ISTANBUL, Turkey (AFP) — More than his security forces, what saved Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on the night of the coup attempt was the extraordinary devotion the charismatic strongman inspires among his followers.
In the tense hours when rebel troops attacked with fighter jets and tanks, and commandos were closing in on him, Erdogan called directly on the Turkish people to resist the mutineers.
Using the social media he previously despised, and sometimes blocked, he mobilized the citizens who confronted and stopped the plotters.
“What makes Erdogan different is that he knew the people would move when he asked them to,” said Can Acun, a researcher with Turkish think-tank SETA.
“He was aware of the strong linkage between him and the people that he had strengthened through long years.”
Having risen from working-class roots, Erdogan served as Istanbul mayor and went on to lead the nation, as premier and then president, in a success story celebrated by his loyal Muslim conservative base.
The surreal turning point of the coup for millions of stunned TV viewers therefore came when the strongman appeared pale-faced on CNN Turk television, from the seaside resort of Marmaris where he was holidaying with his family.
Speaking via the FaceTime app on a smartphone held up to the TV camera by star presenter Hande Firat, he implored the Turkish people to “take to the streets” and defend democracy.
‘Not tanks but people’
“A majority of people were shocked to see the president shocked,” said Marc Pierini of the Carnegie Foundation Europe, a former EU ambassador in Ankara.
With Erdogan “isolated and far from the centers of power,” Pierini said, the live video phone call was “a master stroke.”
While the putschists were storming TV stations, apparently using “a manual from the ’60s,” Erdogan’s improvised video address “led to direct reaction” on the streets, he said. “It turned around the coup.”
In the days since people power prevented a military overthrow, at the cost of over 240 lives, Erdogan has used text messages and social media to speak directly to the people.
He has implored them to stay on the streets in nightly mass rallies in city squares that have resembled seas of red crescent flags.
“Do not abandon the heroic resistance you have put up for your country, homeland and flag,” read an SMS by “RTErdogan” sent to every mobile phone in the country.
“The owners of our squares are not tanks, but the people.”
Erdogan’s improvised response to the coup attempt “helped him discover a new technology” to strengthen his rule, said Aykan Erdemir of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington.
“The Turkish president, who has been deeply suspicious of social media and new communication technologies, realized that these tools have more potential than simply being propaganda outlets,” he told AFP.
‘Ignite the masses’
Erdogan dominates Turkish politics like no leader since the republic’s founding father, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, having cultivated a deeply passionate relationship with his followers.
Such concentration of power by one man is unprecedented in modern Turkey and has raised widespread fears of increasingly autocratic and repressive rule.
Youthful urban demonstrators rallied against Erdogan during the 2013 Gezi Park protests, and see the man with the notoriously fiery temper as a despotic autocrat who ruthlessly shuts down criticism.
But in many working-class areas and the vast Anatolian heartland, Erdogan is beloved by millions who celebrate a bigger role for Islam in public life, have benefited from a revitalized economy, and share a new sense of national pride under a potent ruler.
Erdogan won the 2014 election with 52 percent of the vote, making him “the first directly elected president of the people, with an added legitimacy,” said Pierini.
Critics warn Erdogan’s vast personalization of power endangers democracy.
“Erdogan now enjoys direct access to his followers via SMS and can mobilize them,” without using his party as an intermediary, said Erdemir.
This allows Erdogan to “ignite the masses to take the action that he sees fit,” he said.
“However, he will not have the same capacity to slow things down once his followers get going. So what he has now is both a very potent and risky technique.”