DIYARBAKIR, Turkey — The enthusiasm of the men and women, young and old listening to speeches against the faltering coup d’etat against Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) had begun to wane late Friday night. The putsch launched hours earlier by units of the armed forces in the capital, Ankara, and the commercial center, Istanbul, appeared doomed — and it was getting late.
Suddenly scores of boisterous, bearded young men came out on the streets, chanting “God is Great” through megaphones, and waved the flags of the three-year-old hardcore Islamist Huda Party, a descendant of Turkey's outlawed Hezbollah Party that used violence and intimidation in the 1990s to fight leftist and secular foes. AKP and Huda-Par supporters have been wary of each other. But on this night, they came together in rowdy chants.
“Hezbollah is with AKP!” they shouted, electrifying the audience at the 2 a.m. early Saturday morning rally.
Within hours, Turkey’s leaders and their supporters managed to turn the tide against a still murky band of armed forces personnel who attempted a daring putsch. Police battled the rebellious soldiers, and ordinary citizens took to the streets. Opposition parties fiercely critical of Erdoğan railed against the coup. Many celebrated a triumph of democratic principles in a region dominated by authoritarians or descending into chaos.
"We have urged the people to take to the streets and the entire people responded in order to protect democracy,” Abdullah Gul, the former president of Turkey said in a television appearance.
But as the emboldening of pro-Islamist hardliners like the Huda Party showed, the coup attempt and its aftermath also exposed several potential dangers that could further hurt Turkey’s stability in the coming months, as it seeks to stop attacks by ISIS, bolster its international partnerships and tamp down a war with separatist Kurds in the country’s southeast.
“This is a coup where everyone loses,” said Henri Barkey, director of the Middle East program at the Woodrow Wilson center, who was in Istanbul during the attempt for a coup — Turkey’s sixth military putsch since 1960. “The damage is also psychological. It’s a huge blow on terrible wounds that have yet to heal and still hurt.”
At least 265 people, including 104 alleged coup plotters, were killed in a chaotic night of violence that stretched into the morning.
Many hope the failed coup and its aftermath might divert Erdoğan from an authoritarian drift that has marred his reign. His panicked expression as he appeared on television Friday night via FaceTime on a news anchor’s iPhone showed that the coup had frightened him. Afterward, leaders of all three major opposition parties, all of whom have locked horns with Erdoğan, voiced support for the elected government. The same social media tools and democratic freedoms his government has sought to control, rescued Turkey’s democracy from the coup plotters.
But many doubt he will change course.
Erdoğan and his allies alleged that the coup was planned by members of the armed forces loyal to the religious leader Fethullah Gülen, who lives in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania. As the coup was rolled back, authorities arrested military officials allegedly linked to Gülen — he has been widely described as a cult leader and was allied with the AKP for years before a falling out in 2013 — and vowed to bring forth evidence of the group’s involvement. Some critics questioned the evidence connecting the putschists to the movement, suggesting that a rogue faction within the military, perhaps enraged over an impending wave of purges, had initiated the failed coup.
One Turkish official said many of the alleged coup leaders had entered public service with references from senior Gülenist figures. “The coup attempt has Gülenist fingerprints all over it,” said a senior Turkish official in a WhatsApp group message to international journalists. "Many of the failed coup leaders were in direct touch with senior members of the Gülen movement. More details will come to light as the investigation continues.”
But the government also quickly suspended 2,745 judges and prosecutors in connection with the coup, a huge proportion of the country’s legal system. The judiciary has long been a thorn in the ambitious Erdoğan’s side as he seeks to reshape the country, and some suspected he was using the coup as an opportunity to settle scores. “It’s impossible to find 2,745 judges linked to a coup plot in just four or five hours,” said Gareth Jenkins, an independent Turkey analyst based in Istanbul. “This is a preconceived list.”
Erdoğan and his supporters hailed the outpouring of public support for the government as a triumph of people power. But some critics condemned the government’s call for people to head into the streets, worried that it had empowered mobs who will be reluctant to give up on their newfound status as government heroes. Reports of attacks on army conscripts showed the potential for spiraling chaos on the streets in a country where vigilantes this year already stormed a record store for violating Islamic norms, and regularly attack offices of the opposition parties.
The coup attempt will further tarnish the reputation of Turkey’s regular armed forces exactly at the moment when the country is facing bedeviling security challenges. Military forces already battling ISIS and the separatist Kurdish PKK rebels and its offshoots must now focus their attention on the Gülenists, which the government has labeled a terrorist organization. Meanwhile public confidence has been rattled — for the first time in decades, Turkey witnessed members of security forces battling each other on the streets.
“We’re going to get an increased allocation of resources for alleged Gülenists,” said Jenkins. “It’s already in a war it’s not winning with the PKK."