Turkey, an important NATO ally, was rocked this weekend by an attempted coup d’état. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who had been vacationing outside the capital, used social media and his iPhone to call on loyal citizens to take to the streets in opposition to the military forces that claimed to have taken power. And people responded.

By Saturday night, Mr. Erdogan declared victory from the roof of a bus outside his personal mansion. Thousands of military personnel have now been arrested and face trials, likely for treason. Some 3,000 judges and prosecutors have reportedly been dismissed, accused of being members of a “parallel state” working against the interests of the government and led by Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish Muslim preacher living in exile in the United States.

The events have left Turks and many interested observers dazed and many questions still linger.

Why a coup?

There has been widespread concern at President Erdogan’s increasingly autocratic behaviour and the country’s growing religiosity. Even many of his followers have been alarmed by his suppression of a free press, his dismissal of police and prosecutors investigating allegations of corruption by members of his family, and his never-ending efforts to assert authority over the military leadership.

As the guardian of the secular values espoused by the republic’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the military sees its role as stepping in whenever a national leader or governing party forsakes those principles. It intervened four times in the second half of the 20th century and always returned authority to civilian administrations. So it would be in keeping with its past role to step in again.

Who was behind it?

On the surface, it appeared that certain military officers directed the operations, saying they wanted to return the country to what they called “constitutional order.” None of the high command appeared to be involved and the apparent failure of the putsch suggests it was a small and naive group.

Mr. Erdogan, however, insists that a relatively moderate religious movement run by Mr. Gulen, was behind the uprising. Mr. Erdogan insists the religious-educational group is really a terrorist organization out to get him.

(If that’s true, what does that make Mr. Erdogan, who came to power in 2002 thanks in large part to support from the group, with which Mr. Erdogan was allied at the time?)

Of course, there is another theory – that Mr. Erdogan himself was behind the plot. Certainly he is the one likely to benefit most by the weekend’s events.

Having survived the scare in a heroic fashion, he now is free to rid himself of troublesome generals and pesky judges, the very people who have been arrested or dismissed in the past 24 hours.

Why did it fail?

As Edward Luttwak, author of Strategy: The Logic of War and Peace, says, Rule No. 2 for a successful coup d’état is making sure that mobile forces loyal to the regime are incapacitated or far removed from the rebellion. This, the putschists did not do.

More importantly, however, they also broke Rule No. 1 – take into custody or kill the head of the regime you are trying to overturn.

Mr. Erdogan was free to act and rally the people and the loyal armed forces, which lends credence to the theory that Mr. Erdogan himself may have been behind the plot.

What happens next?

There are two possible directions. Mr. Erdogan may use this opportunity to reshape institutions in such a way as to give him more personal power. Certainly that has been his goal in wanting to create a more powerful office of the President now that he’s in it.

Or, he may use his informal power to enhance liberal democracy by instilling greater civil society and encouraging multiple voices.

Three years ago, Mr. Erdogan showed his instinctive response when he quickly moved to violently crush protests in Taksim Square that had dared criticize his plan for a small downtown park. Don’t bet on liberal democracy.

What are the political implications?

Whichever direction Mr. Erdogan takes, Turkey’s military is likely to never again be in a position to stage a putsch.

However, Mr. Erdogan’s increasingly heavy-handed style of government – more than Turkey’s increasingly religious nature – will probably rule out a place for Turkey in the European Union.

While its place in NATO will be secure, the unpredictable and unstable nature of the country that was exposed this weekend could well lead Washington to remove the several dozen tactical nuclear bombs it stores at the Incirlik air base in southern Turkey.

Patrick Martin
The Globe and Mail
Published Sunday, Jul. 17, 2016 8:45PM EDT
Last updated Sunday, Jul. 17, 2016 11:31PM EDT