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22 July 2016updated 28 Jul 2021 11:21am

Turkey’s darkest night: can democracy survive the failed coup?

President Erdogan has hailed the foiling of the coup as a triumph for democracy, but some fear it will serve as a cover to crack down hard on his critics.

By Laura Pitel

It was 3.30am and the Turkish leadership was insisting that everything was under control. It didn’t feel like it. I was backed into the corner of a hotel room in Istanbul, trying to keep away from the windows as the building shook from sonic booms made by fighter jets tearing over the city’s rooftops. Three hundred miles away in the capital city, Ankara, plotters seeking to overthrow the government had seized tanks and jets and were bombing parliament. Civilians were being mown down in the streets. The presenter on CNN Türk was narrating with admirable calm the takeover of her own station’s building.

Each new update seemed to bounce off my brain before rebounding and coming back to hit with full force. Had President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, he of such deliberate machismo, really just addressed the nation by FaceTime, on an iPhone held aloft by a TV anchor? Was my mind playing tricks when I saw helicopters strafe terrified civilians on a three-lane highway in Ankara? The significance of those dark 12 hours is still sinking in.

The first sign that something was up came with reports that the army had closed the two bridges in Istanbul that span the Bosphorus strait. Fighter jets were in the skies over Ankara. The most likely explanation seemed some kind of counterterror operation. It was just 24 hours after a lorry ploughed through a crowd in Nice and only two weeks since the suspected Isis bombing of Atatürk Airport. Turkey had been on high alert, with bag checks and armed guards at every Metro station, but there was almost a sense of resignation to terror threats.

It seemed inconceivable, though, that Turkey could face another coup d’état. The Turkish military last pressured a government from power in 1997. Knowing that his stance as the most openly religious leader in the history of the Turkish republic was at odds with the generals who saw themselves as the guardians of the secular state, Erdogan had moved to clip their wings. He launched waves of purges of the top brass after they tried unsuccessfully in 2007 to halt Abdullah Gül, a co-founder with Erdogan of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), from becoming president.

It wasn’t until Prime Minister Binali Yildirim spoke by phone to a television station and confirmed that an attempted putsch was under way – and the military declared martial law – that it began to seem real. I rushed down to the street, where people who had been enjoying a Friday night out in the city began pouring out of bars and restaurants. They queued at cashpoints and hailed taxis home.

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Most of those I met were subdued and nervous. Erdogan has many critics. They accuse him of abusing electoral landslides to rule by tyranny of the majority. But in a sign of just how far Turkey has come in recent decades, I found not one person who was jubilant at the prospect of him being toppled by force. “Whether you like him or not, he was democratically elected,” said Ahmet, a waiter smoking outside his empty café.

We now know that a relatively small, badly organised group was behind the plot, but for some time the scale of the putsch was unclear. The soldiers ordered into Taksim Square in Istanbul were soon outnumbered when thousands responded to a call from Erdogan to take to the streets. But I feared Turkey was about to plunge into civil war.

There was terrible loss of life, with at least 290 dead and 1,400 wounded. Many of those who died were civilians who showed daredevil courage, lying down in the path of tanks or wrestling with soldiers for their weapons. Yet the insurrection would be almost completely put down by morning. If you had gone to bed at 10pm and woken up at 7am you might have wondered why the streets were so quiet.

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Shortly after dawn, the soldiers on the bridges over the Bosphorus surrendered. I found a taxi driver willing to take me most of the way to the first of the two, then walked the last stretch.

At the far end were the plotters’ abandoned tanks, now being clambered over by men waving flags and chanting the president’s name. About half a dozen motorbikes whizzed up and down carrying pairs of men with white beards and skullcaps, like a crew of Islamist Hells Angels. Trails of crimson blood ran along the tarmac. I later saw images that appeared to show that a captured soldier had been beheaded by the angry crowds.

Even after the confrontation was over, the atmosphere in the city still had a nasty edge, especially for foreigners. Pro-government press continually accuse Western powers and their citizens of orchestrating terror attacks and plots. Spitting with fury, eyes popping, one man shouted at me from the top of a tank: “Tell the West to stop playing games in our country.” Later in the day I was hounded out of the grounds of a hospital by a group of men, furious to learn that not only was I a reporter, I was also English.

The climate of retribution in the aftermath of the failed coup could threaten Turkey’s minorities. In four towns in the south-east, offices of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) were attacked, even though the party had come out against the coup. There were reports of attacks on Syrian-owned properties in Ankara. In these turbulent times, an aggressive nationalism laced with intolerance and xenophobia is sometimes finding outlets.

Erdogan has hailed the foiling of the coup as a triumph for democracy. His opponents fear that he will use the failed plot as cover to crack down hard on his critics and push on with divisive plans to concentrate more powers in the hands of the presidency. They argue that the speed with which thousands in the military, police and legal system have been accused raises concern about due process.

It is far from clear how things will play out. But with war raging against Kurdish militants in the south-east, growing unhappiness at the presence of 2.7 million Syrian refugees, and suicide bombings at a rate of almost one a month, Turkey is highly flammable. It feels like the beginning of a deeply uncertain chapter in this country’s history. 

This article appears in the 20 Jul 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt