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Turkey’s coup: a Turkish politics expert on why it looks like a failed attempt

Military Occupy Strategic Locations In Turkey
Supporters of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan march in the main streets of Istanbul.
Photo by Burak Kara/Getty Images

Ömer Taşpınar is a nonresident senior fellow in Brookings Center on 21st Century Security and Intelligence and an expert on Turkey. I spoke to him on Friday evening about the attempted coup against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.

Ezra Klein: I know very little about Turkish politics. So how should I understand what is going on in the country right now?

Ömer Taşpınar: It’s quite unexpected, even for those following Turkish politics. Erdogan appeared to be totally in charge. The country was polarized between his supporters and those who complained about his Islamist and autocratic tendencies — to many, he was establishing a dictatorship. But he appeared to have established civilian control over the military. No one expected a small fraction of the military to try to engage in a coup.

What happened, I think, is a failed coup attempt by mid-rank officers who were unable to establish chain of command or unity of command. The top brass of the Turkish army did not support the coup. It was an unprofessional, unorganized, botched coup attempt.

EK: Why do experts seem so certain right now that the coup is failing?

OT: Because in past coups, the military acted with unity and chain of command. It controlled the media, the government institutions, the politicians, and it put the PM in jail. Now what we have is a chaotic situation where it became obvious that it was only a fraction of the military acting. Erdogan was loose, he was able to connect with the media, he was able to turn tens of thousands of supporters into the streets. There was no curfew, no martial law, no stability and order. The police and the army were facing off, with the police loyal to Erdogan.

EK: If it was only a fraction of the military behind the coup, what do you think they sought to achieve? Obviously they wanted Erdogan out, but then what?

OT: It’s too early to say, but the two suspected groups are the Gulenists and the Kemalists. The Gulenists are former allies of Erdogan. They’re a moderate Islamic social movement — they’re not Salafists or fundamentalists. The Kemalists are secularists, nationalists, and angry with Erdogan’s Islamist policies.

The Gulenists played a major role in the past as allies of the Erdogan government. But by 2010 or 2011, the Gulenists broke from Erdogan and went after him with corruption allegations. It was the beginning of the big rupture in Turkey’s Islamist movement.

It is well-known the Gulenists had followers within the Turkish military, but their stronghold in Turkey was traditionally with their police force and judiciary. Erdogan in the last couple of years has purged the police and the judiciary of Gulenists. This is why the Turkish media, controlled by Erdogan, is saying this might have been organized by the Gulenist officers.

EK: If the coup does fail, will it give Erdogan more authority, and more of a rationale, to consolidate power and tip the country closer to authoritarianism?

OT: Erdogan is prone to conspiracy theories. He is already very paranoid about losing power. He wants to control everything in Turkey. All these tendencies will be exacerbated by what happened. He will redouble his efforts to consolidate power and control over all institutions. It will give him an excuse to push forward with his executive presidency agenda — he may say that this coup proves Turkey needs his agenda and a new constitution to ensure it is controlled by the people.

I think what happened in Turkey proves that there is really an unprecedented situation in the country. The military is no longer very strong. It has no real sense of chain of command. Those hoping Erdogan could be stopped by military coup were proven wrong. Improving Turkish democracy and stopping Turkey’s descent into authoritarianism has to come through the civilian opposition and free elections, not military coup.

Erdogan will survive this and try to establish an even stronger dictatorship. Now it is the time for Europe and the United States to engage Turkey and tell Erdogan he has to be more inclusive and democratic.

EK: Do the US and the European Union have leverage over Erdogan, particularly given how paranoid he’ll be after this coup attempt?

OT: The United States has some leverage over Turkey, but the EU is in a better position, because Turkey and Erdogan want to be part of the European Union, and there is actually a European road map to improve Turkish democracy. So the best thing the US could do is support the European Union in engaging Turkey, and not let the EU downplay the autocratic tendencies of Erdogan in return for cooperation on Syrian refugees.

The European Union should uphold its democratic standards in dealing with Turkey and not succumb to Turkey’s bullying because of its geostrategic importance or the Syrian refugee question.