The Weird Coup – What Really Happened in Turkey?

The Weird Coup – What Really Happened in Turkey?

As tension subsides, important questions arise.

The Weird Coup – What Really Happened in Turkey?

2400 1600 Michael Petraeus


fter a restless night the situation in Turkey appears to be stabilizing, with the government authorities regaining control of the country. But, as it happens, there are still many questions left unanswered. Who exactly did this? What were they trying to achieve? What sparked their actions? Looking at the circumstances in which this attempted coup took place, as well as the events of the past 24 hours, it’s hard to give an answer what all of this has really been about. It’s all… weird.

‘cui bono’

In legal investigations the Romans used to ask ‘cui bono’ – “who benefts?”. Since we know little – and may never learn the full truth – about what really happened, all we can do is speculate, judging the actions and the aftermath of the events that took place last night, looking at who stands to gain the most from this turmoil.

Turkish authorities were quick to blame Fettullah Gülen and his international movement as the co-conspirators, planning to overthrow the government. These accusations are now repeated by the mass media in Turkey and around the world, while inquiries into who Gülen actually is are made, to shed light on his possible motives.

Source: The Telegraph

This influential Turkish cleric, living in self-exile in Pennsylvania since 1999, has been a long time supporter and ally of Erdogan. He left the country amid the instability post-1997 memorandum coup, which ended in ousting the Prime Minister Erbakan, accused by the military of overly Islamist leanings, with his party being dissolved and banned from politics. Erdogan himself was banned from political activity for subsequent 5 years – during which he still managed to create the seeds for the future AKP and re-emerge to take power in the country. Gülen has certainly never been a secularist, but he was moderate in his promotion of Islam, preaching coexistence and tolerance, rather than violence.

Nevertheless, he was tried in 2000, for comments indicating support for building an Islamic state in Turkey and was later (in 2008) acquitted thanks to the same person who is now his fiercest enemy – Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

They fell out in 2013 over a series of corruption indictments and arrests directed at the AKP leader’s inner circle, including Erdogan’s sons. In response, his administration cracked down on the police, removing hundreds of officers, judges and prosecutors from their posts in an unprecendented purge of the justice system, ending with passing the law giving the government greater authority over them. Erdogan blamed Gülen and his sympathizers, many of whom are understood to be present in the judiciary, public administration, military and various branches of the economy, for what he called an ‘attempted coup’.

Less than 2 months ago, in May 2016, the Gülenist organization has been pulled on the terror list in Turkey – despite the fact that it has never conducted any violent activity and it is mostly running pre-university schools around the country – many of which have already been closed in the past years.

We now have to face an important question – why would Gülen want to organize a coup against Erdogan? What could he gain?

While he may have been interested in retaining some political influence in the country, he is also an experienced and a rather balanced politician. Inspiring such a move barely several months after AKP secured another majority in the parliament, receiving support of half of Turkey’s 80 million population would be destined to fail.

Despite authoritarian leanings, Erdogan has yet to make a move to actually change the constitution to seize more power. Economic situation in the country is not bad either – there are no reasons for general public unrest that could lead to supporting a violent action by the military – like there were, for instance, in 1980, when it was a welcome respite after years of economic and political instability, which devolved into violent infighting between various political factions, leaving several thousand people dead.

Gülen spent the last 17 years in the US, rarely appears in any media and, in general, doesn’t draw too much attention to himself – if he wanted to seriously impact matters in Turkey, he has been in the ideal position to be vocal, being protected from any form of persecution on the American ground, for years. Given that his followership does count in millions, he could have inspired and mobilized anti-government protests among the public, without the need to involve the army.

Gülen interviewed by BBC Turkish Service in 2014. Source:

Finally, Turkish military has always been a safeguard of rather secularist values, imposed by the country’s modern founder, Kemal Mustafa Ataturk. It was also reflected in the statement that the TRT announcer was forced to read on air yesterday, in which the army pointed to erosion of secular values as one of the reasons for rebelling against the current authorities. You can say a lot about Gülen, but one thing you cannot link him to is vocal support of secularism. While he opposed politicization of Islam, understanding how dangerous it can be, as a former imam he is a man of faith – and a one that for long supported moderately conservative political parties.

But let’s forget about all of that for a minute. Let’s assume the coup did succeed, Erdogan is imprisoned, AKP is banned from politics – what happens next? Junta is in charge. When are the next elections called? Months, years? And who do people vote for when they finally happen? Half of the society strongly supported moderately-Islamist AKP – who would they turn to next?

Would Gülenists be able to retain power and build up public trust after so violently overthrowing a party enjoying this much support? It makes no sense.

If anything, Gülen was focused on grassroots activity, on education, looking at the governments’ hands using influence in the justice system, bringing to light unflattering facts – but certainly not a violent coup d’etat. Therefore any suggestion that an elderly, ailing cleric, living in the US for nearly 2 decades is behind the last night’s drama has no backing in any factual activity – his or his organization’s.

Could it be the army, then?

If not Gülenists – then who? Disgruntled army officers? Given that Erdogan has effectively been in power for the past 13 years, likelihood of him having deadly serious opposition at the helm of the armed forces is rather low. In fact, the chiefs of all branches, apart from the navy, including the Chief of the General Staff, have been replaced last August – all of them approved by Erdogan, readying for more involvement in Syria.

Of course, that doesn’t rule out the possibility of a plot among lower ranking commanders, but given the political and economic reality outlined above – with no obvious contention points between the majority of the society and the government – a coup organized within the army by a minority, without the support of anybody in the supreme command, would not be possible.

Turkey has the second largest army in NATO, after USA. Surely if any motion to depose the government was intended, it couldn’t have been expected to succeed with just a handful of tanks, jets and helicopters, attacking targets in Ankara and Istanbul. Even if all supreme commanders were taken hostage, you would have to tackle other high ranking generals in bases around the country.

In other words – any action by a small group of soldiers, without the participation of the highest command and without broad public support is not only bound to fail – it’s suicidal.

Soldiers participating in the coup would, in reality, be throwing their lives away for nothing. They couldn’t possibly have hoped for success in these circumstances – they had virtually nothing to gain, but everything to lose.

Even if – as some national Turkish media claim – it was organized by officers who expected to be prosecuted for alleged connections to the Gülenist movement, it would still make very little sense to risk getting tried for treason or murder of innocent civilians and police officers on duty. If it was a work of a single mad man, one could still consider the possibility – but claiming it was an organized network within the army that prepared such a ‘kamikaze’ mission borders on insane.

Again we have to ask ‘cui bono’ – what would a suicidal mission win them and the Gülenists?

Nothing, really. Gülen supporters do not have any political affiliation, they are not represented by any existing party, nor did they ever plan to have a party of their own. Their leader has been abroad for nearly 20 years and never expressed will of active participation in Turkish politics – despite the fact that for more than a decade he and AKP were in the same camp. And if he and his followers attempted anything it’s clear they would have been bound to fail anyway and all that Erdogan has kept saying about them for the past years would have been proved true – what would only bolster support for him and his policies and pave way to the final dissolution of any remains of Gülen’s network.

And here we arrive at a very disconcerting thought – so far, it seems that the only person actually benefitting from what happened last night is none other than… Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

But let’s for a minute entertain a thought that he simply was right. That he was a victim of a string of provocations and several attempts to depose him, that Gülenists are indeed trying to hijack the country and that the plot carried out yesterday was aimed at achieving that. Sounds possible, though not really plausible.

Erdogan is not known for clearing his name in courts, in front of the jury. What he is known for are violent crack downs on the police, judiciary, independent press and TV, whenever somebody barely dares to ask a difficult question. His paranoia extends even beyond Turkey, with the recent example having him appealing to the German government to prosecute a comedian who wrote a poem ridiculing him and his methods.

Even more importantly, he wants to change the constitution and create a presidential system in Turkey, what would return executive powers to his office (president serves mostly a ceremonial role in Turkey at the moment – though it is clear that it’s not the prime minister who is ‘really’ in charge at the moment). One of the goals of his neo-Ottoman policy has always been to instate himself as a modern incarnation of a sultan.

All in all – it’s hard to believe in his honesty and good intentions, when all he does is jailing everybody who dares to criticize him. He makes it very clear that no opponent, no matter how small, will be given a free pass.

To add to that, let’s look at his comments and most recent actions this morning, just to understand how swiftly he moves to achieve his goals:


Isn’t it bizarre to see that after a military coup suddenly the judges take such a violent hit? 2745 is roughly 36% of the total number of 7604 judges in Turkey – on top of 5 members of the Supreme Court and 140 members of the Supreme Court of Appeals.

Of course, he also announced a purge in the military itself:

“This will result in a cleanup of our military, which should be clean.” / Recep Tayyip Erdogan

Turkish army has a privileged position in Turkish political system – that’s the reason it often intervened in the past, bringing down governments which deviated, in their judgment, away from Ataturk’s ideals.

This failed coup gives Erdogan a perfect excuse to crack down on any opponents that may have been left in the military ranks – all that with public approval and a likely surge in the polls. He will be portrayed as the victim, nation’s caretaker who was violently assaulted, but prevailed thanks to the people – and for the people. As a result, the voters may eventually grant him the mandate to change the constitution as he pleases.

He proved many times he would stop at nothing to achieve his goals. Could yesterday’s events have been just another example of his tenacity?

We, likely, will never know.


Michael Petraeus

Economist, marketer, designer and business strategist publishing about the past, present and the future.

All stories by:Michael Petraeus

Michael Petraeus

Economist, marketer, designer and business strategist publishing about the past, present and the future.

All stories by:Michael Petraeus
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