. For Syrians such as Ruzgar, a coup would likely mean an end to the support. Both Gülen and the secular opposition have feared that the Syrian war has dragged Turkey into problems with its neighbors, rather than the Atatürk slogan “Peace at home, peace in the world,” or Davotoglu’s more succinct “zero problems with neighbors” policy.
“It was horrible,” recalls Ruzgar. “I was frightened that by toppling the government our status here, which is relatively good, would be harmed, and it would be awful to see democracy toppled by the coup in a Muslim country – then dictatorship would rule in the Muslim world, because we in Turkey are an exception.”
Ruzgar lives in a neighborhood in Ankara where there are many Syrians, some of the more than three million now in Turkey. “We know the government supports the Syrian people with humanitarian aid, so we were worried, because we didn’t want military aid [for the rebels] to cease, and because we were worried the new rulers after the coup might close the Syria border.” He noted that before the coup attempt, the government was considering giving Syrians citizenship even though many Turkish people object.
In Ankara, the army was pouring into the streets. Jets were doing low flyovers of the capital. At around 11 p.m., Prime Minister Yildirim issued a statement claiming that “unsanctioned” military activity had happened, but urging calm.
For Ruzgar, the situation was confusing.
“They say the security forces are doing their jobs, saying to the Turkish people not to worry,” he texted the night of the coup. Rumors were circulating that the army chief of staff had been taken hostage. That rumor was true. Hulusi Akar was being held at Akinci Air base near Ankara, and Umit Dundar, who had warned Erdogan of the coup, would be put in temporary charge of the army during the early hours of July 16.
In Istanbul, the successful blocking of the bridges between Europe and Asia created congestion that slowed the coup army units from getting to their pre-planned assignments. Nevertheless, by 10 p.m. they took over Turkish broadcaster TRT, along with some military barracks and other locations. The units had a problem convincing the police to follow their orders. Erdogan’s years in power had eroded the power of the army and empowered the police, but on the night of the coup, initially the police accepted the army’s power. Maj.
Celebioglu told his WhatsApp group that the “vast majority” had complied.
To stop police from making trouble, some military units simply blocked police stations using armored vehicles so the police wouldn’t interfere. The Istanbul police chief, who went personally to the first Bosporus bridge, was detained by the army at 10:30 p.m. Fourteen minutes later, Turkish tanks had blocked off the entrance to Atatürk airport.
Simple things confounded the plotters, such as their inability to find and arrest Gen. Dundar, and needing technicians to cut the TRT feed. Katerji began calling his journalist friends as he walked towards central Istanbul.
“They said they had been frogmarched out of the building [where they worked] by the military and I realized it was no security drill.”
The coup military, which had taken over the state broadcaster, then forced TRT news anchor Tijen Karas to read a statement saying that due to the “undermining of fundamental rights and freedoms” and “secular and democratic rule of law eliminated” the armed forces were intervening to bring “peace abroad and peace at home.” A curfew was announced.
It took Katerji about 30 minutes to get to Taksim Square, the scene of historic protests. In 2013 it had been the center of massive anti-government protests over historic Gezi Park, and in 1977 more than 40 people had been killed by right-wing nationalists during a left-wing protest. Katerji had heard people were disobeying the curfew and gathering at the square.
Hande Firat, a journalist for CNN Turk, had gone home for the day when she was called back to the station in the midst of the coup. She received an unusual request. The president wanted to make a statement, but since he was no longer at his vacation villa and didn’t have access to a studio, he would do it via FaceTime. Looking tired, Erdogan called on the country to resist.
“I call on the people to gather in the squares, airports. Let them come with their tanks, I am commander-in-chief in this country. Those who attempted a coup will pay the highest price.”
Firat told the German newspaper Bild, “It was absolutely the most important moment. But in addition, until that moment no one had seen the president and there were even questions whether he was alive or not. People did see and hear Erdogan from that phone. In addition his words saved democracy and changed the whole picture.” She said the FaceTime message was a “break point” for the coup plotters.
Katerji arrived in Taksim Square soon after and began filming the events live.
“In the beginning the police were standing around doing nothing, just watching. Usually when there are protests there are water cannon and police in riot gear. When I got there I didn’t realize the police and military were opposing each other. We didn’t know who was in control.”
The police were sitting on one side with one water-cannon vehicle and the soldiers were standing with their rifles on the other. The soldiers took over the square. “The police were waiting for what to do next, the standoff was between the civilians and the military.”
In Ankara, popular support was also pouring into the streets. Coup supporting tanks had fired on the parliament building and a helicopter shot up the intelligence headquarters in the capital.
Muharrem Ince, a parliament member from the CHP, says this was the most traumatizing and symbolic aspect of the coup, an attack on the country by its own army. Ankara was the center of Atatürk’s resistance in 1921 and the attack on the capital was “painful and degrading.”
Whereas the Syrian neighborhood that Ruzgar lived in was initially quiet, soon, people decided they would stand against the tanks.
“The main factor in the failing of the coup was popular support,” he recalls.
“During the night of the coup many Syrian people went out to protest. After that, when the government invited people to meetings and demonstrations against the coup, you could see the Syrian opposition flag was held by many citizens, in Gaziantep, Istanbul and Ankara.”
In Dalaman, the president made the crucial decision to fly to Istanbul, even though the airport was closed by tanks and his pilots told him the runway was blacked out. Sources later told media that the coup plotters’ F-16s had tried to intercept Erdogan but did not shoot his plane down.
“Allah decided for us to continue and not perish that night,” Erdogan told Reuters.
He would tell reporters on July 16 that the coup was a “gift from God” and would allow him to cleanse the remaining anti-state elements.
The coup plotters’ WhatsApp group reveals how they lost the initiative. After Erdogan’s statements, crowds began to overwhelm the soldiers. Police stopped following the military orders.
“Urgent, crowds are trying to stop the tanks…we need air support,” complained the officers. It was at this point that Karabekir urged the rebels on.
“Don’t lose momentum!” he shouted to the group. He urged them to shoot down the civilians. Many Turkish officers and their conscript soldiers refused.
Lt.-Col. Coskun told the group that “the police and the crowds have joined forces, they are telling our troops to surrender… we are outnumbered.” Although planes loyal to the coup did buzz Taksim Square, there was little they could do to disperse the crowds.
“I assumed the police were letting the military take care of things,” recalls Katerji. “I didn’t think it would be the police who would end up arresting the soldiers… It was chaos. By the time I saw soldiers get arrested and disarmed, there wasn’t much confrontation; the military said our time is done, let’s surrender. It wasn’t a tense standoff.”
As the first hours of dawn came over the Bosporus, the coup soldiers blocking the bridges began to surrender to police.
When it was over, the officers could barely give their units clear commands.
“Has the operation been canceled?” asked one man. “Shall we escape?” another wondered. “We have left our position, I’m closing the group, delete the messages if you want.” And it was over.
The commandos in Marmaris who had raided the wrong hotel and missed capturing the president retreated into the woods after a gun battle. On Saturday June 30, several of them were found hiding nearby.
Ince, the CHP politician, wrote in an email that the effect of the coup has been tremendous. “We are an important country to the region, surrounded by problems, fighting terrorism for 35 years.”
Although there is a spirit of unity after the coup, the state of emergency that was declared on July 20 has resulted in more than 15,000 arrests. There is an erosion in the rule of law, and Ince argues the opposition should critique the state of emergency and closure of institutions.
“AKP leaders, especially the president, see the government as the target of the coup, we see this as an attack on the existence of the Republic of Turkey, particularly the bombing of parliament.” In order to defeat the coup, therefore, it is important to “strengthen democracy rather than suspend the rule of law, to protect our uniqueness in the country and to implement solutions that include everyone to overcome this danger.” Had the coup succeeded, he says, there would have been a civil war in Turkey.
Ince says that the result of the coup must be a return to the founding values of the republic and a “strengthening of democracy and rule of law.” Although he is against the arrest of journalists, he notes that there are “journalists who are not journalists,” and in some cases arrests may be necessary. He also sees the Gülen movement as a real organizational threat to the state that must be “eliminated.”
Katerji says that many outside of Turkey seem to have flippantly supported a coup without understanding its ramifications.
“They seem to think it was a shame the coup didn’t succeed. I can tell you, the country here does not want a coup, from the working class to the elite, students to elderly, from pro- to anti-government, no one wants military dictatorship. Look at Egypt and see the mass murder of the Abdel Fatah al-Sisi regime.”
Ruzgar, who stayed up through the night with the crowds opposing the coup, does not think the government has gone too far in its arrests.
“The Gülen group penetrated the state for 30 years,” he says. He argues that when Erdogan came to power and Gülen was still an ally, the Gülenists used that opportunity to put a large number of its people in crucial positions.
“It is very hard to differentiate if someone is a Gülenist or is no longer loyal to them.”
Bekdil says that the government could easily abuse its newfound popularity.
“Anyone who opposes the mass arrests will be instantly labeled as a terrorist… even the people who condemn torture are accused of being coup plotters.”
This will not be the last turning point in the “new Turkey” of Erdogan.
“It was a very silly, absurd, surreal [coup] attempt which would have caused, if succeeded, a full-fledged civil war with millions of Turks killing millions of other Turks. Ironically, it will pave the way for Erdogan to further consolidate power,” he concludes.
A month after the momentous events, Erdogan is meeting Putin and his allies are pointing accusatory fingers at the West for playing a role in the coup. The resounding feeling in Turkey is opposition to the coup attempt.
“People saved democracy” against an extensive threat, writes Aktay.
While some see this as an opportunity to settle scores and increase nationalism, others argue that Turkey is not on the verge of an extreme change. If the millions who turned out in Istanbul on August 7 are any indication, the government of Turkey has robust support.
What it will do with that support concerns many. Kurds fear dark clouds, Syrians worry their short-lived welcome may come to an end, and secularists fear renewed religious pressures.