Friday’s astonishing coup attempt was (at least in part) shut down by anti-coup protesters who flocked to the streets in the early hours of Saturday July 16. Since then, thousands more have heeded the President’s ongoing calls to go to the squares and protect their democratically elected government: Turkish flags have enveloped the nation anew, seemingly a unified and decisive voice.
As with the Gezi Park protests that swept the country in 2013, many have depicted this growing protest movement as representative of Turkish people’s commitment to democracy. However with allegedly pro-government mobs searching the streets for opposition immediately after the failed coup, targeting marginal groups such as leftists and Alevi neighbourhoods, what really united this fractured country last Friday?
In a rare moment of solidarity, all major political parties, including the Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party and the Republican People’s Party were united in their condemnation of the attempted takeover, leading to early speculation that some unity could emerge from this chaos. The optimism this might have fed has since been smothered however, under the weight of purges in the civil service and military, and the recently declared State of Emergency.
In a sense, this brief moment of political alignment can indeed be and has been read as a sign of Turkish people’s commitment to democracy. Specifically, the left’s condemnation of the coup can be read as a sign that people will fight for democracy when it is under threat of a misguided, interventionist military as much as they continue to fight for it along the more entangled and precarious lines of everyday Turkish democracy itself.
But perhaps more than that, it reflects a collective recoil from the historical trauma of successive military coups from the 1960s onwards: a fear of the army from leftists and Islamists both and resentment at its continued interference.
Memories of coups gone by
Given the military’s historic role as the ‘guardians’ of Turkey’s secular democracy, why the poor support, especially in light of the anti-democratic moves by President Erdoğan and his party?
Part of the answer is that the last violent military coup took place in 1980, and the executions, detentions, torture and disappearances that followed are still very much in living memory. Indeed, the last two coup leaders were sentenced as recently as 2014.
Deniz, a student in the 1980s who currently resides in Istanbul spoke to Independent Turkey about her experiences during the uncertainty and bloodshed of those years.
“Until the 1980 coup we experienced a very horrible time. During the time I was a college student. My university was known for being leftist and we were under the fear of attacks of the fascist group. Almost everyday our friends were killed or injured.
“When the coup happened I expected that these conflicts and chaos would end, therefore at the beginning I felt relieved. Indeed street killing stopped immediately. But then the coup’s illegal killings started. I had a very fearful and depressed last year in college.”
Though stability was restored a few years later, the memories of violence in that period are still strong. The masses who took to the streets and reclaimed the squares, particularly historic Taksim square – known as the site of the 1977 massacre and of the 2013 Gezi protests – in defiance of the most recent coup attempt, recalled such fears. “We cannot go back 50 years” said Merve, a teacher from Istanbul.
Hamit, who was a university student in southeast city of Diyarbakır when the 1980 coup happened, recalls mixed feelings as he learned about the coup from the radio. But he was quickly turned against the coup as a strict curfew was imposed, and house raids forced them to bury books with political content (leftist, in his case), or burn them. “Our neighbour was taken into custody just for taking out the trash.” he remembers.
Looking back, Hamit believes that the limited reach of mass media back in the 1980s made it easier for the military to exert full control. But now, with the military trials of the past decade; the “postmodern coup” of 1997 and the attempted coup by “e-memorandum” in 2007, people are more vigilant against military takeovers. “I knew from the very first minute this attempt was doomed to failure”, he says.
As Hamit mentions, the military intervened once again in 1997, to clear the Islamist Refah party out of government. In 2007, they issued an ultimatum over their website threatening to intervene if Abdullah Gül of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) was elected as President. With their roots in the Refah party, and the trauma of the 1980s in mind, this was one intervention too far. Both civil society and the democratically elected AKP were furious; Gül was elected and the military were disgraced. In 2007 as in 2016, the military attempted to intervene against popular will and discredited themselves.
When asked what the difference between last weekend’s coup and the one in 1980s, Deniz responded, “In 1980 the army was more confident and the people trusted and supported the army more than any institution in Turkey. But today…” That ellipsis carries all the skepticism of the role of the army in contemporary Turkey.
Faith in the military as an institution has been eroded. Its own power has been slowly curtailed, and its increasingly misguided attempts to intervene in government, contrary to popular will, has eroded people’s trust in it. Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmuş described the impact of last Friday’s events in a speech on July 21 as “a very big wound” in the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK). “It will take years to heal this wound in the heart, mind and conscience of the people.”
Combined with the fear of a parallel state governed by infamous religious scholar Fethullah Gülen, present before the coup but now seen to be functioning through the military, people’s mistrust in the army is strong enough to justify the heavy handed response of Erdoğan and the AKP to their supporters.
And yet while government supporters laud the failed coup as a triumph for democracy, marginal groups in Turkey, from leftists to the Kurds, are increasingly concerned. Although the government has limited its post-coup purges to Gülenists so far, many are wondering how long it will take for this to evolve into an all out attack on political dissidents from across the social spectrum.
“The purges will surely expand to other dissident groups” argues Hamit, “which will lead to not only more oppression over opposition groups, but it will also cause an increase in public distrust against judiciary in terms of confidence in fair trial and due process.”
The mobs seemingly scouring the streets in search of such dissidents, threatening residents of the largely leftist area of Kadikoy that “next time it will be your turn”, highlight the ever deepening social divisions in Turkey, and the potential bloodshed that could entail. In his literal call to arms, Erdoğan is reducing the coup, a complex intersection of socio-political allegiances and histories to a simple equation of Us vs Them.
The flipside to ‘defence of democracy’
And so these attacks have been exposed as the flipside to the ‘defence of democracy’ narrative, starting, as seems to be characteristic, with the Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party, attacks on Shia-based Alevi neighbourhoods (Turkey is mostly Sunni), and upon people drinking alcohol.
The popular support for Erdoğan and the AKP was largely from Islamist and socially-conservative segments of society even prior the coup. Emboldened by their defeat of the coup, these groups have seemingly been given free-reign by what is effectively a top-down, nationwide call for state-supported vigilantism.
One author explains it as neo-fascism, and a threat to Turkish society greater than Erdogan’s personal pursuit of power. Other reports denounce wholly that the people on the streets on the 15th were there for democracy at all.
Erdoğan has established his government’s capacity to continue to eradicate the threat of the Gülen movement by declaring a State of Emergency. This move, and the subsequent one to temporarily suspend the European Convention on Human Rights, have created a ripple effect of fear throughout the nation. Amnesty International’s Turkey Researcher, Andrew Gardner, warned that “The state of emergency gives them increased scope to continue on this dangerous path” as “the government has [already] abused existing laws.”
While the coup failed, averting what may have led to years if not decades of bloodshed in the crackdowns or possible civil war that ensued, there are valid and sustained fears that the the post-coup bloodshed will be much the same. Not a coup by military, then, but a takeover by a particular segment of the people, empowered by their government. Erdoğan is bringing the people back to Gezi, but not everyone is invited.