Gift From God: How Erdogan Turned July 15 Into Windfall

People chant slogans during a pro-government rally in central Istanbul's Taksim square. Photo: AP

Although almost five months have passed since an abortive coup that shattered and upset every aspect of political and social life in Turkey, the bloody event is still shrouded in mystery. Despite the fact that it played out live on TV on the night of July 15 and early hours of July 16 in front of the eyes of the millions of people, there is still scant evidence about its leadership, how it was planned and why it failed miserably.

The doomed putsch allowed Erdogan to launch his own coup to reshape the Turkish state by sweeping purges in all departments of the state bureaucracy. Numbers speak for itself. As of Dec. 1, more than 125,000 public officials have been dismissed.

“People flooded to streets to confront putschist elements and tanks. They successfully turned the coup to their own coup,” President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said while speaking at a ceremony to open a political history museum that carries the name of former President Abdullah Gul in central province of Kayseri. The president’s comments add additional suspicion that the attempted coup, executed in the most amateurish fashion possible, well might be staged by Erdogan himself.

As the coup was unfolding early July 16, Erdogan described the coup attempt as “a gift from God.” Since then, a series of actions taken by Erdogan, who is now ruling the country by decrees, shattered political foundations of the republic, left a deeply fractured army and ended rule of law by eradicating the basic tenets of judicial independence. The debilitating purge campaign included 3,500 judges and prosecutors.

While putschists were still making their push for the coup attempt, in his first reaction to the attempted takeover via FaceTime, Erdogan immediately placed the blame on U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen. Regardless of the scope of scapegoating that was evidently on display in recent years, Erdogan’s handling of the post-coup era and immediate purges in the judiciary provide a cautionary tale about the coup saga in Turkey.

Whether it was a real coup or a staged one, Erdogan, in the eyes of many, successfully converted it into his own counter-coup by orchestrating the post-coup transformation of the state. A month before his arrest, pro-Kurdish People’s Democracy Party (HDP) leader Selahattin Demirtas bluntly accused Erdogan of not acting before the attempted coup to prevent it from taking place although there was strong intelligence about preparations of some army factions.

Speaking to fellow party members in Parliament back in September, he even went to say that many lawmakers, during their private conversations in the corridors of Parliament, acknowledged that the government had prior information about the coup and even it might be staged by themselves.

Officials note that the National Intelligence Agency (MIT) obtained information about coup plans on July 15, earlier in the day around 4:00 p.m. Erdogan later said he could not reach undersecretary Hakan Fidan as the coup started (He said he learned it from his brother-in-law). If Erdogan’s account is correct, it was not clear why Fidan did not inform the president about the plans, but instead went to headquarters of General Staff and met with the military chief Gen. Hulusi Akar to discuss counter-measures to stop it.

To the surprise of many, Fidan was able to keep his position despite the lack of communication and intelligence failure.

According to an official narrative of the government, MIT learned the coup plans earlier in the day and its chief several times discussed it with army chief Akar. One fundamental contradiction was the fact that despite this early warning and intelligence, commanders of navy, ground forces and air forces attended a wedding ceremony that night. When the putschists took action, tanks rolled into streets and fighter jets flew low over Istanbul and Ankara, many commanders, according to their testimony, learned the attempt via phone or television.

While the entire nation watched the whole drama on streets live on TV, perpetrators behind the coup and how it took place have largely gone unanswered. And the government’s control of media and subsequent crackdown on critical media renders it almost impossible to learn the whole truth.