Turkey: “Everywhere I look I see fear”

By Boštjan Videmšek/Delo

The failed military in Turkey has been a “gift from God” for Erdoğan, who is now cementing his grip on 

Wednesday 27 July 2016

Photo: Boštjan Videmšek
Photo: Boštjan Videmšek

“If you have no enemies it is a sign fortune has forgotten you,” a Turkish proverb has it. And on the day of the failed military coup, Fortuna certainly had her eye on Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

If the official version of the events is to be believed, he certainly had no shortage of enemies. Had the special forces squad of the Turkish air force raided the Marmaris hotel where the president was holidaying 30 minutes earlier, or had the F-16 fighter jets pursuing Erdoğan's plane fired a single missile, Turkish history might very well have been reset to year zero.

Yet it was not to be. The failed putsch, which is certain to exact a heavy price on the entire Turkish society, proved a miserable dud. Instead of a coup, what we are seeing is a swift and overwhelming counter-coup.

The keys to dictatorship

For the past few years, Erdoğan has been spiralling into while obsessively cultivating his cult of personality. But in an act of naive and ultimately unforgivable ineptitude, the rebelling officers of the Turkish army handed him the perfect alibi for everything that has happened in Turkey since. And also for everything that is to happen in the coming months and years.

Turkey has long been a bitterly divided society. Now it seems as if the failed putsch has handed Erdoğan the keys to outright dictatorship.

The Turkish president, gushing that the coup was a “gift from God”, certainly rose to the occasion. In the week following the failed attempt to unseat him and his party, some 60,000 people have been swept up in the vengeful purge. Military personnel, police officers, judges, prosecutors, intelligence personnel, state officials, journalists, school teachers, university professors and deans have been arrested, fired or suspended.

The purge seems determined to leave no stone unturned. The “cultural revolution” which has been gaining ground here for a number of years is now on steroids.

After declaring martial law, the authorities prohibited academics from leaving the country and suspended the European Convention on . The quick succession of purges cut into the very heart of Turkish society. Its progressive secular components, most of whom have been all too passive during the twin rise of Erdoğan's Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the Turkish economy, have been backed into a corner.

More vulnerable than ever

Unlike during the Gezi Park protests three years ago, the streets were claimed by the conservative majority. Those parts of the working class whom Erdoğan's economic policies have helped to gain back-door access to the middle ranks of society decided to throw their weight behind their champion. These were the people who did not hesitate to answer the calls from a hundred mosques in Istanbul. These were Erdoğan's ultimate saviours who, chanting “God is great,” marched in defence of their president and their country.

Today, still chanting their explosive mélange of religious and nationalistic catchphrases, they control the Turkish streets.

Having grown up in a poor family, Erdoğan is thoroughly familiar with the Turkish working class's infinitely complex and infinitely simple mentality. Indeed, he seems to have a direct line of communication to their very souls, unlike the generals and the admirals, who apparently got frozen inside their comfort zones some 30 years ago when both the country and the world still seemed as black and white as the shirts of the Besiktas football club.

Even before the failed attempt, the Turkish nation was sliding perilously close to a great conflict. At the moment, that conflict seems virtually unavoidable.

Turkey is currently embroiled in two wars, one with its in the forgotten southeast of the country, the other with the Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL) on the Syrian border. After Turkey did much to help it reach maturity, the self-proclaimed Islamic State has now turned on its former ally like a boomerang from hell. To complicate matters, official Ankara is still sending “aid” to certain insurgent groups in the north of Syria. Besieged is about to fall, and all the barbed wire, reinforced concrete and machine guns along the Turkish border will be hard-pressed to stop tens of thousands of people making a panic-fuelled dash for their lives.

Now that Erdoğan has understandably lost confidence in his armed forces, where the chain of command has simply collapsed, Turkey seems more vulnerable than ever. And all this at a time when the maps of the are being redrawn to the beat of a global geostrategic war that will be anything but cold.

Waking into a nightmare

“It was like waking up into a nightmare,” says B, a foreign researcher at a prestigious university in Istanbul, who has lived in Turkey for many years. She was surprised by the attempted putsch, but not at all by the authorities' reaction. “Immediately, it was clear to me that the attempt would be a failure. And I'm actually glad. When was the last time the army brought peace and stability, right? But the reaction to what happened is what frightens me the most. The control is sure to intensify all over our country. First from the top down, and then the other way around.”

I sat talking to B in a café near the Bosporus, next to the bridge blocked by the putschists' tanks on that fateful night of 15 July. During the putsch itself, the young research fellow was at a concert. She was tipped off about the events over the phone. “When I got home, pandemonium had already broken loose,” she told me as the tankers placidly moved down the Bosporus as if nothing at all had happened. Thousands of Erdoğan supporters had answered the mosques' calls and taken to the streets. “Things were very dangerous. It was a face of Turkey I no longer recognised. It was an anything-goes sort of night. All those men seemed to be driven by pure adrenaline,” B recalled. “And now both the authorities and their supporters on the streets have been given the perfect alibi for the purges they so craved. What is happening now is a consolidation of power. I hope things settle down soon – they always do here in Turkey after each storm. I guess we'll simply have to learn to live with all the changes.”

In B's view, a close scrutiny of the authorities' actions is now needed more than ever. “We have to be particularly mindful of where the president is placing his priorities. Is it to be the economy? Foreign policy? Ideology? His ego? ? I believe the answers will prove rather depressing.”

“Everywhere I look I see fear”

All my Turkish sources seemed aghast by the scale of the authorities' response. Not a single one anticipated the sheer extent of the purges, which seem determined to shake up a number of key systems and institutions.

“All of us are in shock. We are very afraid for the country's future. The outcome won't be good,” says  Professor Lucie Tungul. “The optimist in me expects to see all the important positions in the country taken over by the loyalists, as the Justice and Development Party (AKP) seizes complete control. But the pessimist in me is terrified that the mob will take advantage of what happened to unleash a tidal wave of violence. I am afraid of pogroms. I am afraid for the minorities, the activists and the leftist…There is a great chance of escalating instability and the intensification of the conflict with the Kurds.”

A few months ago, Lucie Tungul and 49 of her colleagues were fired from a private university the authorities had linked with the US-based cleric Fethullah Gülen, Erdoğan's public enemy number one who is blamed by the regime for masterminding the failed coup.

“Everywhere I look, I see fear. People are no longer willing to speak out. Most are now silent, waiting to see what happens. Many are thinking of leaving the country, finally emigrating for good,” Tungul describes. “Everyone can become a target. We are living in highly unstable times and in a highly unstable environment. In a polarised country where the right is on the rise… The Turkish army has been severely weakened and destabilised. Enemies of Turkey are sure to try and take advantage of the situation.”

Tungul, who is a Czecg living in Istanbul fiercely opposed the attempted coup. According to her, its main protagonists should have been much more aware of the consequences likely to flow from their ineptitude and misguided brutality. Their basic motives still remain to be determined. Virtually all those in the know are keeping their silence, while the vast majority of those willing to speak out are merely guessing and more or less shooting in the dark.


“I am not a supporter of president Erdoğan's policies,” Tungul explained. “But he was voted in in a democratic election… Regardless of the special conditions in place here last November during the repeated parliamentary election. I am against all military coups. They have nothing whatsoever to do with , and they are the very definition of violence.”

According to Tungul, it is obvious that many Turkish people are very fond of Erdoğan. “And not only because of his tendencies. Those sort of interpretations are plainly wrong. Turkey has other parties and groups which appeal to pious Muslims. The thing is, under his leadership the country has undergone tremendous changes. Many Turks believe that he has turned Turkey into a country of international prominence, while the quality of life has been much improved for many of them. They are convinced that Erdoğan has worked tirelessly to address the so-called little people, the poor and the dispossessed masses. They admire his rhetoric unmarked by fear of the global superpowers. They believe he is a leader the world envies them.”

Tungul is convinced that the president's ruling party is very likely to retain its high levels of support – that is, if the economy recovers soon. Many of Turkey's inhabitants are trapped by huge loans and are therefore desperate to keep their jobs and businesses running. Should the country hit the deeper recession many of the local experts had been predicting, Turkey could easily descend into a spiral of even greater social and political turmoil.

The worst-case scenario

The feeling on the streets of one of the most progressive and secular parts of Istanbul was one of mounting anxiety. As thousands of Erdoğan supporters flocked towards the rally at Taksim square, the shopkeepers, restaurant owners and guests eyed them with palpable disquiet. Some proprietors simply closed up shop and headed home. Just a few days after the putsch, at the height of the first wave of purges, hardly anyone felt safe.


Brandishing a number of national flags, packs of young men were swaggering down the street, drunk on adrenaline and the sort of confidence found in numbers. Some of them were zig-zagging through the crowd on their motorbikes and cursing passers-by. It was clear they were the unchallenged masters of the streets. They were followed by bands of silent black-clad women, representing three different generations. Every single one of them was carrying a Turkish flag. The president's name kept echoing down the street.

“What we're seeing now is the worst-case scenario. The putsch attempt, which I'm still trying to wrap my mind around, only bolstered the most reactionary elements in the country,” said H, a software programmer who, like most of those brave enough to talk to me, preferred to remain unnamed. “Mind you, if things are this bad in Istanbul, can you imagine what they must be like in the countryside? I'm afraid Turkey is quickly sliding back into the past.”

At the café where I met H all the other patrons remained silent. Some of them even left their tables and went inside, just in case.

At Gezi park, the crowd was swelling up by the minute. At the exact same spot where three years ago the battle for one of the last parks in the district was waged, loudspeakers were now pumping out deafeningly loud patriotic music. An effigy of Fethullah Gülen had been hanged from one of the lamp-posts. A number of Syrian refugee children were selling grilled corn or panhandling through the crowd.

“A gang of soldiers set out to destroy our country. It was an attack on Turkey, on President Erdoğan, on each and every one of us,” said Nesrin, a high-school teacher from the Bagcilar working-class quarter. “I am convinced that the putschists were not alone in this. They were guided from outside. Fethullah Gülen used to work together with the CIA. His goal is to bring down a democratically elected government. I'm here to show my support for Turkish democracy.”

She told me she spent the night of the failed putsch out in the streets in the company of her friends and neighbours. They first bought some food supplies, to cover any contingency, and got some cash from the bank machines. Then they joined the crowd to “fight for Turkish democracy”.

But in her opinion, the purges have been too harsh. “The authorities should punish only the people directly responsible – for some of those, even the death penalty might not be inappropriate. But the soldiers ordered out into the streets by their superiors should be pardoned,” Nesrin nodded before disappearing in the crowd.

The young men were proudly jumping up and down, chanting “Allahu Akbar” and firing their Bengal torches. It was hard to shake the impression of being at a football match in which the home team was leading 6:0. In this highly urbanised surrounding, the rural-sounding vibes were clearly coming into their own again – the ominous soundtrack of Turkey's past and its future on an apparent collision course.


  • Boštjan Videmšek

    Boštjan Videmšek is an award-winning freelance crisis reporter for leading Slovenian daily DELO and several European and US magazines. He has covered all the major international crises and wars since 1998. Videmsek is the author of eight books: 21st Century Conflicts. These include THE Last Two: The Battle to Save the Northern White Rhinos, Plan B: How Not to Lose Hope in the Times of Climate Crisis, Remnants of Wars, Revolt: Arab Spring and European Fall, and Ultrablues.

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