How Turkey almost slipped from Erdogan’s grasp
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It was Friday evening, just after 10pm, when Ahmed Kerim, a 60-year-old taxi driver hunting for fares, ran up against a bank of soldiers arrayed before Istanbul’s Bosphorus Bridge.
“The army has put their hands on the control of the state,” the soldiers shouted. Behind them a set of tanks blocked the bridge.
It was the opening act of a bloody, and eventually failed, coup seeking to wrest power from the man who has dominated Turkey for more than a decade.
As it happened, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was on holiday on the Turkish Riviera. In the next 10 hours, the levers of the state swung between the rebel soldiers and his government. Hijacked fighter jets buzzed rooftops, creating sonic booms that shattered windows across Istanbul and Ankara.
The parliament in Ankara would be bombed, as would the walls outside Mr Erdogan’s opulent hilltop palace. The office of prime minister Binali Yildirim would be ransacked, television stations seized and protesters shot.
Mr Erdogan would narrowly escape an attack on his hotel, and at least two fighter jets would follow and “harass” Mr Erdogan’s private plane over the sea of Marmara, stopping him from landing in Istanbul for hours, according to a Turkish official. At a wedding in Istanbul’s trendy Moda Club, senior air force commanders would be restrained by armed commandos and bundled into a helicopter. The chief of the police’s antiterrorism unit would be shot in the head.
Much about Friday’s failed coup remains unclear, but this much is evident — both the Turkish military, one of the world’s largest, and the Turkish intelligence services, one of the world’s most active, failed to halt the infiltration of its highest ranks by men whose loyalty lay not with the country’s democratically elected government, but — so Mr Erdogan alleges — with an ageing, self-exiled cleric living on a small farm in Pennsylvania: Fethullah Gulen.
While some details suggest that the plot may have been long in the making, it swung into action ahead of a twice-yearly meeting of the military’s supreme council, where Turkish officials say the agenda included removing many of those eventually implicated in the coup.
The conspirators, according to Turkish officials, included 24 generals, more than 20 colonels, at least 6,000 other soldiers who have already been detained, and another 3,000 still being sought for arrest. Late on Sunday, Colonel Ali Yazici, the aide-de-camp to the president who had unfettered access to Mr Erdogan, was arrested.
That list includes the former chief of the air force, Akin Ozturk, a four-star general, the commanders of three of Turkey’s four major military units and at least 100 others whom the government has identified as conspirators.
Perhaps most alarming for Turkey’s Nato allies, the brigadier general in charge of the Incirlik air force base is also accused of being part of the junta, allowing hijacked fighter jets to refuel at the same base where US, German and British warplanes carry out operations against Isis.
Their paths to positions of power had been cleared by their collaborators in both the judiciary and elsewhere. One Turkish official with access to preliminary investigations said Mr Ozturk was promoted to his position after Gulenist prosecutors manufactured evidence to arrest many of his superiors in 2009, while as many as 400 pilots were given unfit-to-fly certificates between 2007 and 2011 so that Gulen supporters populated the upper echelons of the air force.
To succeed, the plotters had to do one thing above all else on Friday: get the president and Hulusi Akar, chief of staff of the Turkish military and a man loyal to the president.
They never got the president. Warned by his intelligence that a coup was in progress, Mr Erdogan left the hotel with a small security detail, leaving behind his motorcade, his aides and security officials, a senior Turkish politician told the FT. The ruse worked — nearly two dozen soldiers attacked the hotel minutes after his departure. As the president sped to the regional Dalaman airport, three of his staff were killed by the soldiers.
By the time the president’s plane took off, his prime minister had warned the nation a coup was in progress. “They couldn’t track us,” Mr Erdogan later recounted, saying the hotel had been bombed.
But in Ankara, where the headquarters of the Turkish general staff sits close to parliament, chaos reigned.
According to two Turkish officials briefed on the situation, dozens of armed men stormed the offices of Mr Akar shortly after 9pm, demanding that he sign a document pledging support for the coup.
At one point, one of the officials said, a soldier applied a chokehold to the man who runs the military before Mr Akar was kidnapped at gunpoint and taken to a base outside Ankara. (On Saturday, after his eventual release, his neck still bore the signs of the restraint.)
Early on, the breakaway faction of the military had the upper hand. The president’s whereabouts were unknown and at least half-a-dozen F-16’s were under their control, spirited out of the air force base in Diyarbakir in southern Turkey.
The only real opposition appeared to be the police, whom the plotters set upon with fury. In Ankara, just after 11.24pm, an FT reporter witnessed the bombing of a police installation outside the city — it was later reported that nearly 40 people were killed there. Inside Ankara, the police headquarters were flattened in a bombing, and then attacked by a helicopter just after 1am.
And at the studios of the state broadcaster, armed soldiers forced a newscaster to read out a statement from the faction, which called itself the Council for Peace in the Homeland.
They had taken over “the administration of the country, to reinstate constitutional order, human rights and freedoms, the rule of law and the general security that was damaged,” the group said.
In Istanbul, at a sweet shop near the Kuleli military academy, Omer Yazici watched a string of soldiers march out of the school toward the Cengelkoy police station. “One minute I was serving ice cream, the next I was on the floor,” he said.
He heard the soldiers demand that the police surrender. When the police refused, some local residents approached. “I watched them shoot people down,” he said, shaking his head. “Then the soldiers lay flat on the road, right in front of us, in a firing position — as if we were in the middle of a battle.”
A surreal sight
As the violence escalated, with tanks rolling over cars in Ankara’s biggest thoroughfares, and fighter jets buzzing both Ankara and Istanbul, a newscaster at CNN-Turk heard from her producer that the president was on the line.
What came next was a surreal sight for Turks who have grown accustomed to Mr Erdogan’s commanding presence: their besieged leader was speaking from an undisclosed location into the camera of a mobile phone.
The presenter unclipped her microphone and held it close to the producer’s phone, and the camera zoomed in on Mr Erdogan’s face.
And thus, a half-hour after midnight — more than three hours after the attempted coup was set in motion — Mr Erdogan relayed a message to his citizens: take to the streets!
By the thousands they complied: confronting soldiers, lying in front of tanks and swarming the airport in Istanbul.
The imams of local mosques used the oldest of media to amplify the message, turning on loudspeakers and chanting out a salaa. That call, different from the five times a day call to prayer, is rarely used, usually after the death of an important person, and in this case, to warn, mobilise and encourage people.
“The soldiers shouted at people to leave, but they wouldn’t, so they started firing into the air,” recalled Karam al-Hamad, an aid worker who rushed to Istanbul’s central Taksim square, where he found waiters and line cooks still in white uniforms and young women in tight trousers abandoning their night out.
“At first the people started to back up, but more and more people were coming in to the square, and within minutes they pushed back again.”
Back at the Bosphorus Bridge, crowds eventually broached the barriers, staring down the soldiers’ guns. Shots were fired — two hit Erol Olcak, a friend and campaigner for Mr Erdogan from his days as mayor of Istanbul, and his 16-year-old son, Abdullah.
In Ankara, Colonel Sait Erturk, 47, recognised some of the soldiers from earlier assignments. At 3am, he pleaded with them to lay down their arms. Instead, he was shot.
The brother of Mr Erdogan’s chief of staff, Ilhan Varank, sent out a defiant tweet: “If we are scared, everybody will be scared. I am going out.” He, too, was killed. And at Olcak’s funeral on Sunday, Mr Erdogan, the strongman of Turkey, wept.
All through the night, Turkey’s mobile phones rang with text messages from Mr Erdogan, urging citizens to fight for the nation. Behind the scenes, according to one Turkish MP, Mr Erdogan and his aides were waiting for loyalist factions of the military to settle on a strategy.
The men behind the coup responded with further violence — parliament was bombed, a plane bombed the grounds near Mr Erdogan’s vast presidential palace.
Around 3.30am, soldiers stormed the sleek, modern offices of the Dogan Media Group, which houses the CNN-Turk television channel. Soon after, the channel went off air, as did others.
Then, outside the airport in Istanbul, a roar went through the crowd: the president’s plane had landed. For nearly three hours, air traffic controllers at Ataturk airport had warned the president’s pilots of two unidentified jets roaming the skies above the Sea of Marmara, which his plane would have to cross to get to the runway, a senior Turkish politician said. For reasons still unknown, they never fired upon his plane, and eventually flew away, allowing his plane to land.
Flanked by his son-in-law, a heaving crowd at his feet, Mr Erdogan made his first proper address to the nation. His very appearance countered the narrative of a country slipping from his grasp.
His supporters swelled with confidence. Muhammed Ozman, a web app designer, spent all night by the Bosphorus Bridge, and joined the police as they stormed it at 5am.
“The soldiers shot back, and we could feel bullets whizz past — but it was like we could walk through them . . . I thought I would be afraid but the energy of our crowd was so powerful.”
He watched with delight, he said, as the soldiers eventually walked out with their hands over their heads. “No one should ever dare get between Erdogan and his people,” he remarked.
The coup was not yet finished but the purge was already beginning.