When soldiers first parked tanks on Istanbul’s Bosphorus Bridge and the sound of low-flying fighter jets buzzed around Turkey’s second city, few people immediately understood what was happening. Most suspected a new terror threat, with the recent jihadi massacre at Istanbul’s main airport looming large in people’s minds.
But then, shortly before 11pm on Friday night came reports of gunfire in Ankara, the Turkish capital. The president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, made no statement, his spokesmen ignored initial requests for comment and it was not until soldiers began filling the city’s streets that it became clear what was about to unfold.
The era of Turkish coups was meant to be over. The fourth and last occurred in 1997. Erdoğan’s autocratic and Islamist-minded rule has its secular critics, but many felt he had tamed the army and won the loyalty of much of the population. But as uncertainty grew on Friday night, people began to wonder. Why had the bridge been closed? Why had tanks arrived at the airports? And who was in control of the country?
Across town, Aslı Aydıntaşbaş was hosting a dinner party for fellow journalists and politicians in Etiler, a secular neighbourhood. “Someone asked: was it a coup?” Aydıntaşbaş said. “But we all laughed – it was meant as a joke. This was thought to be such a thing of the past.”
So then came the first great shock of the night. Shortly after 11pm, the prime minister Binyali Yildirim appeared on NTV, a private channel. A faction in the military had attempted a coup against the wishes of military high command, Yildirim said – before maintaining that the Erdoğan regime was still in control. “The government elected by the people remains in charge,” Yildirim said. “This government will only go when the people say so.”
But the signs did not look good for Erdoğan. For a start, he was missing in action. He seemingly couldn’t get to a camera to make his own statement, and his spokesmen would not confirm whether or not he was safe. In the panic, some Turks were seen scrambling for the shops, taking as much cash as they could from the banks, and stockpiling food and water to insure against the potential for long periods of instability.
Meanwhile, the plotters of the coup continued to mobilise, with tanks and military trucks spreading across Ankara and Istanbul, securing the latter’s main airport late on Friday evening. The coup’s leaders then made their pitch, releasing a statement at about 11:30pm claiming they had seized power to protect democratic order. Turkey was, they said, under the control of a “peace council”.
At 11.40pm, Erdogan’s office finally confirmed he was safe – but key allies were not. Just ten minutes later, the head of Turkey’s military high command was reported to have been kidnapped by the putschists.
So as Saturday began, control seemed to have slipped away from the elected government. Troops stormed the Istanbul headquarters of Erdoğan’s AKP. In Ankara, they raided the offices of the state broadcaster, TRT, and within minutes had ordered the newsreader to announce officially that the military was in control of Turkey, in response to Erdoğan’s erosion of secular order. International powers were conspicuously silent.
With Erdoğan still off the airwaves, it looked like the endgame for the beleaguered president. But then the coup leaders made a series of missteps. For a start, Erdoğan was allowed to escape the Aegean bolthole where he had been hiding. “The whereabouts of the president was known [to the coup leaders],” says Dogu Ergil, a political scientist at Ankara University. “[It] was bombed – but only when he left.”
As a result, Erdoğan was finally able to broadcast some kind of message to his supporters – albeit via an unpresidential FaceTime phone call with CNN Türk. “I urge the Turkish people to convene at public squares and airports,” Erdoğan said. “There is no power higher than the power of the people.”
The rallying cry worked. Erdoğan’s supporters streamed into the streets, with thousands marching on Istanbul’s main airport. On other private channels, Erdoğan’s colleagues continued to declare they remained in charge, increasing their momentum on the airwaves.
And there, the failings of those behind the coup began to multiply. “It was like an old-style 70s coup,” said Aydıntaşbaş. “They got someone on state TV to read a statement over the airwaves. But there were 15 other news networks broadcasting.” The coup’s leaders appeared to have hoped it would be enough to make their announcement via TRT – and leave the country’s many other private channels alone.
Then there was social media. “The government was smart to keep Twitter on,” said Aydıntaşbaş. “Normally in times of crisis they slow it down or control it, but they kept it on.”
Finally there was one of the oldest media of all: the call-to-prayer. “Mosques were mobilised,” Aydıntaşbaş said. “There were constant calls-to-prayer outside of normal prayer time, and that was crucial in the mobilisation of largely AKP supporters.”
The battle was nevertheless far from over. About 1am, rebel tanks opened fire outside the parliament in Ankara, and photos later circulated of mutilated corpses that appeared to have been blown apart by tank missiles. Overhead a dogfight broke out between rival factions of the air force, and several explosions were reported across the city and at parliament. Erdoğan managed to leave the Turkish coast in his private jet – but the plane’s prolonged circling suggested he was not sure where it was safe to land.
But within an hour, the tide seemed to be turning conclusively in Erdoğan’s favour. Increasing numbers of military high command had spoken out on his behalf. Then the US president, Barack Obama – conspicuously silent in the first part of the night – finally issued a strong statement in favour of Erdoğan. Back in Turkey, all of the main secular opposition parties condemned the coup – and according to one opposition MP, this show of rare unity may have also contributed to the putschists’ loss of nerve.
“Those who were in charge of the coup attempt needed to rethink their actions,” said Hişyar Özsoy, an MP for the pro-Kurdish HDP. “Yes we have problems in Turkey. But at the same time no military intervention can be a solution.”
Meanwhile in Istanbul, Erdoğan’s supporters seized control of the city’s main airport, finally clearing the way for him to land at 3.20am. He was met by huge crowds of supporters, dealing a huge psychological blow to the coup leaders.
More and more people streamed into the streets in support of Erdoğan. Some were seen swarming military vehicles and helping policemen to arrest soldiers and conscripts. This underscored another key part of Erdoğan’s fightback: the loyalty of the police, whose role has been bolstered under Erdoğan’s administration, partly as a means of counter-balancing military influence.
When the rebels belatedly tried to seize the offices of CNN Türk, it was the police who helped civilians fight back. In Istanbul’s Taksim Square, it was the police who then arrested over 40 soldiers who had previously taken control of the space. And it was the police who fired at the rebel-held fighter jets that swooped low overhead and left sonic booms that shook the windows of the surrounding neighbourhoods.
At 4am, Erdoğan made a speech to the nation, at what felt like the defining moment of the night. “Turkey has a democratically elected government and president,” Erdoğan said. “We are in charge and we will continue exercising our powers until the end. We will not abandon our country to these invaders. It will end well.”
Dawn brought more good news for the president. Dozens of photographs emerged of rebels emerging in the sunlight and surrendering to loyalists – some of them, bizarrely, in their underwear. At 6.40am, the soldiers who had seized Bosphorus Bridge surrendered with their hands in the air, their tanks taken over by the police, and their trucks over-run by jubilant anti-coup protesters. The bridge that had symbolised the start of the coup now signalled its demise.
“It’s over,” said Yildirim Yildiray Dundar, a 34-year-old postman, who said he had protested on the bridge all night. “That’s the end.”
The rebels staged a final stand at military headquarters in Ankara, after releasing a statement saying they continued to fight. But the momentum was squarely with Erdoğan’s government. The kidnapped head of military command was finally released shortly before 8.30am, and the government later regained control of both military headquarters and the now damaged parliament building.
Shortly after midday, prime minister Yildirim declared that 2,839 rebels had been captured and 104 killed. The situation, he said, was completely under control.
But now that Erdoğan had regained power, the question many wondered was how he would wield it. For years, Erdoğan has longed for a presidential – rather than parliamentary – system of government. Now he has the political capital to push for it, said Ergil. “Mr Erdogan’s ambition of creating a one-man government with a union of the executive and legislative,” said Ergil on Saturday afternoon, “is now much easier to accomplish.”
Parts from The Guardian UK