It’s been two weeks since the attempted coup, and some of us in Turkey still don’t know how to feel. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s fortunes were then at a low ebb, his government riddled by crises. Then came the biggest crisis in recent memory, what he called “a gift from god”, and now the reset button has been hit. The coup attempt has been repelled, but this remains a nation in deep crisis.
The government has moved quickly to assert itself. From the moment Erdogan appeared on TV via FaceTime during the early hours of the coup attempt his two wishes have come to fruition: 1. People would take to the streets and remain there in the defence of democracy (and him); and 2. Fethullah Gulen and his followers were to blame and would be punished. Now the purge is on at full speed. More than 60,000 people have lost their jobs, and 10,000 have been detained. Both figures continue to rise. From military officials to teachers, journalists and children as young as 14, the net has been cast wide. There have been reports of rape, torture and lynching. There’s been a loud call to reinstate the death penalty. A state of emergency has been declared. July 15 is now known as Democracy Day. The Bosphorus Bridge is now known as July 15 Martyrs Bridge. To encourage people out onto the streets, public transport remains free in Istanbul, though the streets are markedly quieter than usual. An already battered tourist industry has stalled. Many people remain indoors, afraid of terrorism, renewed coup-related violence and the mobs that have taken to the streets.
After dark, encouraged by the government to keep occupying the streets, much of Istanbul reignites, horns thumping out deep into the night from cars with Turkish flags flying and men and women hanging out windows. I can recall similar scenes on Sydney Road in Melbourne the night Turkey won third place in 2002 FIFA World Cup. It’s an odd comparison that leaves me uneasy. There’s a strange triumphalism sweeping the nation, egged on by loud but clearly rattled politicians. Prime Minister Binali Yildirim has labelled the thwarting of the coup Turkey’s second War of Independence.
In Taksim Square, the sprawling city’s de facto centre, it’s been party time. Thousands gather, wave Turkish flags, set off flares and chant the name of the president. Sometimes a slickly produced, fascistic theme song is pumped through the PA. Re-cep Tay-yip Er-dog-an! Re-cep Tay-yip Er-dog-an! For the most part it’s the party faithful: pensioners, families and teenagers wearing Recep Tayyip Erdogan headbands, but there’s also the uglier side of the particular brand of Islamism. A few nights ago a friend left work near Taksim at 2am and had little choice but to make her way home through a massive crowd of men wielding guns and chanting Allahu Akbar, God is great. Each night mosques continue to sing out the special prayer used to mourn the dead. The irony is that a successful coup might well have meant a Turkish Islamic Republic with Fethullah Gulen as figurehead. Those backing Erdogan, standing in front of tanks for him, martyring themselves, would have in all likelihood swiftly shifted allegiances.
Indeed Gulen and Erdogan worked together for years, first to seize power and then to consolidate it. Most notably from 2007 to 2010 Gulenist prosecutors fabricated evidence that landed more than 500 secularist and nationalist opponents, including scores of military personnel, in jail and allowed for further Gulenist infiltration into the Turkey’s institutions. By 2015 all had been acquitted, but only after the Gulen/Erdogan axis fell apart in late 2013 when Gulen’s prosecutors went after members of Erdogan’s government in a corruption investigation. In December 2015 the Gulenist movement was designated as a terrorist organisation by the Turkish government.
On the train the other day my attention was drawn to a young woman of perhaps 18 in conservative Islamic dress — tightly wound headscarf and long coat — with a large Turkish flag worn over her shoulders like a cape. It was jarring, not because she hadn’t the right to bear her national flag but because to me at least the flag had always been a symbol deployed by secularists and nationalists, those who lay claims to the legacy of Ataturk’s revolution. As the day wore on I saw more of the same, Turkish flags where they once weren’t. That’s it, I thought, for Erdogan’s faithful the victory against the coup attempt represented the moment they truly sensed that not only they belonged to the nation but that the nation belonged to them.
The matter being, in essence, that many of Turkey’s conservative religious folk never fully came to grips with Ataturk’s modern secular revolution, the program was too abrupt, too hard. Erdogan of course has made things easier for them. He spoke to their needs and impulses, he enriched them, gave them access to education and careers. He asserted that as pious Sunni Muslims he and those who follow him occupy the morale high ground in Turkey.
Yet the usual foes in the struggle for cultural and political power in Turkey — Alevis, secularists and Kurds — weren’t behind the coup. Nor was this the same military that had staged coups on the premise that it was the guarantor of Turkish secularism and Ataturk’s legacy. This appears simply as an attack from within. “You raised them (Gulenists) within your lap,” Selahattin Demirtas, co-chair of the opposition People’s Democratic Party, said of Erdogan.
Erdogan too was correct when he said “this was a gift from god”. Though he omitted the crucial words, for me. His sworn enemies have had to rally behind him. He has bought himself time. The declaration of a state of emergency has emerged as a mock trial period for the executive presidency he craves. For 90 days his government now has unfettered power. Some fear that the period will be extended indefinitely in the occurrence of any more violence. And if the president wants total control he needs only to look Syria, where the Al-Assad regime maintained a state of emergency for 48 years.
Looking to Syria though has many Turks, those with a sense of the big picture, fearful. They dread a civil war, a once remote idea now edging close. This is no generic, abstract fear but a growing sense that crystalised the moment F-16s buzzed low over Ankara and Istanbul, rocking apartments and shattering windows. These jets were meant to be protecting the nation, not attacking it. “Until this I was fine,” a friend who’s been living and working in Istanbul for three years said to me last night, “but I had to go work on the following Monday and pretend nothing happened. It was bizarre. I don’t feel safe anymore.”
This is a nation in deep crisis. There is an ongoing war against the PKK in the east. The Syrian human catastrophe continues. Assad remains in power. Islamic State continues to terrorise. Turkey’s tourism industry is shattered, the economy sputtering. And while bitter opponents backed Erdogan against the coup, hostilities will soon renew. Banners at the secular opposition’s weekend rally read, “Neither coups nor dictatorships”.