The failed coup attempt in Turkey last week is suspicious, and that’s understating it mildly.
Firstly, the facts. Early Friday evening in Istanbul and the capital Ankara, tanks were spotted blocking arterial routes while warplanes circled low in the skies. After only six hours, the plotters had failed to secure the country’s communications or its President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the coup had failed.
During the week, the Erdoğan regime captured close to 6000 individuals suspected of participating, all the way up to senior officer levels. The president also sent bellicose messages to an Islamist cleric living in exile in the US claiming the holy man had orchestrated the plot. More obfuscation.
One reason the coup failed was the military’s inability to block social networking and the internet. The plotters did manage to secure traditional media outlets of television and newspapers, which would have been a good move in the 1980s. Yet the turning point against the coup was the moment Mr Erdoğan used FaceTime to talk to audiences on television. Sloppy work by the plotters.
Mr Erdoğan’s calls during the night for his political supporters to come onto the streets and confront the military, while a sign of weakness, was effective. Loyalist police elements were emboldened by the support, and social networking coordinated the civilians in pushing troops back from key infrastructure.
What’s interesting is that in the internet era, coups should be much easier. Why? Because, once enough people have stopped supporting the present government, a coup is simply a matter of communication and coordination. The internet is very good at these things. And yet because the plotters needed secrecy, it precluded them from employing social networking for their benefit. Instead, the countercoup used those networks freely and ultimately won.
But this is definitely worth pondering as it probably fatally undermines every future coup, it wasn’t the strangest thing about the event. To get a sense of the weirdness, consider the fundamentals.
The basic question facing any potential supporter of a coup is: do you prefer this government, or would you rather take your chances with that government? Since sovereignty is irreversible, this is never an easy decision. For any discontinuous transition in sovereignty, the word ‘reset’ is better than coup. Not every coup is a reset, but every reset is a coup.
So the coup planner faces three tasks. First, he must design the new regime – yes, before the coup. (Poor attention here is the most common cause of coups gone wrong.) Second, he must recruit enough supporters to complete the operation. Third, he must coordinate his supporters to perform it.
The problem, in a coup, is not getting people to oppose their present government. There is never any shortage of potential supporters. The coup planner's problem is getting people to support his coup. Support for a coup comes from a desire for change, assuming it can be made instantly and non-violently. This is less strenuous than joining a coup, which should only be done if one thinks it will succeed. Otherwise, the efforts are a waste of time – at best. Governments don't like to be existentially threatened.
Given the above, it looks like a coup did take place over the weekend. Turkey has a history of coups and it is unlikely its intelligence services – who were watching the military for precisely these signs– missed the conspiracy. So if they caught it, and they weren’t in on the planning, then the information would have been fed to Mr Erdoğan who may have decided to let the coup proceed to highlight his rivals.
Consider that twenty minutes before troops landed on the roof of the hotel in which Mr Erdoğan was known to be staying, the president departed. He then phoned the media station while wearing a suit and tie, before boarding a jet and flying, not to the capital Ankara, but to Istanbul. Now thousands have been arrested as though a list was already drawn before the coup began.
But if the coup was allowed to unfold, then what was the goal and who was the intended audience? In this analysis – tentative as it is – Mr Erdoğan’s history since his party’s election in 2002 has been one of increasing personal power. A military is tough to control in any sovereign country, but a fractured military is much easier to direct. And after this week, the military is severely split.
Zooming out to a geopolitical level, the audience was likely Washington. The US is building a balance of power in the region between Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Israel. Maybe Mr Erdoğan is tired of being used as a US tool but also sees an opportunity emerging. Turkey is a historic Middle East power and it would make sense if it has now decided that securing some agency in its future is the best route.
Even if the above is incorrect, Mr Erdoğan now has the power to neutralise anyone he considers a threat. He also has the leverage to command the remaining military without obstacle, and clearly has support of the populace and police. Those are not to be sniffed at for a powerful country like Turkey. This may be the moment it finally wakes up after a century of silence.