Journalists know that to understand current events, we must put them in context. The trick is identifying which context is most relevant. Friday’s failed coup in Turkey was widely reported with a surprisingly standardized context, a canonical list of military coups in the modern Turkish republic since 1960. While that is surely an important part of the story, there are longer and shorter trajectories of history that are relevant to understanding recent events, even within the specific category of Turkish military coups.
News reports of the coup have been consistently careful to mention the long history of military coups in the modern Republic of Turkey. The canonical coups, in which the military ousted the civilian government for a variety of reasons and held power for a varying length of time before allowing new elections to be held, occurred in 1960, 1971, 1980, and 1997. (One article oddly replaced 1997 with 1993, but it is not clear whether that was simply a typo or in fact a reference to the covert coup which some people allege occurred during that year.) The fact that the first three happened at intervals of a decade was noted, as well as the nearly two decades since the “postmodern coup” (as it is sometimes called) of 1997. With these coups as a baseline, explanations for the failure of this weekend’s coup attempt illuminate its divergences from previous military interventions in politics.
All of that is well and good, and certainly has its place. But it is not the only historical trajectory that matters. This is middling level context, consisting of events within the living memory of most members of society, but Turkey has both a longer and a shorter history of military interventions of politics.
A number of articles initially remarked with surprise on the junior ranks of the apparent leaders of this military coup. (The enlarging circle of arrests has now included several top military leaders, but that is a revision of the initial story, and it is not clear whether the shift is due to better [unrevealed] evidence or the political goals of the victorious president.) But this was not the first coup attempted by junior military officers. In 1908 the Young Turk Revolution forced the Ottoman sultan to reinstate the constitution (which he had been studiously ignoring for thirty years), call together a parliament, and rule as a figurehead, and most of the military personnel in that coup were junior officers who belonged to the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP). One of those junior officers was a young man named Mustafa Kemal (later known as Atatürk), who in 1916 as a lieutenant colonel was the real hero of the battle of Gallipoli. Mustafa Kemal, a young general by 1919, led the Turkish forces in the Turkish War of Independence to establish today’s Republic of Turkey in the ruins of the Ottoman Empire. He personally led the new Republic as its first president until his death in 1938, and his political program (“Kemalism”) defined the state for most of the twentieth century. The Turkish military today sees itself as the last defender of Kemalism in Turkey, and they certainly remember the role that junior military officers can play in military coups. (It also helps plausible deniability not to have the top brass most deeply involved.) While no one alive today remembers the Young Turk Revolution, and very few remember Atatürk, military leaders know military history, and this may be a longer-term context in which the coup’s leaders understood their actions.
On the other hand, there is also a much more immediate and indeed personal historical context, which will have an especially strong impact on the fallout of this weekend’s failure. I have not seen any news reports take serious stock of the increasing conflict between the current Turkish president, Recep Tayyib Erdoğan, and the military. Erdoğan was himself banned from politics by the military for a period of five years following the 1997 “postmodern coup.” In 2002 his new conservative Justice and Development Party (known by the Turkish acronym AKP) was voted into power, and Erdoğan became prime minister in 2003. In 2007, as the ruling AKP nominated its presidential candidate Abdullah Gül for the upcoming election, the Turkish military said on its website that the country’s foundational secularism was under threat, presumably because Gül’s wife wears a hijab, unlike previous presidents’ wives. Yet unlike the 1997 memorandum, in this case the army’s intervention failed: Gül was eventually elected anyway, although it took several attempts. The military’s power was clearly weaker in 2007, and by the time of the Sledgehammer trials in 2011, the AKP seemed to have successfully brought the military to heel. The government likewise used the Ergenekon trials to target military opposition. Irregularities in evidence and procedure, and the split between Erdoğan and Fethullah Gülen, led to the convictions being overturned in the past sixteen months, but they are clearly part of a general trend of escalating conflict between Erdoğan’s government and the Turkish armed forces. This shorter term trajectory of conflict between the military and Erdoğan personally will have a strong impact on the government’s response to the failed coup attempt. Erdoğan even called the coup “a gift from God to us because this will be a reason to cleanse our army.”