Origins of Turkey coup attempt shrouded in mystery

Published July 25th, 2016 - 02:50 GMT
Turkish police arrest soldiers after the failed rebellion July 15. (photo: AFP)
Turkish police arrest soldiers after the failed rebellion July 15. (photo: AFP)


In the aftermath of an attempted coup d’etat in Turkey, it seems unlikely that the public will learn the truth of what happened anytime soon. Though Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has placed the blame on exiled Muslim cleric Fethulla Gulen, it’s far from clear what role, if any, Gulen played in the events of the thwarted putsch on July 15.

Erdogan has used Gulen as a scapegoat for Turkey’s ills in the past. He blamed him for the Gezi Park protests that shook the nation in 2013 and accused him of inventing a massive corruption scandal that same year which saw Erdogan’s son and members of Erdogan’s ruling party embroiled in allegations of money laundering.

Arzu Geybulla, an Istanbul-based writer and a fellow at The George Washington University, told Al Bawaba she was not surprised to see that Gulen was made into the face of the attempted coup. “When the coup happened, Gulen was the number one target.” But there’s little hard evidence linking Gulen to the revolt.


A Lack of Information

As the attempted government takeover began to unfold on Friday night, there was misinformation on the Internet concerning what was happening. In the early hours of the revolt, there were reports online saying it was a terror issue. “At first we thought it was another attack by ISIS [Daesh],” Emily Feldman, a journalist in Istanbul who writes for The Daily Beast, told Al Bawaba.

Gradually it emerged that it was members of Turkey’s own army, not a radical militant group, that were occupying two bridges in Istanbul. The rebellion’s leaders also deployed tanks to the streets of Ankara, where they surrounded the parliament building and opened fire on it. More than 260 people died in the violence that Friday night.

Geybulla believes that Erdogan and the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) may have known the coup was coming and deliberately allowed it to happen in order to justify a sweeping purge of opponents in the military, judiciary, media and academic sectors.

While there’s no proof that Erdogan had a hand in orchestrating the insurrection, he certainly seems to be using the event to justify a massive, ongoing “cleansing” of Turkey’s institutions. At least 60,000 bureaucrats have been suspended, fired or arrested since the coup attempt, including judges, civil servants, military, and police. All of Turkey’s academics, like professors and university deans, have been forbidden from leaving the country because of fear that they constitute a flight risk.

There are several conspiracy theories about the coup attempt circulating online. Conjecture and speculation rule in the absence of hard facts: “There’s so much information out there, the problem is that we don’t know what’s true,” said Geybulla, who writes for Open Democracy, an independent media outlet that says its goal is to encourage democratic debate worldwide.

Feldman said that it’s still not clear how many people in the Turkish military were actually involved in the foiled revolt.

Contributing to the lack of solid information is a clampdown on the media in Turkey. The US-based watchdog group Freedom House says that Turkey has experienced a five-year decline in freedom of the press recently, and that journalists in Turkey currently face “unprecedented legal obstacles” when it comes to reporting on national security issues, a category into which the coup undoubtedly falls.    

Since the rebellion was derailed, journalists in Turkey have been sacked and arrested in what appears to be an attempt to stifle dissent. On Friday, the New York Times reported that Orhan Kemal Cengiz, a columnist for the Turkish newspaper Today’s Zaman and a critic of the Erdogan government, had been detained in Istanbul. Today’s Zaman is linked to Gulen, but Cengiz “is in no way pushing editorial lines in his columns that are supportive of Fethullah Gulen,” Amnesty International’s Andrew Gardner told the Times.


Lasting Consequences

The attempt to take over the government had scant support among regular Turks, said Feldman. “This coup was different from past ones in Turkey. There was zero support for it. I mean, I haven’t come across one person who was disappointed that it failed,” she said.  

On Thursday, Erdogan declared that Turkey will be in a state of emergency for the next three months. This allows the government to make laws without the approval of the parliament. Some say it’s an excuse for Erdogan to further restrict civil rights and personal freedoms.

“People have not yet realized the extent of how terrible this coup and this purge and this crackdown will have,” Geybulla said. “Freedom of speech and freedom of expression and human rights and just basic freedoms will be greatly suppressed. Overall, I don’t see anything good coming out of this.”

Geybulla added that people in Turkey are deleting their Twitter and Facebook accounts out of fear that they’ll be prosecuted for posts that Erdogan and his party object to. “There were reports the past few days that police were stopping people and checking their phones and their social media accounts,” Geybulla said. “Now, anything you publish, you have to make sure it won’t trigger some kind of response that would endanger your safety.”

In such an environment, where citizens must be wary of what they post to Facebook, it seems doubtful that the public will learn the full, unadulterated truth about who perpetrated the coup attempt and why.  

-Hunter Stuart

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