‘Big theatre,’ the man who runs the shop downstairs said to me as I tried to buy a tin of tuna. Normally our exchanges are limited to a simple polite ‘hello, how are you, see you soon’. But this time he wouldn’t let me leave. He had something to say and I was his audience.
He waved his arms about as the words flowed. He speaks no English, but through the Turkish I have learned and his hand signals I knew what he was trying to tell me. As if his words weren’t enough, he then began showing me the videos. I have seen some things in my time, but this was unfathomable. Unarmed soldiers, barely turned out of school, having their heads smashed in by the hordes who rallied to the Turkish president’s call.
They were from almost a week ago when this country was, for a few hours, turned upside down. Colleagues, friends and foes sheltered as the sound of fighter jets burst through the skies and gunfire splattered often too close to their homes. A military coup was under way. For the first few hours the president was nowhere to be found. There were reports that he had fled the country, sought refugee in Germany or Russia, but then through the magic of FaceTime he found a new way to address Turkey.
‘Go to the streets and give them their answer,’ he urged, live on air. ‘I am coming.’ The call was heeded. Mosques began broadcasting his message, telling all who could hear – and in Istanbul it was the whole city – to go out and take the streets back. And they did. Men, women and children poured out furiously waving the country’s flag. The soldiers who had just hours before stopped traffic and stormed some TV stations looked taken aback.
The big international networks started rolling coverage. Much of what they showed were vantage-point images, or from guests via Skype in the comfort of their homes. What was actually happening would rarely have passed the decency test. Blood ran across the broken cobble stones as boots stamped and cracked heads like eggshells. Limbs torn, bodies punched until every breath of air was exhausted. One soldier appears to have been gassed inside his own tank. He emerges gasping, his body a vibrant sore red. Then the crowd lynched him and the camera stops rolling.
It wasn’t long before President Erdogan swooped into the city and said he had taken the country back. The coup had failed. It was a good thing, he said, because it would allow the ‘cleansing of the military’. He spoke about a parallel power and how he was the democratically elected leader that this power couldn’t accept. Erdogan then calmly praised those who had taken to the streets and said democracy had prevailed. But had it?
This coup was a flash in the pan. It didn’t even last from sunset to sunrise and this surprises me. Turkey’s military is one of the best trained in the world. So why would the coup plotters make such a half-baked attempt? It strikes me as odd that the first manoeuvre wasn’t to assassinate Erdogan. That would be the easiest way of removing his influence. Various reports have emerged that he had been able to move minutes before they bombed the place he was holidaying. Others have said fighter jets were ready to shoot at his plane, but didn’t.
What I do know is that despite the military rebels having secured Istanbul’s main airport, Erdogan’s plane was able to land and within minutes he was giving a press conference. Instead of urging people to stay safe, he incited them to violence. He didn’t appear rattled; rather he seemed to relish the opportunity to bathe in the support he was shown. The coup leaders also failed to take down telecoms. If this was real, it was badly executed and that doesn’t sit right with me.
Around 60,000 people have now been rounded up, sacked or suspended from their jobs and the president has said more are to come. A third of top-ranking military officers have been detained. Around 15,000 who work in the education system were sacked. All government employees have had their annual leave revoked. Those who were away were ordered to return within 24 hours. Academics have been banned from travelling. All as Turkey ‘purges’ those who allegedly supported the failed coup.
At his press conference in Ataturk Airport, Erdogan said the coup was ‘a gift from god’ to rid the country of those who sought to bring it down. Yes, it certainly was a gift, to him at least. For years he has manoeuvred into a position to gain the power he so desperately seeks. He now has it and to top it all, to the outside world, it looks like he’s been forced into this position.
First came the open discussion about reinstating the death penalty. Then on Wednesday evening the Turkish president showed his cards and imposed a state of emergency. Mr Erdogan now has everything he wanted: complete control. The country walked into it wide-awake and with open arms. Freedoms were already being eroded before this, but now they are likely to be smashed down. Turkey has been moving in this direction for many years, but now Erdogan’s foot is firmly on the accelerator.
This is a country where freedom of speech is not a right, nor a liberty. Where minorities are suppressed, where political opposition is limited and extinguished at every turn. Yes, thousands of people took to the streets to ‘take back’ their country, but from whom? Democracy is not supposed to be a ballooning street mob, yet that is what we are seeing here. Night after night gangs on motorcycles now circle the city, blasting their horns and intimidating passers-by. Cars fly by with Turkish flags streaming from the windows and the chanting from those who are still taking to the streets is deafening.
The state media channel is pumping out propaganda like there is no tomorrow, reliving every moment and trying to analyse who showed more devotion to the president. The story they push is that this was a plot by supporters of the preacher Fethullah Gulen, who was once an ally of Erdogan. But that unravelled when Gulen and his supporters were blamed for widespread corruption following investigations in 2013. They were also accused of having too much influence over the police and judiciary and soon found themselves labelled as ‘terrorists’ by the government.
Turkey has once again requested Gulen’s extradition from the US over the plot. He denies any involvement and along with all political parties here, Gulen actually condemned the coup. But this is the story Erdogan wants to weave and Turkish media is ready to lap it up. He says the resistance was an act of democracy, that the coup didn’t have widespread support. Yet authorities have managed within days to find around 60,000 people who in some way are apparently linked.
What I think is really going on is that this is a prime opportunity for the President to remove anyone who has ever questioned his authority, his direction. He is systematically cutting out all who may have dared to stand in the path of him becoming supreme leader. He’s even been able to miraculously find the two pilots who shot down a Russian plane in November 2015, firmly ending that difficult spat. Could this failed coup have gone any better for him?
Erdogan says the state of emergency won’t change anything for those who were not involved in the failed coup. But where will the line be drawn? The country has already suspended the European Convention on Human Rights. It’s a temporary move apparently, but it came only hours after the president assured us that the rule of law would be followed to the letter and due process would be carried out. Everyone is still focusing on the attempted take-over last week, picking through what happened and why. Nobody seems to be concentrating on the real coup: Erdogan’s, that is now under way.