The old suspension bridge over the Bosporus is 1,560 meters (5,120 feet) long, six lanes wide and connects Europe with Asia. The structure had long been considered a symbol of a country heading into modernity, but on July 15 of last year, a blazing hot day, the bridge became the setting for a coup d'état. And transformed from a symbol of progress to one of reversal.
It's around 9:45 p.m. on that fateful Friday evening when army trucks drive up and armed soldiers jump out onto the road. An army major calls out orders and tanks move forward. The soldiers quickly occupy the bridge, which is bathed in the red glow of spotlights, and cut off all traffic to Europe. A short time later, helicopters begin circling over Istanbul and Ankara as fighter jets take off. The coup has begun. Fighting will continue for around 12 hours, costing the lives of almost 300 people, but by the next day, the coup will have been defeated and most of its leaders jailed.
A new putsch, though, begins almost immediately, a coup from above led by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who on television calls the attempt to overthrow him a "gift from God" – a gift that will lift him to the rank of autocrat. His apparatus will investigate 150,000 people, more than 50,000 people will end up in prison and newspapers and radio stations will be shut down. The wave of purges that follows will transform Turkey into an autocracy in which fundamental rights are suspended.
If one believes President Erdoğan, the gift didn't come from Allah alone, but also from one of his greatest enemy, an old man who lives surrounded by bodyguards on a 10-hectare (25-acre) estate in the U.S. state of Pennsylvania. From there, Fetullah Gülen, an aging, white-haired cleric, leads an Islamic movement with around 8 million followers around the world. In the massive criminal case that recently began in Ankara against the coup planners, Gülen is listed in absentia as the primary defendant. Erdoğan is painting Gülen to the Turks and to the world as a villain, but in the investigation files, there are plenty of questions, contradictions and obvious gaps. The evidence is far from solid. Reporting by DIE ZEIT in Turkey and Europe, including interviews with intelligence services in the region and with German and American government representatives, has resulted in a different, less black-and-white version of events. So, what happened on the night of July 15, 2016? How did the coup develop? And is Gülen really behind it?
The Background: Two Allies Become Enemies
There was a time in Turkey when Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Fethullah Gülen were close, kindred spirits united by the common goal of taking over power in a secular Turkey created in the image of state founder Kemal Atatürk. In this country, where state and religion were strictly divided, the two men were underdogs.
Erdoğan, the product of a simple family from the Black Sea coast, once sold sesame rings and dreamed of becoming a professional football player, long before he was elected mayor of Istanbul. He is a man driven by his instincts, strong and forceful, with an unerring sense for the popular mood.
And Gülen, from Anatolia, where the population's education tends to be limited and the religious fervor significant. Gülen's father had already served as a village imam before him and, with the provincial region as his base, Gülen built up a movement that he called Hizmet, or "Service," which today runs several hundred schools around the world. Hizmet has an authoritarian structure and most of its members live largely isolated. Those who have left the movement describe it as being like a sect. Followers of Gülen once owned the now banned newspaper Zaman, Asya bank and several insurance companies.
Erdoğan and Gülen were united in their opposition to Atatürk's secularism, which the Turkish military adamantly defended, and the two quickly ran up against the limits of what was allowed in Turkey. In 1999, a secret recording of one of Gülen's appearances got leaked to the public. He can be heard saying: "You must move within the arteries of the system, without anyone noticing your existence, until you reach all the power centers. You must wait until such time as you have got all the state power, until you have brought to your side all the power of the constitutional institutions in Turkey." Gülen moved to the United States and since then has been living in the small town of Saylorsburg, population 1,126, located a two-hour drive from New York.
From his base in the U.S., Gülen supported Erdoğan's newly founded Justice and Development Party (AKP) in the 2002 campaign. When the religiously oriented, largely unknown party unexpectedly won the elections, Erdoğan paid his friend back for the support: Gülen's people were appointed to positions in the administration and government agencies while many others landed in parliament, having been given choice slots on AKP campaign lists. Gülen was essentially a coalition partner, though he didn't actually lead a political party. He had arrived at his goal: the heart of Turkish power structures.
Following Erdoğan's re-election in 2011, however, the alliance between the two men began crumbling. Gülen followers leaked details of Ankara's secret negotiations with the banned Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) in an attempt to disrupt the talks. When Erdoğan then announced his intention in 2013 to close all Gülen schools, the power struggle escalated: Just days later, federal prosecutors close to Gülen launched corruption proceedings against high-ranking members of the AKP, several of Erdoğan's ministers and even against his son Bilal. The accused were said to have received millions of dollars to allow oil, natural gas and money to be smuggled out of Tehran via Turkey despite the international embargo of Iran. In the recording of one discussion about illicit money, a voice allegedly belonging to Erdoğan himself can be heard, telling his son: "OK, so what I am saying is, get all that stuff in your house out. OK?" Erdoğan continues to deny all accusations against him.
He had never been as close to falling from power as he was in 2013. Gülen's people had hit him hard, but Erdoğan reacted like a reeling boxer who hasn't yet been knocked out. He fired the ministers who had been accused of corruption – and, along with them, hundreds of police and state prosecutors he believed belonged to the Gülen movement.
And that wasn't all. Erdoğan also began systematically pushing aside the defenders of Atatürk's secularism within the military. In early 2016, he removed the leadership of a Kemalist institution, the Oyak concern, which has managed military pensions since 1961. For 50 years, Oyak had been a symbol of the power and autonomy of the Turkish military.
Such was the political climate within which the coup plans were hatched.
Ankara, November 2015: The Coup Is Planned in a Villa
On Nov. 9, 2015, businessman Serkan Aydın rents a nondescript, white-plastered villa in Ankara. The three-story house with a columned portico is located at Ahmet Taner Kışlalı Mahallesi 2880 Sokak, a quiet side street in the capital's southwest. The villa is to serve as the coup planners' headquarters, according to the indictment and to the testimony of several witnesses. Investigation files should be approached with care, but some of the information therein could be confirmed by independent reporting.
The fact that the house is rented at precisely this point in time is no coincidence: On Nov. 1, 2015, Erdoğan's AKP won an absolute majority in parliamentary elections and his opponents' hopes for political change were dashed. Erdoğan will be in power for at least an additional four years – and he will take advantage of all that power grants him.
Unless he is overthrown.