WTF is Going on in Turkey?

The view from Izmir on last night’s failed coup attempt in Turkey: echoes of 1980, authoritarianism and democracy, and a possible way forward. 

For citizens of Turkey, the night of 15 July conjured memories of the political atmosphere of the previous century. An unknown group of soldiers, a junta, attempted a military coup by bombing several important state institutions, including the General Directorate of the Police, the Intelligence Agency (MİT) and the Turkish parliament (TBMM), forcing the closure of the country’s main roads, bridges in Istanbul and Ankara, and seizing the official TV channel of the Turkish state. We witnessed the declaration of a coup d’état on TV last night as if we were watching a documentary from the year 1980, but in full color instead of on a black and white screen. It was strange for anyone from my generation (those of us born after the 1980 military coup) to witness such a scene, after growing up with the stories and fear that lingered in the aftermath of the previous military coup.

So far, nothing is crystal clear about what really happened yesterday. The figures speak of madness and mayhem: 90 people killed by coup perpetrators and more than 130 killed by those who attempted the coup. More than 1,500 people have been detained and accused of attempting a coup d’état in the first day after the incident.

Last night, immediately after the declaration of military control, President Erdoğan called on people to go out and stand for democracy(!) in order to save it. The irony didn’t start or end there, but I believe this was its zenith. On one side, there was a group of soldiers upholding old Kemalist values (the pre-Erdoğan political paradigm of Turkey dating back to the days of the founder of the modern Turkish state, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk), employing a nationalist, democratic (!), fundamental-rights-advocate rhetoric to justify their attempt to overthrow a democratically-elected government. On the other side, we had Erdoğan and his bureaucratic tribe as the leading power of totalitarian governance in Turkey. The junta claimed that the motivation behind their mission was the increasing threat to democracy and fundamental human rights in the country, with intensifying hostilities in both internal and foreign affairs. To be honest with you, I don’t think there is anything wrong with this analysis, but the junta as a solution seems entirely misguided, since it’s almost impossible to cite any military coup in history that has ever managed to improve the quality of democracy.

The junta’s plans obviously did not go well. During the first hours of the attempt there was no detainment or capture of any high-level politician from the government, or any other high-ranking bureaucrat other than the Chief of Command of the Army. Right after the declaration, President Erdoğan and almost all government ministers appeared on different TV channels, even those that have recently been described as “terrorism supporters” by Erdogan, and through Facetime or Skype calls, asked people to go out onto the streets to stop the soldiers and save democracy. Under normal circumstances, calling people to stand together against junta fascism would seem the best democratic solution in the case of a coup d’état attempt.

However, Erdoğan’s call was not persuasive at all for those who have been craving a shred of democracy and fundamental rights in Turkey for years — namely ethnic minorities, members of the LGBT community, women and students – but it did resonate quite well with one group, a group that many of us actually remember quite well from the Gezi Protests when they were “hunting” young demonstrators, or more recently, the bearers of a conservative outrage that manifested during Ramadan in an Istanbul café where a Radiohead tribute event was held. Following Erdoğan’s call to defend democracy, the main boulevards in many cities were immediately rushed by that particular demographic of (almost certainly) pre-organized, AKP-supporting, men-only groups. The angry mob responded to the calls of the country’s president, hand-in-hand with police forces and AKP party leaders. Many soldiers were reportedly subjected to attempted lynchings, or were killed and beaten. Almost all of them were taken into custody.

The pre-organized angry mobs, which had much in common with the political Islamist groups in Syria at the beginning of the current conflict and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, have transformed the failure of the military coup into a “victory for democracy”, as President Erdoğan called it today. But what democracy is there to save when the lowest level soldiers are beheaded, or when democracy is protected by those carriers of a Turkish flag with a long knife in hand? Even if there is such a democracy, I believe the silent majority of this country does not seek it. Many people in Turkey yesterday had extremely complex feelings about the dilemma posed to them: getting rid of Erdogan or facing yet another military coup. Hate and fear of Erdoğan drove many people to a sort of initial happiness, even though many of those people had suffered through the previous military coup in 1980. Many of these people believe today, the day after the coup attempt, that the events of last night were little more than a show utilized by AKP leaders and some soldiers employed as actors, to aid Erdogan in his plan to solidify his absolute totalitarian control over Turkey.

These conspiracy theories are animated by a justifiable fear: Recent years have proven to those of us in Turkey that Erdoğan and those of his tribe are experts in political maneuvers, games, and lies. And each time that they have managed to “overcome” the threat posed to their rule — mostly by employing super-violent instruments or oppressive methods — they have grown more and more anti-democratic, anti-progressive, more conservative and brutal. The post-Gezi protest period, the fight against the “parallel state group” in the aftermath of the 2013 corruption scandal, and the current conflict in the Kurdish region are just some of the more visible indicators of how far Erdoğan’s tyranny can actually go and are warnings that it can actually go much further still.

Today, we citizens of Turkey are trapped between Erdoğan’s tyranny emblematized by the extremists’ angry mob who beheaded yesterday’s “threat” while carrying a Turkish flag, and the potential fascism of a junta government. Neither of these options are attractive for millions of people in this country, and so people are scared, intimidated and silenced. There is no way out of this trap other than to establish a fresh proposal from the left that might lead the masses towards something new, something radical, something transparent, and finally, something truly democratic.


Cover photo credit: Mert Cakir in Izmir, with permission. 

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Ozan Agbas

Ozan Agbas, originally from Turkey, is a Masters student at Moscow Higher School of Economics. After getting his Bachelor of Sociology, he worked with humanitarian organizations on the border of Syria. His areas of interest include conflict studies, forced migration and social movements.