On July 15, 2016, Ahmet Selim Tekelioglu and his new bride crossed over the Bosphorus Bridge in Istanbul, Turkey, heading to visit their families after their honeymoon.
Hours later, the landmark bridge was awash in blood, as Turkish armed forces opened fire on civilians in a military attempt to depose the nation’s elected government. The coup failed, but not before the parliament was bombed and more than 300 people killed.
On Wednesday, the trauma of that day in Turkey rose anew in Tekelioglu, as he watched pro-Trump insurrectionists attack the Capitol in a violent effort to stop President-elect Joe Biden’s electoral victory.
Tekelioglu thought: Americans shouldn’t be so surprised.
“The discourse around ‘Trump is an outlier, American institutions are well-established’ — it was a false sense of security,” said Tekelioglu, 40, of Allentown, who is outreach-and-education director of the Philadelphia chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. “There are people who believe in their ‘ownership’ of the state, that they represent what the nation should be.”
That sense of experience relived ran through other Philadelphia-area immigrants last week, people who had witnessed violent attempts, successful and unsuccessful, to change the governments in their homelands.
Emilio Buitrago endured not one but two attempted coups in Venezuela in 1992, when Hugo Chávez tried to seize power from President Carlos Andrés Pérez.
On Wednesday, he spent hours staring at his TV screen, absorbed in the insurrection and then Congress’ Electoral College vote count. Memories flooded back from his days marching on the streets of Caracas, his fellow demonstrators carrying the dead as they tried to avoid tear gas and bursts of bullets.
Buitrago, a 46-year-old Delaware County wind-energy engineer, left Venezuela before Chávez was elected president in 1998. But he’s watched what has followed, in that country and this one.
At the start of Trump’s presidency, Buitrago said, he saw him as a “carbon copy” of Chávez and other dictators who have ruled Latin American lands. Friends told him he was wrong.
“I began to think that I was the one who was traumatized and not seeing things correctly,” he said. “But now that these four years have taught us that dictators don’t just come from the left, time has proven me right.”
When he heard that five people died at the Capitol, he thought of the hundreds who perished in the streets of Caracas, protesting “the hatred that the Chavismo’s anarchy and extremism have built in its supporters.”
Americans have been naïve, he said, ignoring or not recognizing the incendiary rhetoric that Trump has employed from Day One. Even now, he expects Trump and his supporters to continue to try to sabotage democratic institutions.
“People used to tell us that Venezuela wasn’t Cuba, and look … ,” he said. “They also told us that the U.S. isn’t Venezuela, and look.…”
The Capitol assault shocked because of the bedrock American belief that such a thing can’t happen here, that the nation’s democracy is ever-enduring. But since the end of World War II, there have been 225 successful coups in countries of more than 500,000 people, according to the Center for Systemic Peace, which studies global political violence.
Most occurred during the Cold War, in the 1960s through the 1980s.
The center does not try to count attempted coups. And as Americans grapple for language to describe Wednesday’s events — sedition, revolution, riot, terrorism — it doesn’t see the assault as meeting the definition of “coup,” a forceful seizure of authority and office by an opposition faction, as distinguished from revolutions and civil wars.
The center puts the Capitol attack in a different category, called a “presidential coup” or “autocoup,” which includes circumstances where a leader attempts to stay in office after being voted out. Since 1946, there have been 39 autocoups in 35 countries, including Bangladesh (2018), Burundi (2015), Haiti (1999), Niger (2009), and Venezuela (2017).
Thailand has had at least 10 forceful coups, Bolivia and Syria at least eight, and Argentina seven.
In December 1970, Pakistan President Yahya Khan refused to accept the results of the general election and seat the new National Assembly. That attempt to nullify the will of the voters felt uncomfortably familiar on Wednesday to Iftekhar Hussain, 55, a Chester County educator who was a boy during the subsequent civil war.
Maybe the attack on the Capitol shouldn’t have been a surprise. “What can you expect out of five years of this race-baiting?” But at the same time, he said, “it was a shock that these people felt empowered to do this.”
The civil war in his homeland was long coming. After gaining independence from Britain in 1947, Pakistan was divided into western and eastern segments, physically separated by India.
In March 1971, the junta in West Pakistan launched military operations against the East, killing civilians, students, and religious minorities. The East immediately sought independence. The Indian army invaded both wings that December.
Hussain has vivid memories of rushing to the cellar during bombing raids, and of his father hiding in the attic when soldiers came looking for him. One night, he, his brother, and a cousin sneaked out of the house to explore, coming across a shallow grave that contained two bodies. A dog was eating the entrails.
India’s victory ensured the creation of an independent Bangladesh in what was East Pakistan. Today, what was West Pakistan is simply Pakistan.
Hussain’s family moved to Kuwait, and in December 1981 he came to the United States, later becoming a citizen.
“I’ve never seen democracy as a guarantee, but certainly as a promise,” he said. “Institutions themselves don’t guarantee they function well. It’s people whose values align with the values of those institutions.”
In Nigeria, military coups can seem as common as yams — two in 1966, another in 1975, 1983, 1985, 1990, and 1993.
Elkins Park financier Mohammed Zubairu was 12 years old during the 1983 takeover, and he remembers it as “pretty unremarkable for most of the citizenry.”
Radio and television broadcast that a new government had taken power. Politicians got rounded up. Eventually there were more soldiers in the streets, but generally people went back to their lives. He doesn’t remember being afraid.
“There wasn’t really an immediate impact,” said the 48-year-old board chairman of the Philadelphia chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
On Wednesday, he watched what he described as a coup masquerading as a revolution, people at the bottom incited by those at the top.
Perhaps the only surprise, he said, is that more Americans weren’t shocked sooner, such as when a white supremacist shot and killed nine African American worshipers at a church in Charleston, S.C., or when Unite The Right supremacists marched in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017.
“Did I ever think that this could happen?” Zubairu said. “You’re talking to someone who” — as Black, Muslim, and an immigrant — “has an understanding that not everybody is equal under the law. I’m disappointed, but I’m unfortunately not shocked.”
Turkey had experienced three coups by 1980, but it was a quiet, behind-the-scenes military coup in the 1990s that most impacted Tekelioglu‘s life. He was in high school. His Muslim family fell under persecution, his father, a university dean, deemed “unwanted.”
Tekelioglu came to the United States in 2007, earning a doctorate in political science at Boston University, his experience in his homeland fueling his work in civil rights and voting rights.
In 2016, he had returned to Turkey for his wedding, and was scheduled to fly home just as the fighting broke out. Of course, all flights were canceled.
The violence on the Bosphorus Bridge, which connects Europe and Asia, killed at least 34 civilians and seven coup plotters before the troops surrendered to police.
Today, the span is formally known as the July 15 Martyrs Bridge.