A failed coup left the Turkish president even more powerful
BY JARED MALSIN
When a rogue faction of Turkey’s military moved to seize control of the country on the night of July 15, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was on vacation in the Mediterranean city of Marmaris. Alerted to the coup attempt, he escaped his hotel just ahead of commandos sent to capture or possibly kill him, clinging to power by a thread. Yet in response he flew not to the capital, Ankara, where warplanes were bombing the parliament building, but to Istanbul, where he had come of age and begun his career in politics, and is still remembered as the mayor who brought running water to the city’s slums. The capital was slightly closer and contained the levers of power that the putschists scrambled to control. But Erdogan placed his bet on the people who had known him longest—and who he knew would fight for him.
For much of that night, doubt clouded the one thing that had been clear for close to 14 years in Turkey: who was in charge. A turning point came when Erdogan—unable to address the public on TV stations commandeered by coup plotters—connected to a private Turkish newscaster over the iPhone app FaceTime. As the anchor held her phone up to the camera, the President urged his supporters to take to the streets. It was after midnight. In the hours that followed, more than 265 people would be killed, but by dawn, troops participating in the coup were fleeing. Later that day, a triumphant Erdogan appeared before throngs in Istanbul, calling for prosecution of the plotters. “We want execution!” the crowd chanted back. The President had emerged from his near-death experience stronger than ever—and ever more determined to tighten his grip on power.
Watershed moments have not been scarce in the Middle East lately, but in recent decades it has been rare for one to take place in Istanbul, the city that reigned over the entire region for 400 years. The sultans of the Ottoman Empire ruled from palaces overlooking the Bosporus Strait, but when their empire collapsed after World War I, what followed was not royal drama but process—the methodical construction of what would replace empires in organizing the world: a nation-state. The new Republic of Turkey, founded by the indomitable Kemal Ataturk, was democratic and oriented to the West, which in the early years of the Cold War made it the easternmost member of NATO. And the hope ardently voiced by visiting U.S. diplomats—and by the Turkish generals who repeatedly succeeded in deposing elected governments deemed too religious or unpredictable—was that it would inspire secular, democratic imitators in nearby lands.