Did Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan Stage Friday Night’s Failed Military Coup?

Turkey’s failed military coup on Friday night was fictional and staged by none other than President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan himself, according to a sensational theory which is taking the internet by storm.

Turkey, a country which has a long history of civil uprisings and military coups in the 20th century, briefly spun out of control Friday night when chilling news reports, confirming that the military had closed two of the main bridges that connect Istanbul’s Asian part of the city to the European side, began emerging from the besieged nation. Within a few minutes, president Erdoğan, speaking to CNN Turk through Facetime app from an undisclosed location reportedly somewhere in Turkey’s port town of Marmaris, said that a small faction within the Turkish armed forces had acted “out of the chain of command” and were attempting to overthrow his civilian government. Vowing that he would fight the military coup to death, he asked his supporters and the civilian population of Turkey to take to the streets in the cities of Istanbul and Ankara to thwart the coup attempt.

As the world waited with bated breath to find out exactly what was transpiring in Turkey, videos showing tanks and low-flying jets in the country’s two major cities began circulating on social media. Within an hour, digital news agencies were rife with unverified reports of Turkey’s armed forces killing civilians and opening fire on crowds who had gathered at Taksim Square in central Istanbul to register their protest against the coup.

Around the same time, Reuters reported that Turkish soldiers were inside the buildings of the Turkish state broadcaster, the Turkish Radio and Television Corporation (TRT), in Ankara. While confusion still prevailed as to who was behind the supposed coup and whether or not it would succeed, world leaders began to treat it as a legitimate coup d’état. Leaders across the world, from Barack Obama to Angela Merkel, expressed their solidarity with Erdoğan, saying that democracy must prevail in the torn Middle Eastern country under any circumstances.


At this point, it is important to mention that unlike many other countries, Turkey’s military is a secular organization that is not answerable to the civilian government. One of modern Turkey’s founding fathers, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, who was also the first president of the country, deliberately set up the military to not answer to the government, and instead work alongside it semi-independently, always carrying the mandate to protect constitutional principles of secularism above all else.

In modern Turkey, therefore, military coups have almost always been synonymous with the overthrowing of despotic rulers who begin to get authoritarian in their ways. It is for this reason that, at least to rest of the world, Turkey presents a bizarre paradox — a state where legitimately elected governments have proved themselves ruthlessly authoritarian and murderous time and again, and where the military has historically been the guarantor of secular semi-liberality through undemocratic means.

Now, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is a massively divisive figure in Turkey. A devout Islamist in his early political career, he has pretended to fuse moderate Islamism with values of freedom and liberty lately, making him a darling of the West, which believes that he is essential if Turkey is to remain stable in these trying times. With the threat of ISIL looming across the border from Iraq, no one in the West wants Turkey to become unstable and give in to the fanatic militants because that would mean that the war in the Middle East would officially spill over to Europe. So it was no wonder that Western leaders were expressing their solidarity with Erdoğan soon after he had proclaimed that a handful of military personnel were committing “treason” and were bringing about a “stain on democracy.”

But the irony is that Erdoğan is also massively hated by members of the Turkish armed forces because of his recent approval of a spate of Islamist policies and laws which have brought Turkey back on the brink of becoming a religious state. He has been overtly criticized for his relentless crackdown on dissent. Over the last year alone, several journalists have allegedly been imprisoned and tortured, and some have even disappeared from the face of the earth, simply for criticizing Erdoğan for his despotic rule. He has become a ruthless autocrat, plain and simple, and international calls from human rights organizations asking for a thorough investigation into his role in making modern Turkey an authoritarian state have gathered pace.

A man waves a Turkish flag from the roof of a car during a march around Kizilay Square in reaction to the attempted military coup on July 16, 2016 in Ankara, Turkey. [Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images]
Erdoğan has not done anything to quell these fears, either. On the contrary, with every new criticism that has been thrown at his face, he has become more authoritarian, hoping to rule Turkey with an iron fist. In fact, just a while ago, he somehow managed to convict hundreds of military personnel, journalists, and political activists, blaming them for planning a “military coup” which never actually came to fruition. While his case against those he convicted and sent to prison might have been laughed out of courts in a more democratic country, in present-day Turkey, Erdoğan is the aggressive ruler who can bend constitutional laws to suit his purpose.

Moreover, his recent threats to change Turkey from a parliamentary system to a presidential system are credited as further evidence by his critics that Erdoğan is on his way to pave a dictatorial regime in his homeland, not very much unlike the one that exists in neighboring Syria under President Bashar al-Assad.

It is within this context and recent developments that the military coup — or rather the failed military coup — was attempted last night in Turkey. Based on prima facie evidence, it has failed already, with media organizations like The Washington Post and The New York Times reporting that Erdoğan reappeared at the crack of dawn in Istanbul after it was sufficiently clear that the “breakaway faction” had not been able to carry out its ambitious plan of overthrowing him.

His government is now already holding hundreds of officials in detention, and reports suggest that Erdoğan would be keen to hand over death penalties personally to them. He has even gone on to say that the coup was a “gift from God” which gives him reason to “cleanse the army.”

While news reports have quoted Erdoğan’s cabinet ministers as saying that they believe that moderate Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, who went into self-imposed exile when he moved from Turkey to the United States in 1999, as the man who could have orchestrated Friday night’s military coup, the possibility that a 75-year-old imam could have hatched a coup in Turkey from a gated compound in a small, leafy Pennsylvania town, borders on the ridiculous.

For many, it is simply a smokescreen and diverts the blame from the original culprit(s). After all, an orchestrator is needed for any attack — the military coup could not have transpired out of thin air.

Or could it?

According to some journalists and other security experts familiar with the political situation in Turkey, Erdoğan could have staged the military coup himself. It is not an altogether implausible theory. Having been pushed against the wall for his inhuman treatment of journalists and political activists, the Turkish president was fast losing support among progressive circles. He was increasingly being asked to be accountable for his actions and could even have faced prosecution in the future. But, with the failed military coup, now Erdoğan has got a free hand to whip up frenzy in the name of countering insurgency and threats, plus he has managed to gain sympathy from Western leaders in a single stroke of genius.

A Turkish Redditor summed up this theory perfectly when he wrote the following.

“I feel compelled to say, however, that I don’t believe this new coup was an actual coup.”

“If it was a real coup officially organized by the Turkish military, it would have been swiftly and successfully completed before anyone issued any official statement. By the time a General went on TV to announce the military had taken over, they’d have every member of parliament and every cabinet official in jail.”

“If it was a rogue-coup organized by a small group of officers, then the rest of the military would have clamped down on it very quickly. Yet they did not. They pretty much operated completely unopposed, equipped with tanks and helicopters and fighter jets. Yet despite being unopposed, they made zero attempts to arrest cabinet and parliament members and zero attempts to communicate with the public at large. They basically just kinda marched out there with all that military hardware to do…NOTHING. They raided a bunch of news stations for theatrics, and then quietly got arrested by a severely under-equipped civilian police force that they could have almost effortlessly steamrolled through. Sorry, but I ain’t buying this story.”

“What this really looks like is an orchestrated ploy by Erdogan himself. A staged fake-coup that was meant to fail from the beginning, with some casualties for an air of authenticity, allowing him to garner some sympathy and consolidate even more power. Now you just watch in the coming weeks and months. You’re going to see Erdogan start imprisoning and executing anyone who dares criticize him. Journalists and civilians who had nothing to do with the military or any plot of coup will face his wrath. New laws will transfer even more power to the executive, completely eroding whatever little checks and balances we have left.”

We can only wait and watch to see if this theory holds up. It could be wrong, and the Turkish military coup on Friday night could have been initiated by democratic forces within the military who are getting tired of Erdoğan’s regressive regime, but the evidence at hand does not necessarily point that way.

For the theory to be proved correct, however, Erdoğan will have to keep shifting the blame for the Turkish military coup from one cleric to the other, from one military general to the other, while we would never get to know with any authenticity if some external force was responsible for Friday night’s pandemonium in the streets of Istanbul and Ankara. Meanwhile, Turkey will gradually morph into an autocratic state, where the civilian government will tend to shut off more and more channels of dissent.

And in the weeks and months to come, if there is a major — and unprecedented — crackdown on writers, artists, journalists, social and political activists, but most importantly, if there is a great purge within the ranks of the military, a large chunk of whom do not presently share their loyalty to the president of Turkey, we would have received our answer.

[Photo by Defne Karadeniz/Getty Images]

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