By Deniz Umutlu
Haunted by the memory of coups gone by, the Turkish public poured out into the streets to say “No to the Coup”. And yet despite the defeat of this latest bloody coup, the results have been eerily familiar…
What is a coup d’etat, exactly?
Even political scientists often disagree on the exact parameters of the term: where and when the term should be applied. We can see some of this semantic confusion surrounding the recent events in Turkey, with the terms “putsch” and “coup” being used side-by-side, often interchangeably to describe the events of last Friday.
But if we want to develop a working, and perhaps more classical definition of the coup d’etat, we would do well to look to the work of Edward Luttwak. Regarded as one of the biggest names in coup theory, Luttwak presents a conceptual tour de force of the coup d’etat and arguably a guidebook for aspiring plotters in his classic 1969 book “Coup d’Etat – A practical handbook.”
In his book, Luttwak argues that the defining feature of the coup is not necessarily a particular set of actors but a particular strategy that can be employed by any number of actors. This distinguishes it from other forms of sudden socio-political upheaval, such as a revolution which is usually carried out by the masses, or a putsch which is headed by a formal body within the military.
A coup on the other hand, refers to a strategy or process which “consists of the infiltration of a small but critical segment of the state apparatus, which is then used to displace the government from its control of the remainder.” In other words, a coup has to do with seizing the apparatus of the state and using the bureaucracy and chain of command already in place within said state to set a new political trajectory.
Luttwak’s theoretical definitions offer some clarity for conceptualizing the recent events in Turkey. The events that unravelled in Istanbul and Ankara, starting at approximately 22:00 on Friday, July 15 could probably be most accurately described as a failed putsch. An apparently small body within the Turkish Armed Forces initiated an attempt to seize the government; but they quickly failed, ultimately because they failed to effectively seize the most important machinery of the state; the media and the executive head.
And yet we can still say that Turkey experienced a coup, for all intents and purposes, but in the aftermath of this failed putsch.
Here, an appreciation for Turkey’s past experiences with coups can offer some guidance in assessing the startling and often bewildering developments in Turkey following the latest failed putsch.
The 1980 coup; the purges part I
During the lead up to the 1980 coup, Turkey was facing widespread social conflict and political instability. The parliament was caught in an extended tug-of-war between two rival political factions, the social democratic Republican People’s Party (CHP) headed by Bülent Ecevit and a conservative nationalist coalition of opposition parties headed by Süleyman Demirel. The state of impasse in parliament had escalated to the point that the parliamentarians were unable to elect a president in the six months leading up the coup.
Meanwhile, there was a war of ideologies ongoing in Turkish society. The two opposing camps were primarily left-wing groups and right-wing nationalist group. Political violence was frequent between the two, with university cafes and public squares functioning as the front lines in this war.
Tensions often escalated into public massacres like the especially deadly Kahramanmaraş Massacre in 1978, in which a gang of men from the ultranationalist “Grey Wolves” organization stormed the leftist sympathizing Alevi quarter of the city, destroying shops and killing over 100 people.
In the winter of 1980, a group of high-ranking generals of the Turkish Military convened a meeting to discuss a course of action to address the political and social crisis facing the country. Consequently, on September 7, 1980, the Turkish Armed Forces under the direction of Kenan Evren organized a coup under the pretext of restoring public order and resolving the political crisis; and that’s when the purges began.
Immediately, the military began rounding up thousands of individuals who they considered to be political dissidents and contributors to public disorder. Half a million people were arrested under suspicion of being leftist, right-wing nationalist, religious conservatives, the list goes on.
Thousands of prisoners were brutally tortured for extended periods of time without being officially charged, and 50 prisoners were executed, including the 17 year-old Erdal Eren, often held up as the symbol of the post-coup terror.
The military also targeted Turkish civil society. Nearly 4,000 university professors and academics were dismissed. 47 judges were dismissed. Journalists were also widely targeted, with hundreds detained and several executed. Magazines and newspapers were shut down and dismantled. Nearly 1,000 films were banned.
Needless to say, the 1980 coup caused immense suffering and violence in Turkish society, as the armed forces aimed to seize control of the state in its entirety, including the banning of all political parties and trade unions and the aggressive policing of the media and civil society.
Now, 36 years on and one failed putsch later, current developments in Turkey serve as haunting echoes of the post-coup nightmare of the 1980s.
2016 coup: the purges part II
On Saturday July 16, the morning after the failed putsch, the arrests began. Widely shared images online showed fatigued soldiers arrested by police, often after being beaten and bloodied by the anti-coup protesters.
The government announced that it would initiate a wide-scale campaign to root out Gülenists from the state, supporters of the religious leader Fethullah Gülen who is accused by the AKP administration and much of society of organizing the failed putsch.
The purges continued in the days following, with the suspension of 37,500 civil servants and police officers. The education sector has also been heavily targeted given Gülen’s involvement in a large network of private schools. Around 21,000 teachers have been fired, along with 15,000 employees at the education ministry. The government has also demanded the resignation of all Dean’s in the country’s universities.
The purges have targeted other sectors of civil society as well, and on Saturday President Erdoğan issued a decree to close down over 2,000 institutions, including schools, charities, unions, and medical centers. Most recently, Turkish authorities have issued arrest warrants for 42 journalists to be detained.
To date, a total of around 60,000 individuals have been suspended, detained, or arrested since the failed putsch on July 15, and arrests are expected to continue. President Erdoğan has also voiced his support for the proposition to bring the death penalty back for the coup plotters, stating “if the bill passes parliament, I will sign it.” Both EU and U.S. representatives have issued statements of alarm concerning these developments and have called on Turkey to uphold its commitment to democratic institutions and the rule of law.
Most concerning of all, since the temporary suspension of the European Convention on Human Rights, Amnesty International has reported that detainees are being systematically subject to torture, rape, and the withholding of medical treatment during their detention. They have urged “the Turkish authorities to adhere to their obligations under international human rights law and not to abuse the state of emergency by trampling on the rights of detainees.”
The “anti-coup” coup
In the aftermath of the failed coup has been an astonishing level of popular support for the government in opposing the putsch. Hours after reports emerged of a coup in effect on Friday, July 15, AKP spokespersons immediately called upon the masses to pour out into the streets and “claim ownership over your democracy!”
Many heeded the call. Crowds occupied the streets and went head to head with the putschists and their tanks, stood in defence of democracy and were mowed down by live ammunition.
Almost every night since the failed putsch, the masses have gathered in public squares across all the major cities to voice their support for the government and protest the failed putsch. “Darbeye Hayır!” has becomes the movement’s slogan, which means “No to the Coup!” and the banner hangs from billboards across the country.
Another common slogan that can be heard at these massive anti-coup rallies is the chant “Idam Isteriz!” which means “we want the death penalty!” Indeed, in addition to the jubilant atmosphere among the Turkish public, there also seems to be a taste for revenge against the putschists. After all, some in these same jubilant crowds turned into lynch mobs after the putschists surrendered.
The rallies called to protest the “coup” have often erupted into mob violence. On Saturday night after the failed putsch, a group of AKP supporters stormed the predominantly Alevi Paşköşkü neighborhood of the city of Malatya with knives, an eerie reminder of the Kahramanmaraş Massacre of 1978.
Another chilling indicator of the overall atmosphere of revenge came from comments by the president of the popular Trabzonspor basketball team Veysel Taşkın. Posting from his Twitter account, Taşkın addressed the failed putsch, commenting “The women and possessions of the putschists are now the spoils of the state! Like the wives of the pilots who flew jets over my house last night!”
And so it is with sad irony that we see this significant portion of the Turkish public, so fearful of another coup like the 1980 coup and the associated terror, killing, torture, and policing that they seem prepared to support, and even prod the government into recreating those very same conditions.