The coup after the coup

Although the coup in Turkey failed, democracy has nevertheless lost, writes Aydin Engin, interim editor-in-chief of the Turkish daily "Cumhuriyet", in his essay for

Essay by Aydın Engin

On 15 July, Turkey fell victim to a "strange" coup attempt. Strange because the four successful coups  (1960, 1971, 1980, 1998) and the two unsuccessful coups began around 3am, when everyone was still asleep. But on this occasion, the coup began at 10 pm, when people were on out on the streets, in pubs, tea gardens or at home watching television. The coup was strange in as much as it did not follow the basic principle: "If ground troops do not join the coup attempt, it cannot be successful".

The coup attempt was carried out by the gendarmerie, a number of armoured units, the air force and a section of the country's special forces.  Strange, to carry out a coup attempt in the 21st century using 20th century methods. This is especially relevant when we look at the media: the main state television channel was indeed occupied by the putschists and placed under their control, whereas a large number of private broadcasters remained on air and came out in support of democracy rather than the coup. Strange also because social media were totally disregarded.

Pre-modern putschists

It did not occur to the coup leaders how influential communication channels such as Whatsapp or Twitter were during the "Arab Spring" rebellions. And it was strange because no one considered the fact that some things have in the meantime changed in Turkey; that the Islamic movement – which was kept well away from state leadership and power after the foundation of the republic – now enjoys robust public support, enabling it to maintain the power it eventually gained in 2002. And so in the end it was first and foremost AKP voters who blocked the path of the tanks and brought them to a standstill.

The coup attempt was a bloody one; many people lost their lives. It is still an official secret how many died on the putschists' side. Furthermore, bombs were dropped on the parliament, the presidential palace and several army units that did not take part in the coup. Soldiers occupied the hotel where the president was spending his holidays; he only just managed to escape.

Most of those who took part in the coup attempt were officers controlled by the Gulen movement. The putschist coalition consisted on the one hand of officers who describe themselves as "radical Kemalists" – military men who are so fanatical that they have no problem dispensing with democratic principles in the service of laicism. On the other hand this coalition was made up of generals who feared for their positions and saw a coup as the only way to guarantee their own career development.


That the coup was prevented is, of course, a positive outcome with regard to parliamentary democracy. Earlier coups with their executions, long prison sentences for members of the opposition and their unimaginable torture in the country's prisons have been etched in public consciousness as an "era of terror". For this reason, relief that the coup had been prevented could pretty much be felt across the board.

A far cry from euphoria or democracy

But the days that have followed the coup attempt have been far from euphoric and democratic. The day after the coup, the government began a witch-hunt that has now assumed incredible dimensions. Since 2013 Erdogan's AKP and the Gulen movement – formerly political allies – have been locked in a bitter row that has finally made any reconciliation impossible. Following the attempted coup, this political battle has turned into a wave of purges against those branded "Gulenists". These purges have not however merely targeted the Gulen cadre. It would be more accurate to say that they have been aimed at anyone opposed to the AKP – and Erdogan in particular.

The purges have primarily affected the army, the judiciary, universities, schools, the police and the media. Although the numbers are no longer increasing at such a dramatic pace, to date 60,000 people have been suspended from duty, arrested and detained. All university deans were told to resign; future deans can only be appointed with government approval.

Within the judicial system, 2,500 judges and public prosecutors have been sacked. Others have been arrested, including senior representatives of the constitutional and appeal courts, the state council and the audit office. 8,000 police officers, governors and local authority leaders have also been dismissed.

As well as the officers who took part in the attempted coup, thousands of other generals have been arrested for membership in the Gulen movement or some kind of affiliation to it.

Within the school system, 3,000 (some say 6,000) teachers have been suspended. Many of them were in contact with the Gulen movement. 2,100 academics who signed the famous appeal  "Academics for Peace" have had their contracts at private universities terminated.

Turkish journalist and former editor-in-chief of ″Cumhuriyet″, Can Dundar (photo: picture-alliance/dpa/K. Nietfeld)
Hounding out the journalists: convicted of disclosing official secrets, Turkish journalist Can Dundar recently stepped down as editor-in-chief of ″Cumhuriyet″, one of the country′s leading opposition newspapers. In a column published on 15 August, Dundar announced moreover, that despite having been sentenced to six years in prison, he would not be surrendering to the Turkish judiciary. Owing to the state of emergency imposed following the failed coup, his country was now in the grip of ″lawlessness″, wrote Dundar. According to official figures more than 35,000 people have been arrested since the attempted putsch, most of them military personnel, judges, lawyers, teachers, university lecturers and journalists. About of third of those detained have since been released

As if that were not enough, the crackdown has also targeted the media and its representatives: any newspaper, radio broadcaster and television channel thought to sympathise with the Gulen movement has been shut down. Some companies have been requisitioned, their assets placed under the control of the treasury. Many journalists have been jailed.

No difference between state of emergency and emergency

A purge campaign of this magnitude could only occur within a state of emergency. And for this reason it was declared. It is thought that it will probably remain in place for a further three months. But the experience of recent years has shown that it will be prolonged every three months. In Turkey there is no big difference between a state of emergency and an emergency. In the case of the latter, it is the generals who issue the orders and in the former it is Erdogan's governors.

During a state of emergency, the ruler can, without having to give any further reasons, personally order the closure of newspaper publishers or television channels and ban media. With the exception of the Gulen media, this power has not so far been activated. But crucially, it can be at any time. And this inevitably results in self-censorship – whether you like it or not.

In Turkey, 60 to 65 percent of print media are in any case owned by influential businesspeople who support the AKP. The same applies to the country's television channels. And all the print media and television stations that belong for the most part to the Dogan Group have long ceased to report on any opposition issues. And they are taking great care not to do anything to cloud this impression.

All that's left are a handful of national papers such as "Cumhuriyet", which has still been able to uphold its opposition line. But its editor-in-chief Can Dundar is facing a life sentence. He is therefore compelled to live in European exile.

The coup was repelled in Turkey, but the victor is not democracy. Instead, an increasingly autocratic political power is benefiting from the failed coup – a power that can evidently afford to abuse constitutional principles and universal basic human rights.

The night the coup attempt was launched, President Erdogan appeared in front of television cameras at Istanbul airport and described the coup as a "gift from God". How right he was. The coup leaders have lost and that is a good thing. Because if the coup had been a success, then democracy would have lost. But the tragic thing is: although the coup did fail, democracy has nevertheless still lost…

Aydin Engin

© 2016

Translated from the German by Ceyda Nurtsch

Journalist and theatre director Aydin Engin (75) is currently interim editor-in-chief of the Turkish newspaper ″Cumhuriyet″, following the resignation of Can Dundar. He himself was imprisoned for several years following the last military coup and also spent time in exile in Frankfurt am Main. Since his return to Turkey, he has been working as columnist and is co-founder of a number of newspapers.