TURKEY: thoughts from the ground

turkey
Anti-coup celebrations in Taksim Square – Taken by Khawaja Hamza Ahmed, July 19

On a cool night in Ankara – the 15th of July 2016 – the fate of a Middle-Eastern democracy hung in the balance of an attempted coup d’etat. Below are three reflections, written by writers who watched the turmoil from within.

Khawaja Hamza Ahmed

The sonic booms caused by low flying F-16 fighter jets shattered the windows of my house in Istanbul. Gunfire echoed the sound of the call to prayer being rung out on loudspeakers by mosques throughout the city, as the whole country awaited news in fear. Sometime earlier, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, spoke on television via FaceTime, urging his supporters to take on the tanks and soldiers to protect the nation and its democracy. In no time, AKP supporters were out on the streets of Istanbul and other Turkish cities, chanting anti-military and pro-government slogans, preventing tanks from moving and beating up soldiers – literally. By dawn, it was certain that the coup attempt had failed, but the night of July 15 would be remembered as one of the darkest in recent Turkish history, as over 200 civilians, police officers and soldiers lost their lives.

A couple of nights later, as I drove on the Bosphorus Road around midnight in the European district of Sariyer, I witnessed celebrations that could only ever be matched by Turkey winning the FIFA World Cup. The celebrations were even more grandiose in Taksim Square, where enormous screens and microphones had been set up and thousands of men, women and children waved large Turkish flags and chanted slogans. While AKP supporters would be relieved that the military’s attempt to seize control of the country failed, the deaths of some 200 people should be met with sorrow, not joy. Despite the coup having failed, the events following July 15 have caused a further divide between Islamists and secularists in an already polarized Turkish society. The coup backfired heavily, as it only gave Erdogan more legitimacy and power to remove supporters of Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen. Blamed to be behind the coup, Gulen lives in self-imposed exile in the United States, and public institutions identify him as the man who sparked the state of emergency in Turkey.

Seval Ulus

One must ask the apparent question: how could any military personnel or group go ahead with the plan of seizing parts of two cities – Istanbul’s busiest bridge in peak hour traffic, an airport and a TV station – in hope that it would eventuate into a successful coup? In Turkey’s history, successful coups have been launched after midnight, key government officials (including the president) have been taken as hostages and citizens have awoken to learn of the establishment of Martial Law. It is unusual that the soldiers who occupied Atatürk Airport allowed Erdogan to land, and then conduct a press conference where he ‘heroically’ condemned the military. Why didn’t they take Erdogan hostage when he came to their doorstep?

Erdogan also urged civilians to flood the streets to “take back democracy”. To this I ask, “what democracy?”

A “democracy” which has now allowed the cancellation of 21,000 schoolteachers’ licences? Forced the resignation of 1,577 university deans and the dismissal of 15,000 employees of the education ministry? And somehow identified them all at the speed of light? Just as Hitler had yelled “Reichstag Fire!” in 1933, so too now does Erdogan yell “Gülenist Coup!” in 2016. It seems that Erdogan has used this “coup” to further establish his power, change the Turkish Constitution and transform Turkey’s parliamentary system into an executive presidential system of governance.

Everyone that I spoke to in Istanbul while I was there, both before and after the coup, spoke in fear. The word “dictator” and “injustice” is thrown around softly while religious zealots supportive of Erdogan mindlessly scream “God is Great”.

The past 60 years of Turkey’s history has witnessed four successful military interventions aimed at restoring a Kemalist rule over the country. Similar to the current Turkish President’s dictator-like approach, previous ruling parties have abused their legislative power to reform the educational system and the internal management of Turkey to suit Islamic beliefs, and have often met their end at military gunpoint. Unlike previous governments, however, current Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan seems to have avoided the attempted coup.

Jason Walker

This coup attempt is just one event in a series of worrying developments moving Turkey further and further away from Europe and America, down a path towards a more unstable future. Now more than ever, the choices that Turkey (or more specifically, Erdogan) makes, will have an effect on the geopolitical situation in the Middle East and Europe. From within the country, seeing the coup play out first hand was a dramatic development – and on live television no less. In the aftermath, counting the thousands of people arrested is worrying (whether or not they were truly were planners), as is counting the schools, charities, medical institutions and universities that are now closed. Even with this troubling state of emergency, the cause and effect are not limited to the domestic sphere.

Indeed, the coup comes in the wake of Turkey’s downhill spiral in stability, which has partly come about due to international factors. Recent bombings claimed by ISIL have brought the conflict in Iraq and Syria to Turkey, at a time when Europe is also dealing with the social effects of terrorism and unrestricted migration. Relations with Russia will also be affected by these changes, while questions loom over Syria, as well as the future of Russia’s close neighbours, NATO and the EU. Indeed, US relations have already been affected due to Erdogan’s pursuit of Fethullah Gulen, who has been blamed for the coup but is out of reach – in America. Conspiracy theories that this is a deliberate plot to move towards a dictatorship are probably false, but nevertheless, this is one event in a growing list that paints a much darker picture for the future.