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Deciphering the Coup Attempt in Turkey

People all over the world are watching and seeking to understand the recent events in Turkey, where a coup attempt last Friday left more than 200 people dead, 1,400 people wounded, and 6,000 people detained, according to Turkish state media. As the investigation into the event continues to unfold, Stanford Global Studies asked Burcak Keskin-Kozat, Associate Director for the Mediterranean Studies Forum and the Abbasi Program in Islamic Studies, to weigh-in. 

Can you briefly explain what has happened in Turkey?

The still-unfolding course of events can be best described as a socio-political implosion.
According to multiple sources, on July 15 the Turkish National Intelligence Agency (MIT) and the General Staff noticed “irregular activity” among a faction of the military. In a concerted effort, the faction partially blockaded the Bosphorous Bridge and attacked the state-owned Turkish Radio & Television (TRT) in Istanbul, bombed the General Staff Building, the National Assembly, the MIT compound, the Special Forces Headquarters in Ankara, and the hotel where President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was vacationing in Muğla; and exchanged fire with the military, police, and civilians in major cities. Calling itself “Yurtta Sulh Konseyi” (The Council of Peace in the Homeland, or YSK), the faction announced through TRT and the General Staff’s website that it took over the government. 
Soon after, Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım and President Erdoğan took to cable news channels and social media, calling civilians to resist the YSK, which utilized military helicopters, planes, and tanks. The General Staff, police, and the government regained substantial control of the situation by the end of July 16. The President and the government instructed civilians not to leave the streets until further notice. Since then, tens of thousands of military personnel, judges, prosecutors, teachers, and state employees are taken under custody or dismissed from their posts. There have been reports of mistreatment of those under custody, and attacks on neighborhoods populated by religious minorities and Syrian refugees. After consultation with the National Security Council and the Cabinet, the President announced a nation-wide state of emergency for 3 months effective July 20, 2016.

Who are some of the actors behind this violence?

The President and the Prime Minister, leading figures of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), pointed to the Gülen Movement, a global network of individuals who follow the Turkish cleric Fethullah Gülen’s worldview in their pursuit of political and economic power. Independent sources suggested a conjunctural alliance among the Gülenists and the military officers who were dissatisfied with the AKP policies. There are also allegations that major state actors, including the President and government officials, turned a blind eye to the initial YSK activities in order to legitimize the autocratic restructuring of the social, political, legislative realms. 

Why did the coup fail? 

Analysts highlight the disagreement among the military rank-and-file, lack of international support, popular demonstrations, the regime’s selective control over the media, and YSK’s attack on the core nationalist symbols such as the National Assembly. I think it is also important to reflect on the definition of a “failed coup.”  For instance, what did the coup attempt aim to accomplish? If a degree of political unrest and social disintegration was an objective, one may claim that it is considerably successful.

How do these events fit in a historical context?

Military interventions are not rare occurrences in the Republican Turkey, in which the military has been portrayed and widely recognized—at least until very recently—as the ultimate guardian of political stability and national unity. There have been two direct interventions in 1960 (followed by two attempts in 1962 and 1963) and 1980, and three coups by memorandum in 1971, 1997 and 2007. 
In the 2000s, the AKP government and the Gülenists collaborated to curb the military’s political power and social prestige through high profile court cases, widely known as the Ergenekon Trials, and subsequent imprisonment of the high-ranking officials and a number of public figures. The alliance between the Gülenists and the AKP eventually weakened and shattered during the corruption scandals of December 2013.
In addition to this broader context, the recent coup attempt happened before the High Military Council’s August Meeting, which would have purged the Gülenist military officers, as well as in the midst of intense military operations against the Kurdish militia in civilian centers of Southeast Anatolia, and Turkey’s rapprochement with Israel and the Russian Federation.

How are these events playing out among the Turkish people?

Turkish society has experienced an increasing degree of polarization since the 2014 presidential elections. The political rhetoric surrounding the 2015 national elections, the abrupt shift to a securitization approach to the Kurdish Question, and the spillover effects of the Syrian conflict have normalized violence and illegitimacy in the country. The alliance and fall out between the Gülen Movement and the AKP have drastically damaged—if not hollowed out—the military, legal, and political institutions. Some fear that the coup attempt may eventually culminate into social fragmentation and institutional collapse. 

Looking ahead, what are some of the major questions to consider?

What sort of political alliances will be rekindled and created in the next couple of weeks? How will the society as a whole respond to the political calls for a renewed social contract? How will the coup attempt affect the Kurdish Question, the Refugees Question, and Turkish foreign policy in Syria and Iraq? How will Turkey’s extradition request for Fethullah Gülen affect the U.S.-Turkish relations? 

What are some recommended sources of information?

At the risk of stating the obvious, I’d recommend fact-checking any information from multiple sources with different stances. The Turkish media has become highly bifurcated in recent years and freedom of press has been a major concern long before the coup attempt. In this context, locals have been using social media—particularly, Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp, Periscope—in obtaining information. Even the President utilized Face-Time in controlling the public opinion when YSK took control of the TRT and tried to control CNN TURK’s broadcast.
Informed commentary is slowly but surely coming out. A few noteworthy analyses in English are:
To keep abreast of the developments, everyone is welcome to attend the events that may be organized by the Mediterranean Studies Forum’s Turkish Studies Initiative in the next academic year. Graduate and advanced undergraduate students may also want to consider joining the Abbasi Program’s Ottoman/Turkish Studies Network and acquire critical knowledge in deciphering the aforementioned unknowns. Both the Mediterranean Studies Forum and the Abbasi Program in Islamic Studies have faculty and students working on imperial legacies, state formation, violence, and secularism in contemporary Turkey, and their upcoming publications will be featured on the program websites. 
Last but not the least, self-care in crisis situations such as this one is crucial. Stanford students affected by the events are encouraged to make a counseling appointment at Stanford Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS).