Seizing opportunity from uncertainty

By Michael Mackenzie

If there is a single word to describe the emotional state since Friday evening of myself, and I suspect many others observing Turkey, the most appropriate must be bewilderment.

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Source: Creative Commons

As events unfolded in Istanbul, Ankara and Marmaris, the often wildly contradictory reports that accompanied them generated a thick atmosphere of uncertainty. The tanks and soldiers blocking roads in were responding to a terror alert – no, this officer says the military has taken control of the government. Have they captured the Chief of Staff, or have they shot him? The President has been taken to a safe place, or the coup plotters have captured him, or he is on his way to seek asylum to Germany, or he’s touched down at Ataturk? F16s are bombing Istanbul, wait, those are sonic booms. From the beginning, the truth of events was so confused that the advantage would be with the group that could weave the night’s events into a clear narrative.

Through statements from the Prime Minister and then from Erdoğan himself, the government was able to do just that, challenging loyal citizens to confront the putschists on the streets and providing, in the “FETÖ” Gülen Organization, an enemy to rally against. That they did, and the apparent effortlessness with which the coup folded before them led to two things.

Firstly, it generated a triumphant story of the democratically elected Turkish government and its supporters inflicting a striking defeat against a coup plot. This carries a particular resonance for the citizens of a country whose history has been blighted by such military interventions, the shadow of which has lain heavy over Erdoğan’s governments since he assumed power. It also became the focal point for a rumour that spread quickly amongst opponents of the AKP, at least a few of whom must have felt the sting of false hope when the coup was thwarted: the whole affair, which at first appeared to have been conducted in an unbelievably cack-handed manner by the plotters, had been a hoax designed by Erdoğan to increase his hold on the country even further.

This theory quickly lost credibility as facts about the night came to light, coalescing into a plausible version of events which supported the narrative of a government previously known for its questionable interpretations of the truth (we all remember the cases of the cat in the transformer and the Gezi youth allegedly drinking in a mosque). Among the English-language sources describing the night’s events, Kareem Shaheen’s story in the Guardian and the Aviationist’s account of what took place in the air have both been shared widely and are seen as trustworthy by the majority of Turkey analysts.

The story that emerges from this coverage paints the putschists as a well-organised group who were forced to trigger the coup earlier than planned. Even then, according to the security specialist Mete Yarar on CNN Türk, the coup would have succeeded in spite of this if it hadn’t been for a wireless broadcast sent by special forces soldiers sent in helicopters to kill or capture Erdoğan in Marmaris.

“They were going to drive us out of our lairs, but it’s us who are going to their lairs now”, was the message allegedly picked up by the National Intelligence Service (MIT), a reference to the words Erdoğan used in the beginning of his public battle against the Gülenists. Thus MIT were able to alert Erdoğan, who barely escaped the squad and made his way to Istanbul.

Meanwhile, Murat Yetkin of the Hürriyet newspaper reported a plan to bring 5,000 Gendarmerie commandos by air from Şırnak, where they were engaged in suppressing the insurrection, to occupy Ankara. Hürriyet reported that a Lieutenant general, Metin Eyidil, prevented an additional 200 tanks from taking the streets of Ankara. Additionally, several news sites have reported that 14 Turkish Navy vessels have been missing since Friday.

So by most accounts the coup attempt was larger and better-organised than it had initially appeared, and this in turn lent credence to the portrayal of Gülen as the greatest threat to the country. However, although the suspicions that it was a set-up were proven unfeasible, the fear that the coup attempt would result in strong, repressive measures taken by the government were well-founded.

Buoyed by the sense of triumph described above, and by crowds of supporters who were invited out each night since the coup attempt, the government was in no hurry to downplay the significance of their victory. Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım declared July 15 “as blessed as” Turkey’s victory in the war of independence, while Erdoğan proclaimed that the will of the people would not be defied, shortly before promising that the Taksim Barracks project which spurred nationwide protests in 2013 would be built “whether they like it or not”.

Then, as reports came in of mobs attacking minority neighbourhoods, flocks of government supporters were heard at rallies and in city squares calling for the death penalty for the putschists. Both Erdoğan and Yıldırım have responded positively to this suggestion – regardless of the problem that Article 38 of the Turkish Constitution stipulates that criminals may not receive heavier penalties for crimes than those applicable at the time they were committed. And so, accompanied by an atmosphere of revenge, bloodlust and triumphant celebration, began the purges.

After a failed coup, a purge of the military was to be expected; what took most by surprise was the scale of it. Over 2,000 soldiers have been detained, but strikingly along with them 103 generals and admirals, representing almost one third of the General Staff. Simultaneously, 2,735 judges were suspended from their positions, including 2 constitutional court judges. The police force, which had stood against the military forces involved in the coup, was subject to an even wider-scale purge, with 7,899 police and 614 gendarmerie officers removed from their positions. 30 provincial and 47 district governors were forced to stand down, and 150 MIT officers and 257 workers from the Prime Ministry were also suspended.

Then the purge spread to workers across the public sector. Almost all public workers are, at the time of writing, trapped in Turkey having become subject to a travel ban. Academics have been banned from taking work trips abroad. The first to be removed from their posts on Tuesday were 492 workers at the religious affairs ministry, Diyanet. Over a thousand at the Finance Ministry have been suspended, and 370 at the state television channel are under investigation.

From early on, there were hints that the purge would reach the education sector, as 10 academics from Erzurum University were detained. Even so, it was impossible to predict the next move taken by the government. In the aftermath of a failed military coup, 15,200 workers from the Ministry of Education have been suspended from their posts; all 1,557 university deans in Turkey have been asked to resign; and 21,000 teachers at private schools have had their licences revoked.

So I make my return to bewilderment. Of course, we have witnessed these purges for years, and of course, many had taken the AKP’s rhetoric around Fethullah Gülen with more than a pinch of salt. Even sceptics now agree that Gülenists played a role in the coup, but what can we really know about the scale of their operation, and how deeply has it has infiltrated the state?

Is it really conceivable that they controlled such vast swathes of the state and military? Are we to believe everything that the broken, severely beaten, putschist leader Levent Turkkan tells us on the subject, including the claim that over half of military officers trained since 1990 are Gülenists? Are we to accept that the thousands of teachers, lawyers, academics, policemen, soldiers and other state officials, whose names had evidently been compiled before the coup, were all members of the Gülen movement?

If any of these questions so much as elicit doubt, then we must ask ourselves who gains what from the resignation of every dean in the country, from the appointment of new judges in the constitutional court, and from the chance to sort through public agencies and replace “unhealthy” elements. It is difficult, and potentially dangerous, to ask these questions as the AKP fully exploits their control of the narrative; but what will be the cost of the cure they are offering Turkey?

The tragedy of this coup attempt is that while it may have demonstrated that the dangers of Gülen’s organisation went beyond the rhetorical, it has also equipped Erdoğan’s AKP to conduct a power grab allowing them to restructure the state and society on a scale that surely goes beyond the struggle with Gülen, and that would have otherwise taken years to achieve.

As more officials are purged, as Erdoğan continues his drive for the Presidential System, as mobs call for the death penalty, and as they wait for the next crisis to hit the country, millions of Turkish citizens have every reason to be bewildered. Perhaps they will find answers in the thousands of Turkish government documents released by Wikileaks, but by early reckoning this seems unlikely. Perhaps the “very important” announcement the government has promised to make on Wednesday will provide clues as to where the country is headed. The only certainty is that the initiative is, for the moment, all with Erdoğan.

This article was originally published on Michael Mackenzie’s blog, and was syndicated here with permission.

The views in this article are the authors own and do not necessarily reflect Independent Turkey’s editorial policy.

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