‘A COUP! THERE’S A MILITARY COUP!’ That’s the first I heard last night about events in Istanbul. Since then, things unfolded at lighting speed. A curfew was put in operation, but many rallied against it and took to the streets – in defiance of the coup, it seems, rather than in support of it. I’m in Istanbul, but was been watching what’s happening via foreign media because that’s the best source right now. Outside, gunfire rang through the air. Some reports say 60 have been killed, with several hundred more seriously inured.
President Erdogan had been holidaying in Marmaris, a southern coastal resort, when the tanks started to roll in to Istanbul. There were reports that he’d fled, but no: he turned up back in Istanbul to direct the counter-coup. Since all of this kicked off, news has been patchy and unreliable. Soldiers raided the government TV stations, kicking staff out. Even the recently opened English-language station has been taken off air in Istanbul. Staff apparently had their phones and equipment confiscated Flights in and out of the country have been cancelled. Roads have been blocked.
The only thing to do now wasto wait. ‘The next 48 hours is crucial. Bide your time,’ one friend told me on WhatsApp. He’s not the only one relying on social media: Erdogan was been on his iPhone, using FaceTime, begging the public to resist the coup attempt at about 12.30am. The CNN interviewer who dialled him up held up her iPhone to the camera, and Erdogan addressed the nation that way.
The internet has been working throughout all of this, which is a bit of an oversight amongst those who organised the coup. Technology makes it harder to seize the communications networks of a country: when the coup troops took over TRT, a state-run television station, it simply broadcast coverage from its London bureau. The internet also lets you wire your savings to another country, which a few of my friends did last night. I doubt they’ll wire their money back in a hurry: even if Erdogan survives, things will be deeply unstable here for some time.
Anadolu, a state-run news agency, says the counter-coup has so far seen 750 soldiers arrested. NTV has since shown Erdogan back in town, saying that a ‘minority’ within the military was ‘unfortunately’ unable to cope with Turkey’s unity under his government.
For my own part, I have been expecting Erdogan to go for some time. His actions have become more erratic, his pronouncements more insane. But I didn’t expect a coup. Turkey has had plenty of them before – 1960, 1971 and 1980 – but I thought Erdogan would, in the end, be defenestrated by his own party as they realised his leadership was damaging Turkey. It’s ironic hearing Erdogan fight off the coup with sentences like ‘the people will decide’ – this is an autocrat with ambitions to be a dictator and he has taking the country down a path of extreme religious ideology. This, I suspect, is what has alarmed the military – their main target may have been the idea of theocratic rule as much as Erdogan himself. The mosques last night were ringing out cries to support Erdogan – and fairly quickly, people were in the streets. Some of them climbing on to the newly-arrived tanks, some taking selfies with the tanks. One picture in circulation (below) purports to show a citizens’ arrest of a pro-coup soldier.
Were the crowds coming out for their love of Erdogan? I doubt it. More likely his supporters prefer his pro-Islamic stance to the famous secularism of the Turkish military. But the idea of a popular crushing of a coup will delight illiberal regimes everywhere. Iran’s foreign minister tweeted out that Turkey has just shown that ‘coups have no place in our region and are doomed to fail’. They certainly are doomed to fail if they don’t have the support of the top brass, as it seems that this one didn’t.
For example, according to one story, the rebels got hold of a helicopter – but loyalists in the army went after it with an F-16. If this does turn out to be a coup by one part of the army against another, then you can see why things turned out the way they did. This morning, the interior ministry in Istanbul says that five generals and 29 colonels have been ‘relieved of their duty’ with several high court judges being ‘questioned’. As dawn broke this morning, there were pictures of the soldiers who closed off the Istanbul’s Bosphorus Bridge surrendering with their hands in the air. I can only guess what kind of fate now awaits them.
So it seems that the coup has failed – as a coup from only a section of the military was, perhaps, always going to do.