Erdogan says coup was ‘gift from God’ to reshape country, punish enemies

Erdogan speaks at a rally, following an attack by Kurdish militants against Turkish forces. Ankara, September 2015. [Reuters]

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said that Friday’s failed coup (15 July) was a “gift from God”, giving him the chance to re-shape the country, and purge the country’s elite from enemies, who accuse him of creeping Islamisation in the traditionally secular state.

Turkey widened a crackdown on suspected supporters of a failed military coup on Sunday (17 July), taking the number of people rounded up in the armed forces and judiciary to 6,000, and the government said it was in control of the country and economy.

Erdogan promised “a new Turkey” after Friday’s failed coup. He has made clear that the country he plans would be different in two fundamental ways: power would be concentrated in the hands of the president, and the old secular elites would have a lesser political role.

Show of support

Turkish society looks divided more than ever after the failed coup. Secularists, who claim the political inheritance of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk who in the 1920s transformed the former Ottoman Empire, stayed home over the weekend. In contrast, muezzin called from minarets for the people to take the street. Hundreds of thousands thronged squares and streets, honking horns and waving flags.

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Turkish police yesterday (26 April) fired tear gas to break up protests over a call for the country to adopt a religious constitution that has sparked concerns of creeping Islamisation in the traditionally secular state.

Erdoğan said on Sunday (17 July) that Turkey would consider reinstating the death penalty after the failed attempt to overthrow his government.

“In democracies, decisions are made based on what the people say. I think our government will speak with the opposition and come to a decision,” he said, reacting to crowds in Istanbul calling for capital punishment.

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“We cannot delay this anymore, because in this country, those who launch a coup will have to pay the price for it,” he told supporters after attending funerals for the putsch victims.

In the aftermath of Friday’s foiled coup, there have been frequent calls from thousands of Erdoğan supporters for capital punishment to make a return.

Turkey abolished the death penalty in 2004 under reforms aimed at obtaining European Union membership.

Reinstatement would create further issues between the EU and Ankara in the already stalled membership talks.

Purging the ‘virus’

Erdoğan and the government accused the US-based Muslim cleric Fethullah Gülen, a former ally whom Erdoğan accuses of trying to create a “parallel structure” within the courts, police, armed forces and media, of orchestrating the coup.

He said a “terror group” led by Gülen had “ruined” the armed forces, that its members were being arrested in all military ranks, and that a purge of this “virus” would continue. Gülen denied any connection with the coup.

Pictures on social media showed detained soldiers stripped to the waist, some wearing only their underpants, handcuffed and lying packed together on the floor of a sports hall where they were being held in Ankara.

One video posted on Twitter showed detained generals with bruises and bandages. Akin Ozturk, head of the air force until 2015 and identified by three senior officials as one of the suspected masterminds of the coup plot, was among those held.

Turkey’s foreign ministry raised the death toll to more than 290, including over 100 rebels, and said 1,400 people were hurt.

The violence shocked the nation of almost 80 million, once seen as a model Muslim democracy, where living standards have risen steadily for more than a decade and where the army last used force to stage a successful coup more than 30 years ago.

It also shattered fragile confidence among Turkey’s allies about security in the NATO country, which is a leading member of the US-led coalition against Islamic State. Turkey had already been hit by repeated suicide bombings over the past year and is struggling to contain an insurgency by Kurdish separatists.

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With expectations growing of a heavy clampdown on dissent, European politicians warned Erdoğan the coup attempt did not give him a blank cheque to disregard the rule of law, and that he risked isolating himself internationally as he strengthens his position at home.

Broadcaster NTV cited Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag as saying more arrests were expected.

By Sunday evening, authorities had rounded up nearly 3,000 suspected military plotters, ranging from top commanders to foot soldiers, and the same number of judges and prosecutors after forces loyal to Erdoğan crushed the attempted coup on Saturday.

Among those arrested was General Bekir Ercan Van, commander of the Incirlik air base from which US aircraft launch air strikes on Islamic State militants in Syria and Iraq, an official said. Erdoğan’s chief military assistant was also detained, the broadcaster CNN Turk said.

Saudi Arabia detained Turkey’s military attaché to Kuwait at Turkey’s request, Saudi-owned Al Arabiya TV said.

Security forces also clashed with remnants of the coup plotters at Istanbul’s second airport on Sunday and at an air base in central Turkey, an official said, adding that arrests had been made and the situation was under control.

On Saturday (16 July), Labour Minister Suleyman Soylu told the broadcaster Haberturk he believed Washington was behind the coup attempt. US Secretary of State John Kerry described suggestions of a US role as “utterly false”, and said on Sunday that Washington had had no advance intelligence of the insurrection.

The Pentagon also announced on Sunday that operations from Turkey by the US-led coalition against Islamic State had resumed after Ankara reopened its air space, which had been closed during the coup attempt.

However, US facilities at the Incirlik base were still operating on internal power sources after Turkey cut its main power supply. Kerry said the difficulty for US planes using the base may have been a result of Turkish aircraft flown in support of the coup using it to refuel.

‘Parallel structure’

The crackdown intensifies a long-standing push by Erdoğan to root out Gülen’s influence.

The cleric denied playing any role in the attempted coup, which he called an affront to democracy, and on Sunday told reporters he believed Erdoğan had staged the putsch.

Erdoğan said Turkey would demand that Western countries return Gülen’s supporters living there, and submit an extradition request for Gülen himself to the United States.

Gülen said he would comply with any extradition ruling but was “not really worried” about one.

Kerry said he had no evidence Gülen was behind the plot, and urged Turkish authorities to compile evidence as rapidly as possible for any extradition request.

Even before the coup attempt was over, Erdoğan promised a purge of the armed forces. “They will pay a heavy price for this,” he said. “This uprising is a gift from God to us because this will be a reason to cleanse our army.”

Erdoğan’s critics say he will also use the purge to eliminating dissenting voices in the judiciary.

Some European politicians expressed unease.

“(The coup attempt) is not a blank cheque for Mr Erdoğan. There cannot be purges, the rule of law must work,” French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said.

He told France 3 television that European Union ministers would reiterate on Monday (18 July) when they meet in Brussels that Turkey, which has applied to join the bloc, must conform to Europe’s democratic principles.

European Commissioner Guenther Oettinger said Erdoğan would move Turkey away from the core values represented by the EU and the NATO defense alliance if he used the coup to further restrict democratic rights.

“He would strengthen his position domestically, but he would isolate himself internationally,” Oettinger, an ally of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, told the Welt am Sonntag newspaper.

Some European politicians are also expressing concern about the future of a deal between the EU and Turkey that has helped to slow the numbers of mostly Syrian migrants crossing from Turkey to neighbouring Greece.

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Strained relations

Erdoğan’s Islamist-rooted AK Party has long had strained relations with the military, which has a history of mounting coups to defend secularism, although it has not seized power directly since 1980.

He commands the admiration and loyalty of millions of Turks particularly for raising living standards and restoring order to an economy once beset by regular crises.

But his conservative religious vision for Turkey’s future has also alienated many ordinary citizens who accuse him of authoritarianism. Police used heavy force in 2013 to suppress mass protests demanding more freedom.

During the attempted coup, calls rang out from mosques across the country, urging believers to take to the street to defend their country.

Deputy Prime Minister Mehmet Simsek tried to reassure investors before financial markets opened on Monday.

“The macro fundamentals of our country are solid. We are taking all necessary precautions. We are strong with the support of our people and strengthened political stability,” he tweeted.

The central bank said it would provide unlimited liquidity to banks.

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European foreign ministers will urge Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan today (18 July) to respect the law and human rights in dealing with defeated coup plotters, but have limited leverage over their strategic neighbour.

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