Straddling Europe and Asia, with a Muslim population and a secular government, Turkey faces extraordinary political, economic and social pressures. Its secular-minded military has long seen itself as the “guardian of Turkish democracy,” which it defines as the staunchly secular state created by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the modern Turkish republic. The military had overthrown the government at least three times in three decades. However, its influence was thought to have abated under Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party, or AKP which took power in 2002.
Late at night on July 15, the Turkish democracy came under attack. It all started on Istanbul’s iconic Bosphorus Bridge, where breaking the chain of command, camouflaged soldiers suddenly blocked the road and then occupied strategic locations in Istanbul, hijacked aircraft and launched attacks on the Turkey’s democratic life. Within hours, hundreds of Turkish soldiers appeared to have taken control of key areas of the main cities of Ankara and Istanbul. Initially a ghostly calm descended over the city, but soon President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan called his supporters out into the streets. Thanks to the heroism of many people, including those who were killed, the plotters’ plans were derailed and the coup failed.
1. Why did the military revolt?
The soldiers, influenced by a group of generals, closed down some bridges in Istanbul, took the Chief of General Staff Gen Hulusi Akar captive and took over some private and state-owned television channels. They stormed Turkey’s state-run broadcaster and said they had seized power, taken over the government, and declared martial law. The first reason behind this coup is a serious ideological conflict between the army, which has been traditionally considered a guarantor of the secular nature of the Turkish state, and the incumbent authorities.
Moreover, Erdoğan has substantially trimmed the military’s influence, and the military establishment was embarrassed by an Erdoğan-driven prosecution of some of their ranks in 2013 for plotting a coup, a conviction that was ultimately overturned in Turkey’s courts. Erdoğan has also committed Turkey’s army to an active and perilous role in Syria’s war and intensified a longstanding military campaign against Kurds, Turkey’s largest ethnic minority.
2. Did the coup have widespread military support?
For the coup to have succeeded it required backing across the armed forces. A large number of soldiers may have been involved, and in several Turkish cities. Tanks took to the streets and the bridge across the Bosphorus in Istanbul was taken over. But the chief of staff, Gen Hulusi Akar, was not part of the coup, nor was the head of the army in Istanbul, who took command while Gen Akar was being held by the plotters.
The navy chief and Special Forces commander also spoke out against the uprising and F-16 fighter jets attacked some of the rebel tanks.
There was no political or public backing either.
3. How did Erdogan Respond?
There was little sign of President Erdoğan as the plotters took over buildings and media outlets. They needed to secure the support of the public and especially the majority of the military. For hours, it was unclear where President Erdoğan was. Reports said he was on holiday at the Aegean resort of Marmaris, deep in Turkey’s south-west. Prime Minister Binali Yildirim led the resistance to the coup in his absence. President Erdoğan, speaking to the nation before he left his hotel, which was later bombed, called on the people to fill the squares across the country against the coup. He urged the nation to come out to the “squares and airports,” saying that no force can stand the power of the people. The world witnessed millions of ordinary citizens on the streets supporting the police and lying in front of tanks to ensure the plotters did not succeed.
The tide, however, turned when he flew into Istanbul’s Ataturk airport and gave a defiant news conference. The moment he touched base in Istanbul, it was clear the government was regaining control and had the support of senior military figures.
4. How the bid was fioled?
The decisive and resolute actions of the AKP leadership, the willingness of the opposition parties to condemn the coup and the willingness of the supporters of the AKP and of democratic principles to take to the streets in defiance of the legitimate government, were sufficient to roll back this coup. With the majority of the military opposed to the “Peace at Home Council” and their plans, the police department adamantly standing by the elected government and the people flooding the streets to prevent their voices from being silenced, the coup plotters were forced to surrender within a few hours.
5. Role of Media
Although media in Turkey has been under many restrictions by the Erdoğan government, yet the role, for the most part, it performed, has been admirable and praiseworthy. Almost all media outlets emphasized democracy and disobeyed the putschists’ orders to repeat their message and broadcast their manifesto. To the best of their ability they informed the public, and emerged from a long night for Turkey with their reputation and honor untarnished. In all, with the opposition, the media, and Erdoğan’s supporters against them, the soldiers had no chance of gaining any traction.
6. Power of Social Media
President Erdoğan’s response to the botched coup attempt revealed something important about the power of social media. Social media and mobile communications also played an important role. The putschists failed to sufficiently update the standard coup playbook to take into account the realities of social media and mobile technology. As a result, their attempt to control the information available to ordinary citizens was only partial and the military’s message was soon drowned out by domestic and international news outlets with much greater powers of amplification.
Within hours of the beginning of the coup, Erdoğan used the video capability on his mobile phone to communicate with the nation, urging Turks to take to the streets and stand up to the rebels. His message was amplified on social media channels, such as Facebook and Twitter, and supplemented by images of people standing in front of tanks and on top of them.
Social media also played a critical role in relaying — in real time — domestic and international support for the president and for Turkey’s democratically and legitimately elected government. These messages came from some of Erdoğan’s internal political critics, too, who used Twitter to condemn the attempted coup, which they said wouldn’t bring the right kind of change.
The defeat of the coup attempt in Turkey in 2016 has asserted that it was the people and their elected representatives that are the custodians of Turkey’s future. Electoral representation can no longer be considered as the preserve of a ruling party, as it is rather the patrimony of all the country’s citizens.