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15 July 2017updated 04 Aug 2021 9:52pm

President’s purges: how the attempted Turkey coup changed Recep Tayyip ErdoÄŸan

President Erdoğan was once feted by European leaders. Now he calls them Nazis. 

By Julia Rampen

On the evening of Friday 15 July 2016, tanks began rolling into Istanbul. The state broadcaster announced a coup was underway.  Turkey’s irascible president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, was on a post-Ramadan holiday in the resort of Marmaris. Government ministers in the capital, Ankara, tried to prepare themselves for what they expected to be the last night of their lives. 

Then, at 12.37am, an anchor on CNN Turk News held up a smartphone. The camera zoomed in, to reveal Erdoğan on a Facetime video. His face was blurry, and behind him was a plain, white curtain, but his message was clear. “I urge the Turkish people to convene at public squares and airports,” he told watchers. “I never believed in a power higher than the power of the people.”

Erdoğan made a gamble that the army would not fire on the crowds. For the most part, it worked. Other politicians echoed his statement. Opposition parties condemned the coup, and demonstrators took to the street. Above Istanbul, a plane circled – the president, having escaped the army in Marmaris, was coming home to the city which made his career. 

The democratic moment swiftly faded.  Days later, Erdoğan banned all academics from leaving Turkey. More than 58,000 public sector workers were estimated to be kicked out of jobs, and 1,577 university deans were forced to resign. 

A year on from the coup, Erdoğan has succeeded in giving himself new constitutional powers. Freedom of the press is all but dead. He is increasingly characterised as an authoritarian abroad. Unsurprisingly, he sees himself differently.  “I don’t care if they call me dictator or whatever else,” he told university students in November. “It goes in one ear, out the other. What matters is what my people call me.”

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Erdoğan was born in 1954, in Istanbul. Educated at a religious school, and from a working-class background, his early passion for football was eclipsed by politics.  As a religious conservative in a militantly secular state, he saw the limits of Turkey’s liberalism first hand.  In 1997, three years after he was elected mayor of Istanbul, his decision to read out an Ottoman poem comparing believers to soldiers earned him 10 months in prison for inciting religious hatred (in 2016, he sought a prosecution of his own against a German comedian who read out an offensive poem about him). 

Erdoğan, though, was pragmatic as well as radical. Building on his record as an effective mayor, he established the conservative Justice and Development Party (AKP) in 2001 and won the first of many elections the following year. He presided over an economic boom. Fatefully, he struck up an alliance with Fethullah Gülen, the leader of an Islamic social and education movement, who shared his antipathy to the secular elite and the military. With Gülen’s help, Erdoğan took on the “deep state” in a way previous democratic leaders had failed to do. Meanwhile, he was feted by world leaders as an example of a moderate, Islamic, democratic politician. His wife took tea with Laura Bush. Pundits started to talk of “Erdoğanism”. 

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The years of Erdoğan the Magnificent could not last. Turkey’s economy wobbled, and in 2013, a year marked by mass protests, Erdoğan accused Gulen of trying to bring down the government. By 2016, the year of the coup, he was increasingly isolated from his traditional Western allies. In March, he told local politicians that phrases like democracy and freedom have “absolutely no value any longer”. 

Western newspapers increasingly caricatured Erdoğan as an Ottoman Vladimir Putin, but his country was also being rocked by forces outside presidential control. The Syrian revolution, welcomed by Erdoğan, had warped into a nightmarish conflict. An estimated 2.7 million Syrians had sought refuge in Turkey. The war, in turn, had exacerbated tensions with Turkey’s Kurds, and fed terrorism. After Erdoğan’s comments about democracy, he continued: “Those who stand on our side in the fight against terrorism are our friend. Those on the opposite side, are our enemy.”

After Erdoğan re-established control in the early hours of 16 July 2016, he quickly blamed the usual fifth column, the Gülenists  (Gülen, exiled in Pennsylvania, US, said his philosophy was “antithetical to armed rebellion”).  But he also attacked the West for failing to support his purges.  “This coup attempt has actors inside Turkey, but its script was written outside,” he told a group of multinationals operating in Turkey in early August

On 29 September, six weeks after the attempted coup, Erdoğan extended Turkey’s state of emergency by a further three months (the state of emergency is still in place, and is due to expire on 19 July 2017). By November,  he was preparing the ground for a further consolidation of power – a referendum on the constitution which would abolish the role of prime minister and give the president more executive powers. 

Meanwhile, civil society was feeling the effects of the coup. After the summer, children returned to schools to find their teachers fired and a new course about Erdoğan’s heroic defence of Turkey on the curriculum. The firing of public sector workers continued – dismissals were announced in the Turkish government’s law newsletter, the Official Gazette. In December, a cafeteria boss was detained after telling police officers he would not serve the president a cup of tea.

Erdoğan’s crackdown might have slipped from the world’s attention, if not for his determination that the world should take note. While in its early years, the AKP prioritised good diplomatic relations, by the spring of 2017 Erdoğan was accusing Germany of “fascist actions”, and the Dutch of being “Nazi remnants”. The backdrop to this dispute was the decision of European authorities to ban rallies designed to win over the three million Turkish voters based overseas

In April, after a campaign criticised by election monitors, Erdoğan won the referendum by a Brexit-style margin– 51 per cent to 49 per cent. Despite his victory, the result was seen as a backlash against the heavy-handed president. Erdoğan responded by blocking Wikipedia

Read more: A year after the failed coup, the purge goes on

One year after unarmed Turks stood in front of tanks in the name of democracy, around 150 journalists are in jail (Erdoğan told the BBC: “No one is jailed because of journalism here.”) But perhaps the best illustration of the Turkish president’s new confidence was his trip to visit another outspoken populist in Washington DC, Donald Trump. A group of protestors gathered outside the Turkish embassy. Erdoğan’s bodyguards beat them up.