On Friday, a faction of Turkey’s military attempted a coup to overthrow President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government, which has since announced that the takeover was foiled. But uncertainty continues amid reports of clashes between Erdogan’s supporters and the army. Much of the world and the West especially, is anxious because the stability of Turkey, a Nato member and US ally, is critical in a volatile Middle East.
Turkey is all too familiar with coups: the army has toppled four elected governments in 50 years.
What is a coup?
A coup — or coup d’état — is the overthrow of a government. Although usually associated with the military, coups have also been carried out by revolutionary groups (the Bolshevik revolution in 1917 that unseated the Russian monarchy) or foreign intervention (the CIA backed Chilean army chief Augusto Pinochet as he seized power from a democratically-elected government).
Why are coups common in Turkey?
There has always been a tussle between secularists and Islamists in Turkey. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the man who founded the modern Turkish republic in 1923, was a former army officer and a fierce secularist. He was the architect of Kemalism, Turkey’s unyielding brand of secular nationalism.
To put it simply, Turkey’s military sees itself as the protector of Kemalism, and the multiple coups were a way to preserve the country’s rigid secularism. Even Turkey’s Constitution gives the military the power to interfere “in the name of the nation”.
Although Turkey always returned to democracy, the coups underscored the military’s power. Then came Turkey’s current president, Erdogan, who has increasingly been dubbed a threat to Turkey’s democracy and secularism. Although he was believed to have struck a truce with the army, he was also seen as empowering them in the process, leading some commentators to speculate over a possible coup.
A timeline of Turkey’s past coups
On May 2, an almost bloodless coup was carried out by officers and cadets from the Istanbul and Ankara war colleges. The next day, General Cemal Gursel, the commander of land forces, demanded political reforms and resigned when his demands were refused.
The leaders then established a 38-member National Unity Committee with Gursel as chairman. The committee tried 601 people, and found 464 of them guilty. Three former ministers, including Prime Minister Adnan Menderes, were executed and 12 others, including president Celal Bayar, had death sentences commuted to life imprisonment.
“Coup by Memorandum”, 1971
The military warned the government to restore order after months of strikes and street fighting between leftists and nationalists. Months later, prime minister Suleyman Demirel stepped down and a coalition of conservative politicians and technocrats took over under the military’s supervision. Martial law was established in several provinces, and wasn’t completely lifted until September 1973.
On September 12, General Kenan Evren led a coup after clashes again resumed between leftists and nationalists. Leading politicians were arrested, and parliament, political parties, and trade unions were dissolved. A five-member National Security Council seized power, suspended the constitution and implemented a provisional constitution that gave unlimited power to military commanders.
“Post-Modern coup”, 1997
On June 18, prime minister Necmettin Erbakan, denounced by opponents as a danger to Turkey’s secularism stepped down under pressure from the military, the judiciary and fellow politicians.
Ergenekon, a shadowy group, first came to light when a cache of explosives was discovered in a police raid on an Istanbul house. Eventually hundreds of people went on trial for an alleged coup attempt against Erdogan who was then the prime minister. Over 275 people, including officers, journalists and lawyer were found guilty. But all verdicts were overturned after the appeals court ruled there was no proof that Ergenekon even existed.
Erdogan, who became president in 2014, first supported the prosecution, but later blamed police and prosecutors who belonged to a religious movement led by Fethullah Gulen. Gulen now lives in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania for faking the conspiracy. He denies playing any role.
A newspaper revealed a secularist coup plot, also called Sledgehammer, that reportedly dated back to 2003, aimed at causing chaos to overthrow Erdogan’s Islamist party. In 2012, a court jailed 300 of the 365 defendants. Two years later, almost all of those convicted were freed after a higher court ruled their rights had been violated. Again, Gulen’s followers were blamed for the case, which they deny.