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Turkey has had several military coups in its modern history. A historian explains why.

A tank rolls down a street in Ankara, Turkey, during a military coup attempt on July 16, 2016.

Late Friday afternoon, a faction of the Turkish military launched an attempt to overthrow the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

This is far from the first time Turkey’s military (or at least a part of it) has done something like this — indeed, the military has overthrown Turkey’s civilian government four times since 1960.

Richard Bulliet, a professor of history at Columbia University specializing in the Middle East, explains that the military has been viewed as the "heart of the country" going back to the earliest days of the founding of the modern Turkish state by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in the 1920s, and that it was the military’s commitment to Ataturk’s secularist vision and to stability that has driven all of these coups.

Moreover, Erdogan has made a lot of enemies in the country, notably the Gülen Movement, a religious-social group that Erdogan has accused of being behind the coup (though the group has denied this and said it does not support the coup).

Bulliet and I spoke Friday about the developments in Turkey. A transcript of our conservation follows, lightly edited for length and clarity.

Matteen Mokalla: Coups have happened a number of times in Turkey’s modern history. Why is that?

Richard Bulliet: In the beginning of the 1920s, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and the people around him were all military officers. The military was seen as the heart of the country. Atatürk’s slogan was "peace at home and peace abroad." It really was a military dictatorship, but a rather benign military dictatorship.

When Turkey wanted to enter into NATO, they felt that a democratic structure was essential for that. So in 1950, an election was held that was not a one-party election where Atatürk’s party was the only one running, but one where a second party, a genuine opposition called the Democrat Party, won.

The Democrat Party had a lot of electoral strength in the eastern part of the country, where they had a lot of religious supporters. There was something of an anti-secular tone to that election, too.

After 10 years, in 1960, the military staged a coup and arrested the president and the prime minister in a bloodless fashion. They [the military] took over the country. The prime minister and the president were both tried. The prime minister was executed, and the president was given a long prison sentence.

Over time you had a new party alignment that came up through the country, turning Turkey politically into left and right factions. Another coup occurred in 1971. These coups were really designed by the military to prevent the democratic process from becoming too chaotic or too violent.

After the coup, a committee of army officers would more or less run the country and then bring it back to new democratic elections. Often it was parties that the army favored that would come into power.

But it really was sort of a clash between two things: 1) the military’s absolute devotion to the legacy of Atatürk as a nationalist and as a secularist, and 2) as a man who would bring order and progress to the country.

MM: The last coup was in the 1990s. What kept the military at bay in the interim?

RB: The big secret of Erdogan in taming the military was that he appeared to be making progress in getting Turkey accepted into the European Union, and the European Union would not tolerate a coup. The EU test was: "Do you have a functioning democracy?"

The military really wanted to be in Europe, which is a part of the Atatürk legacy. But they didn’t approve of the authoritarian nature of Erdogan’s rule in recent years. The key was the accession to the EU, and now it’s become increasing apparent that they won’t let Turkey in.

MM: What is the Gülen Movement, and why is it against Erdogan?

RB: The Gülen Movement is a religious movement that was originally a part of the big surge of religiously oriented people supporting Erdogan. At a certain point, the Gülen people began a campaign to expose profiteering in Erdogan’s family. That provoked Erdogan to try to eliminate Gülen, but by then the Gülen movement had become important within the ranks of the Turkish police force and judiciary. Gülen loyalists were kicked out of the police, and Erdogan made sure to replace them with his own loyalists.

The fights with Gülen have cost Erdogan. Erdogan has counted on being seen as the religious leader of the country. But instead he has become more Putin-esque, and he is ridiculed in Turkey, for example for having created a residence with a thousand rooms in Ankara.

MM: Who are Erdogan’s enemies in Turkey today?

RB: Just within the last month or so, Erdogan has indicated that he considers the Kurdish party, which had gained substantial representation in the last election, to be traitors. It was likely that Kurdish members of parliament would be prosecuted for disloyalty and that they would lose their immunity as parliamentarians. That’s a good way to offend all the Kurds in the country and a lot of working-class people in Istanbul.

[Erdogan] offended all the Gülen people in the country by declaring them to be a terrorist organization.

There was also the Gezi Park affair a few years ago, too. In that event, in a very important public park in Taksim Square, liberals were protesting trying to prevent him from taking over the park and turning it into a development.

Erdogan does have strong electoral support, but his support is hard to identify. He certainly does not have the allegiance of all religious people, and he does not have the allegiance of Kurds, and he does not have the allegiance of the army.

MM: Erdogan threw a few generals in prison to prevent a coup once, didn’t he? Why didn’t it work?

RB: That was called the Ergenekon affair. There was evidence of plans for a coup that surfaced, and that became central in these trials that convicted leading military figures and removed them from power and put them in jail. Most of those generals were released from jail on the grounds that their trials were not appropriate.

But they are not in command now, and that’s one of the things that surprises me. They have very good reasons to be opposed to Erdogan. One would have expected the new commanders that replaced them were Erdogan loyalists. So when we learn something, presumably we will find out who the leading officers are who are trying to pull off this coup at the moment.

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