The coup attempt of 15 July 2016 was a major surprise to political actors in Turkey and observers outside Turkey alike. In the days before 15 July there was a surprising rapprochement between the AKP government and the Turkish army in the face of renewed war against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Observers were focused on Turkey’s strained relations with the European Union on the one hand, and the United States on the other; worried about human rights violations and freedom of expression; concerned about the increasingly aggressive presence of the Islamic State in Turkey. No one expected that the Turkish army, taken seemingly under control in the last decade, would think about overthrowing the government. Watching the early signs of the coup attempt on television, many were asking each other: is this for real? Even Mr. Erdogan reportedly asked his brother-in-law “are you kidding me?” when he informed the president of the coup.
Even if the putsch attempt came as a major surprise, the AKP government was very quick to put together a fully-fledged narrative to commemorate the event. Ten short days after the military tanks were stopped and soldiers were killed on the Bosphorus Bridge, it was renamed as the 15 July Martyrs Bridge, and a week after that 15 July was declared the Day of Democracy and Martyrs. In the meantime, many streets were given the names of martyrs from that night. The official image of the day is a man wearing a Turkish flag stopping a military tank. At the major rally on 7 August attended by a million people celebrating the failure of the coup, the event was likened to the War of Independence of 1919-1923, to the Malazgirt War of 1071, and to the Conquering of Istanbul in 1453 at the same time. Many participants at the rally wore headbands that said “Erdogan Commander in Chief.” How come it was so easy to come up with this commemorative narrative of a totally unexpected event?
For many years now the AKP government has been searching for new commemorations to mark their rule of almost a decade and half. They had a name for the era, "New Turkey," but not a perfect day that marked it. President Erdogan repeatedly expressed how he did not think commemorations of the Turkish Republic reflected the whole Turkish, Ottoman, and Muslim history he saw the new Turkey building upon. All national day celebrations in Turkey were established by the single party regime of Ataturk and commemorate the establishment of the Turkish Republic. In the last five years eight national celebrations were cancelled. Among the reasons listed for this are having lost soldiers to the war with the PKK, President Abdullah Gul being in the hospital, an earthquake, and mining accidents.
As old national day celebrations were getting cancelled, moved out of stadiums, and limited to brief celebrations at the President’s Palace, there was a search for a new commemoration to mark the AKP rule. The conquering of Istanbul by the Ottomans in 1453 has been a heavily invested commemoration since early 2000s. Because Erdogan was initially the mayor of Istanbul, this day has a special meaning for the AKP. The commemorations emphasize how Muslims took over a Christian capital and emphasizes conquering as a political symbol that needs to be continuously maintained.. Since 2010, the birth week of Prophet Muhammed is also celebrated in schools in Turkey—not a common practice in the rest of the Islamic world. Last year there were plans for officially celebrating Mr. Erdogan`s birthday on 26 February but they were cancelled. However, none of these commemorations seemed a perfect and unquestioned replacement for earlier national day celebrations.
Given this ongoing search for a new commemoration to celebrate the "New Turkey" under the rule of Erdogan, the quickly-formed commemorative narrative for the failed coup makes perfect sense. It seems to be the long-searched-for grand event, complete with martyrs and great popular support. The failed coup also came at a time when Turkey had had to give up its ambitions to play a political and military leadership role in the Middle East.
A few days after the coup, the media outlets close to AKP emphasized over and over again that the United States was behind the coup attempt and the European Union supported it. As the “superior mind” (ust akil), the usual suspect of conspiracy thinking, was accused of being behind the event, Turkey appeared victorious not only against members of the army who planned the coup, but also against Western powers and the “superior mind.” Hence victory against the coup attempt was likened to the War of Independence.
Since the 1990s, the political Islamic movement in Turkey has defined itself as the true representative of the people, with the secular regime and the Western world as the oppressor. Even after it came to power, AKP continued to define itself as a rebellious movement against the forces of the state, the army, and also Western powers. The failed coup fits this narrative perfectly. The coup attempt shows the AKP regime at once under attack, and victorious despite it.
The Day for Democracy and Martyrs is not the first national day that commemorates a coup attempt. Following the 1960 coup Turkey had a new national day: 27 May was celebrated as the Freedom and Constitution Day for twenty-two years, until the 1980 military junta made a new constitution in 1982. It is quite likely that Turkey will have a new constitution before the first anniversary of the Democracy and Martyrs Day is commemorated. As it looked clear before 15 July and clearer now, the new constitution will give executive powers to the president. However, now it will also have the legitimacy of having survived a major attack and an already established commemorative ritual.