What caused the Turkey coup? Interview with Texas A&M professor Sena Karasipahi

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Turkish citizens attack soldiers involved in the coup after the soldiers surrendered on a bridge near Istanbul. Image from The Guardian.

After a few branches of the Turkish military suddenly attempted a coup on July 15th, Western media outlets were left dazed and confused. To me, it seemed like it came out of nowhere, with few talking about escalating tensions in Turkey. We knew little about the coup plotters except that they were associated with the Turkish military, and that they opposed Erdogan. And after the coup failed on July 16th, there were still few answers as the news cycle moved onto the volatile American presidential election.

So to try and dig through what happened a few months ago, I talked to Dr. Sena Karasipahi, a professor at Texas A&M who teaches multiple courses on Middle Eastern conflict, and has a PhD in Turkish studies.

According to Karasipahi, the whole root of the conflict began with the alliance of two Islamist groups, the Justice and Development party of Turkey (The current party in power) and the followers of the Gulen movement.

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Fethullah Gulen, the leader of the Gulen movement.

“[The alliance] started these false trials, called the Ergenekon Trials, which started in 2007 as a series of false allegations against the Turkish military, that they were planning a coup against the government,” Karasipahi said. “They imprisoned between 2007-2012 thousands of personnel, including top generals and the commander in chief of the Turkish military. So they weakened the military, which is key, because the military has always been the guardian of secularism.”

After many of the powerful secularists in the military were pushed out or imprisoned, the AKP (Justice and Development) and Gulenists were able to more easily enact programs and laws that the Turkish military would have fought against.

“They worked together to give Islamists more power,” Karasipahi said. “They infiltrated everywhere since 2002. The judiciary, the interior ministry, police departments and the military. In 2013, both the AKP and the Gulenists realized they weakened all the other parties, and they both became so powerful economically and politically that their interests began to clash.”

Karasipahi said that the Gulenists realized that President Erdogan was becoming a dictator, and since so much of the military was affiliated with the Gulen movement, they planned a coup in order to take over the government and depose the AKP. Karasipahi was actually in Istanbul at the time of the coup, and narrowly avoided the violence breaking out.

“[The coup plotters] took F-16s and broke the sound barrier until the morning,” Karasipahi said. “I was in Istanbul, and it was the worst there. They bombed civilians, the parliament in Ankara, and many innocent people had to go to a bomb shelter. They destroyed parts of the Turkish parliament, and killed almost 300 people.”

While the violence was going on, Erdogan was on vacation, quite far away from Istanbul. He immediately went into hiding and attempted to get a plane ride to the capital in order to stop the coup.

“Through FaceTime, Erdogan connected to CNN Turk and he said he was safe,” Karasipahi said. “But we didn’t know whether the coup would be successful or not until later. Erdogan was hiding, and he asked for his followers to go out in the streets and stand in front of the tanks. A lot of people who went out to the streets to prevent the coup were killed.”

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Erdogan connects to CNN Turk via FaceTime.

(Note: Because this story is so long, I’m splitting it into multiple parts! The next part will talk more about how Erdogan benefits from the coup, why Erdogan is not the good guy in the story, how Turkey can return to its more secular government, and more about what Sena Karasipahi thinks of the Gulen movement.)

In the meantime, here’s a very interesting article that predicts the spat between the Gulen movement and the AKP.

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