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Coups: A short guide to getting it right

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan quashed a coup attempt after unforced errors by its plotters.AP

Readers should not be discouraged by the events in Turkey yesterday. Yes, the coup failed, spectacularly. But that doesn’t mean yours has to.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s time in office has been marked by continual tension between him and the secularist military. This boiled over last night when some Turkish troops attempted to seize power. Events were broadcast live on social media and television; viewers around the world watched as bridges were seized, then abandoned, as protesters gathered and were attacked, and as fighter jets buzzed the streets of Istanbul at rooftop level.

But in the light of dawn, it was clear the coup had come undone. TV stations went back on air. Soldiers abandoned their rifles in the streets. Government supporters crowded into the public squares. And Erdogan, once more in control, took advantage of the chaos to immediately begin arresting political opponents and even judges he deemed not sufficiently supportive.

There is no denying the attempt went badly, and the generals who led it face a very grim future. But readers should not dismiss the idea of a coup d’état as a practical tool for managing challenges in their day-to-day lives, be it a bridge club that refuses to meet on a more convenient day, a boss who won’t approve a raise, or a Little League coach who doesn’t appreciate your son’s talent.


A well-planned coup can fix all of these problems — if you follow four simple steps, and learn from the mistakes of the Turkish generals.

The first and most important ingredient in a good coup is a decapitated leadership. If you swiftly take the president, prime minister, or assistant branch manager out of the picture, it is far more likely their followers will fall in line. This was probably the biggest error made by the Turkish generals. There are reports they had attacked his vacation residence in the resort town of Marmaris, but that he had already left. With Erdogan at large, he was able to reach out to his supporters, first by Twitter, then by video from an “undisclosed location.” This emboldened not only protesters but also other elements of the state, such as the police, who began to oppose the troops.


This brings us to the second crucial step: Seize the means of communication. In simpler times, this just meant driving a jeep full of soldiers up to the local radio broadcasting antenna and pulling the plug. Now, as we saw in Turkey, this is more difficult (but not impossible). The generals were able to disrupt many of the TV stations. But even then, they made the beginner’s mistake of walking on to the studio set and not into the control room. As a result, the world was treated to dramatic footage of news anchors being confronted by armed soldiers just before the station cut to black. The coup plotters also failed to shut down social media, which was a relatively straightforward task in Turkey since President Erdogan had already created (and used on occasion) kill-switches to block Internet traffic. In your case, just taking over the baseball team’s Facebook page may mean the difference in your putsch failing or succeeding.

Next, a successful coup requires that you lock down public focal points. You want to make sure that your opponents aren’t able to rally and fight back. In Turkey, this meant closing airports and bridges. Unfortunately, the plotters waited too late to also seize the public squares. As a result, by the time the army moved into Istanbul’s central Taksim Square, there were already so many protesters that their tanks were quickly overwhelmed and rendered useless. Readers should learn from this. If you have just overthrown your boss, immediately move to the lunchroom or water cooler. Remember: Control the public spaces, and you control the mood.


Finally, the secret to a great coup is a late reveal. In the early stages, as you decapitate the bridge club chair (note: this is meant metaphorically unless otherwise indicated), and take over the newsletter, there will be confusion among the other players. This is what you want. If they don’t know what is going on, they can’t fight back until it is too late. Once you have power, and the next bridge tournament has been rescheduled to suit you, then and only then should you reveal that you are now in charge. This was yet another mistake made by the Turkish generals. They helpfully announced that they were in the midst of launching a coup before they had taken the President, before the Internet was shut down, and even before the public squares were under control. This gave Erdogan and his supporters all they needed — the counter-coup was immediately underway.

A coup d’etat can be a fast and effective way to deal with so many of our day-to-day headaches. But, like a good soufflé, it must be carefully prepared and executed. Even getting just one step wrong will mean a ruined dinner. This morning there are dozens of Turkish military officers, standing in front of firing squads, having learned this lesson the hard way. But don’t be put off by their mistakes. Planned and launched correctly, your coup will be certain to succeed.


Scott Gilmore is a senior fellow at the Munk School of Global Affairs, the founder of the nonprofit Building Market, and a former Canadian diplomat.