The following comes to us on Friday, July 15 from a colleague in Turkey who wishes to remain anonymous.
For the past three hours my friends and I have been listening to a continuous ezan or Islamic call to prayer from the local mosques. The imam, however, is not just summoning the pious to reflect on their spiritual stations, but rallying the faithful behind Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. They are calling for the “preservation of democracy,” but they are also calling for war. The Turkish military, meanwhile, has announced that it has taken over state media and that martial law will be declared. No one is to leave their apartments or step outside. Erdoğan, speaking on Facetime of all things, encouraged his supporters to come out in force, and the imams heeded his call.
I write all of this from a major city in Turkey’s eastern provinces where I am wrapping up my research, and supposed to board a plane in less than 24 hours. If this is going to be a coup d’état, it could not have come at a better time for the president, whose popularity, even among supporters, took a sharp fall after he announced that citizenship would be awarded to some 4 million Syrians currently living in Turkey. That’s not the only potential motive for a coup. Since 2010 there has been a blatant effort by the state to remodel Turkey’s fractious multi-party parliamentary system into a more “US-style” model where power is more concentrated, without the presence of smaller parties nipping at the heals of the executive power. Erdoğan will likely only emerge stronger from today’s events, however.
The coup is quite possibly a fabrication, a way to shake up the public, but not to actually overthrow the government. The military first assembled the gendarmerie or military police, who then led tanks to close off major transportation hubs in Istanbul and Ankara like the Atatürk Airport, which was the scene of a violent attack by the Islamic State last month. Clashes erupted as police then tried to erect barricades in Istanbul in order to prevent the gendarmerie from entering further. In Ankara, the headquarters of the Turkish Armed Forces and the headquarters of the National Intelligence Service were attacked by gunfire. Small explosive devices were set off in certain neighborhoods. Not even the Islamic State has been able to pull off such an attack on these otherwise sacred Kemalist (nationalist) institutions. Smaller street fights are breaking out; the sounds of automatic gunfire are accompanied by the screeching of low-flying F-16s. Seventeen police officers belonging to a special unit have been shot dead.
Speaking over Facetime to a reporter, Erdoğan as well as his former political partner, Adbullah Gül, speak of “dark forces,” of a certain “parallel structure” that is attempting to subvert Turkish democracy. They are referring to a former ally, an imam named Fetullah Gülen, who was a staunch supporter of the government until they had a falling out several years ago. Since then, there has been a systematic crackdown on private schools, the police, and newspapers in an attempt to purge Gülen out of Turkish Islamist politics. This comes on the heels of the anti-military operations led by the Ministry of Justice known as “Sledgehammer” and “Ergenekon,” which targeted ultra-nationalist officers from potentially staging a coup. As Erdoğan speaks, he says “Nobody can rule Turkey from Pennsylvania” — a direct reference to Gülen, who for decades has taken up residence in the US.
Of course, it is doubtful that Gülen’s people are up to this. After all, the secular military wants nothing to do with the Islamists, the very same group who over the past decade successfully dissolved the military’s privileged status in Turkish politics. It is entirely possible that those responsible are officers who were willing to take the fall for the present government, for Turkish politics is never short of deadly theatrics in order to preserve the status quo. Erdoğan continues, in his usual brusque, overbearing manner of speech: “We are going to be in control.” The military claims victory as well.
Jets continue to soar across the sky overheard my apartment. It is hard to know what will come tomorrow, but one thing that is certain is that when Erdoğan dusts himself off, he will have managed to rein in his supporters as well as the more security-obsessed far-right nationalists. The past twelve months have witnessed almost endless violence, and now a man of order must finally (re)appear to make sure that state and government remains in control.
The long nightmare of Turkey now seems to have reached an apex, and yet not all are willing to be shocked into fearful submission. An increasingly marginalized section of Turkish society has adopted the same cynical sense of humor which accompanied the decaying Soviet system. As my friends and I glue ourselves to the state-run media, one finally stands up. “If I’m going to die,” he says, “then I’m going to get some chips. At least I want to die happy.” Others begin to slip away to their beds (there are five of us) and figure they will leave the fate of Turkey until tomorrow, their nerves deadened by the sensationalist Turkish media. The ezan continues in the background.
It is almost impossible to sleep. Just before I close my eyes I scan Turkish social media and see that scores of troops and civilians have been killed. Some are at the mercy of a mob — there is a gruesome picture of a beheaded young soldier. More police have died, several generals, and one admiral. The highest officer in the Turkish Armed Forces was missing for almost 6 hours; no one knows where he went. Over 160 have been arrested as traitors to the Republic. This was arguably the bloodiest coup (attempt or not) in Turkish history if one doesn’t count the actions of the junta after a successful coup. It will not result in the dissolution of the government, but a further bonding between the far-right, whose own crisis has split them, and the present government, who needs the people to rally around the flag for support. In Reichstag-style fashion, the Turkish parliament was bombed. Erdogan, who wasn’t at first able to land his plane, managed somehow to arrive while tanks were running over cars at the entrance of Ataturk and Sabiha Gokcen Airports. He calls on the entire nation to stand strong against the coup. The situation is quite simply obscene and monstrous.