Erdoğan making Rabia sign for solidarity with Muslim Brotherhood protesters after 2013 Egyptian coup d'état. Photo: Wikipedia Erdoğan making Rabia sign for solidarity with Muslim Brotherhood protesters after 2013 Egyptian coup d'état. Photo: Wikipedia

Alastair Stephens finds lessons for the movement in his analysis of the recent coup attempt in Turkey

Four times in the history of the Turkish Republic, most recently in 1997, have democratically elected governments been ousted by the military. Friday would have been the fifth such occasion if it had not been for mass opposition to the coup. When tanks started rumbling through the streets on Friday night it took people by surprise. Most thought that such interventions by the military had been consigned to the history books.

The plotters had moved while Erdogan was on holiday at the coast. He only narrowly escaped capture at the start of the coup having left his hotel only twenty minutes before it was attacked by troops descending from helicopters. The putsch then spread across the country. That a full-scale coup was in progress became clear when troops seized the studios of TRT – the state broadcaster – and forced a presenter to read a declaration saying that the armed forces had taken control.

Elsewhere they tried to make this reality as top military officials were arrested and key government buildings in the capital Ankara, such as the Intelligence Agency’s HQ and parliament were attacked. In the country’s largest city, Istanbul, tanks rolled through the streets and public spaces such as Taksim Square and the bridge across the Bosphorous which links city’s eastern and western halves.


The coup was soon to face resistance on the streets as people started to assemble. President Erdogan had himself slipped past the military and flew out of Marmaris. Having landed he took refuge in the airport addressed and denounced the coup via Facetime as a presenter on a private TV station held her smartphone up to the camera.

In Istanbul and elsewhere muezzins called from Mosques for people to take to the streets, and they did so in huge numbers. Across the country unarmed crowds faced off against troops using only their bodies to oppose the coup. In many places troops opened fire. Nearly 300 people were killed in clashes. Film of the people’s bravery flashed across social media of the acts of resistance, of people standing before talks and imploring the soldiers to return to barracks.

Within hours politicians, civil society organisations and then the military top brass denounced the coup. As support for the coup in the military seemed to evaporate, and with none of its major objectives achieved, the coup collapsed. By 4am it was over and though violence continued in areas by morning it was the putschists themselves who were being arrested.

The regime

As the coup leaders were rounded up the people on the streets turned on soldiers. Pictures soon emerged of soldiers being abused and beaten in the streets. This is an extraordinary turnaround in a country where worship of the military was practically theocratic. The aura of the military has suddenly disappeared. Though the soldiers may have been held in high esteem by many, military rule has never been popular, with any but a small minority. Each time the military has taken power or ousted a government the people have at the first opportunity at the ballot box rejected the military and their political allies.

The military’s first coup was in 1960, the consequences of which reverberate through Turkish politics to this day. 

The Turkish Republic had been created out of the wreckage of the Ottoman Empire by the military, the only state institution to survive the cataclysm of the First World War. Led by Mustafa Kemal (who later named himself Ataturk, Father of the Turks) they created a modernising “European” state sustained by an official ideology which mixed a strident ethnic nationalism with secularism. The latter in this case meant not the separation of ‘church’ and state, but the in subordination of religion to the state, which enforced a narrow Sunni orthodoxy.

“Happy is he who calls himself a Turk” was the phrase of Ataturk inscribed across the country, on walls and hillsides. It was taken for read that to be a Turk also meant to speak Turkish and be a Sunni. Other groups such as the Kurds (20% of the population) and heterodox Alevis (15%) had their identities denied. As the state established itself all opposition was banned and in the 1930s the country became a one-party state dominated by the official People’s Republican Party (CHP).

From one coup to another

Turkey stayed out of the Second World War, but was still profoundly affected by its aftermath.  The regime was forced to abandon its totalitarian structure and free elections held. Much to the regime’s surprise the people voted the CHP out of power as the new opposition Democrat Party (itself a split from the CHP) enjoyed a landslide victory.

A conservative centre-right party, the DP, was more willing to accommodate the traditional religious beliefs of people and rolled back on some of the more absurd aspects of Kemalism. It also abandoned the autarchic policies of the interwar period and embraced a more free market approach. The secular elite were aghast. They had their revenge though when in 1960 middle ranking army officers ousted the Democrat Party in what they branded a ‘revolution’, one which was supported at the time by many leftists at the time. They accused the Democrats and their leader Prime Minister Adnan Menderes, of authoritarianism and promised to ‘save’ democracy. They radically rewrote the constitution making it more ‘democratic’ but also institutionalising the military’s role in politics.

They also hanged Menderes, the country’s first democratically elected leader, and two others after a show trial, an act that permanently embittered a large section of the population. The people were not reconciled to the ‘revolution’ though. When the country went to the polls again they voted heavily for heirs of Menderes’ party, the Justice Party. The CHP, identified with a secular elite which mostly backed the coup was punished. It could only survive by reinventing itself as a centre-left party, if one still in the Kemalist tradition.

The new set up was inherently unstable though and within a decade the military intervened again ousting a government and pushing another group of politicians into power. The situation only deteriorated though and by the end of the 1970s the country was beset by political violence. The economy was also collapsing as the developmentalist strategy ran out of steam and the country was buffeted by the global economic crisis.

From dictatorship to democracy

The coup of 1980 was a far more traumatic than the 1960 takeover. This time there was no talk of ‘revolution’. Instead as all independent institutions of civil society from parties to trade unions and other groups, were smashed. At the same time, full-on neo-liberalism was imposed on the country, one of the first countries to receive such treatment. The military were in no hurry to transition back to democracy. They wanted to thoroughly remake society in the same way Pinochet had Chile.

But when free elections were finally held the people again rejected those who had backed military rule. The parties, which appeared with the return to democracy, were in effect the same parties as before. The dominant ones were the inheritors of the Democrat Party/Justice Party tradition. They soon lost their lustre as the country was beset by economic crisis and they themselves were tarnished by corruption scandals.

The military though had created a new constitutional framework which embedded their power and they loomed over politics for the next two decades totally controlling important areas of policy, in particular the Kurdish question, where they pursued a policy of total oppression through the 1980s and 1990s, and foreign policy, where they formed an alliance with Israel. The main beneficiaries of the collapse of faith in the mainstream parties were the Islamists.

Officially illegal, the Islamists had gone under a serious of flags of convenience. In 1996 the Welfare Party led by the veteran Islamist leader Necmettin Erbakan, who’s previous National Order Party had been banned in the crackdown if 1980, came to power. They did not last long and were ousted the following year in the so called ‘post-modern coup’. Rather than sending in the tanks the military wrote a memorandum. The politicians got the message and Erbakan was forced to resign and his party forced from office.

The more pragmatic Islamists, led by the Mayor of Istanbul, Tayyip Erdogan, sidelined Erbakan and regrouped as the AK Parti. In 2001 it won a landslide election as the other centre-right parties were swept away.  It set about taming the military. It reformed laws, took back areas of policy and in the end staged large scale trials of military commanders accused of plotting against the government, the famous Ergenekon and Sledgehammer cases.

This was not without resistance from the old secular elite and the so-called Deep State. Coup plots were hatched and various attempts were made to destabilise the government. The most serious challenge came in 2007 when the military wanting to block the election of an Islamist to the presidency, a figurehead position, posted a notice on its website pledging to defend secularism.

The government reacted to the so-called ‘e-coup’ by going to the country, and winning a landslide victory. The government increasingly slid to the right though pandering to a culturally conservative agenda. Worse still it became increasingly authoritarian. The list of the AK Parti’s supposed enemy grew ever longer as to the traditional foes in the secular elite were joined by trade unions, social movements, the media the Kurdish movement (with whom they had previously been negotiating) and finally its own allies in the Islamist Hizmet movement.


It is the latter that is now being accused of organising the coup. Led by Fettulah Gulen from exile in the US the Gulenists avoided participation on party politics concentrating on cultural activities, and in particular running schools. Many of its adherents took jobs in the state and had become a force to be reckoned with, one which Erdogan was happy to work with, particularly in pushing through the Ergenekon and Sledgehammer cases. Relations then deteriorated as Erdogan’s desire for power grew though. He of course sees things differently. The final breaking point being a corruption case that swirled around Erdogan in 2013 and which claimed the scalps of three of his ministers.

Since then the accusations thrown at the Gulenists by Erdogan have become ever more extreme since with the Gulenists finally being denounced as terrorists, a toxic allegation in a country where such accusations can lead to imprisonment for even the most innocuous activities. The accusations levelled against them are reminiscent of the levelled at Falun Gong by the Chinese regime, or in Europe in times gone by the way the states outlawed the Jesuits, another religious current keen on education, who were portrayed as an octopus like creature with multiple tentacles crossing the continent.


Who the movers of the coup really were and the motivations is as yet unclear though the government’s denunciation of the Gulenist read as if from a pre prepared script. It is possible that the putschists come from a variety of backgrounds and though have a shared interest in the overthrow of Erdogan, have differing motives. This was the case in 1960, the movement that led that coup spawning groups on both the left and right. What seems more certain is that purge that the AK Parti are implementing is catching people from a variety of backgrounds in its dragnet.

In the circumstances a purge of the military might be expected, and even one of the judiciary, a bastion of the old elite, the current purge is being extended far beyond these. 15,000 teachers have been suspended and the universities clamped down on. Yet more are likely to swept up in a growing campaign of denunciation. In the wake of the coup Erdogan is mounting his own challenge to it. Much was made of the putschists (seemingly inexplicable) bombing of parliament.

But now Erdogan has declared a state of emergency, which gives the government power to issue decrees with the power of law, effectively bypassing parliament. It is undoubted that the social movements, high up on Erdogan’s hit list since the Gezi protests, will be cracked down on. It is likely to be the Kurdish movement which will face further oppression as the war in the south east, restarted by Erdogan goes on.

Eternal vigilance

The defeat of the coup was a victory for democracy and the people of Turkey. The military have overthrown elected governments four times and on two of these occasions tried to entirely remake the political system. Each time they have retarded the development of democracy and of progressive movements. They have distorted the state and society and have left the country with a series of intractable problems. They have perpetuated a reactionary state ideology which acts to exclude a large part of the population from participation in society.

Above all they have perpetuated the war on the country’s Kurdish population who are still far from equality let alone the right to self-determination. The price of freedom is external vigilance, and struggle when necessary. Democracy had to be defended against military intervention. Now it needs to be defended against those who crushed the coup.

Alastair Stephens

Alastair Stephens has been a socialist his whole adult life and has been active in Unison and the TGWU. He studied Russian at Portsmouth, Middle East Politics at SOAS and writes regularly for the Counterfire website.

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