Taksim square after July 20: applause and celebration of “the triumph of democracy”
Giuseppe Didonna 26 July 2016

“We will find the dogs who organised this coup; we will track them down in the universities, abroad, wherever they are hiding and we will punish them with the strictest sentence allowed by the law.” More shouts, roars and applause as well as football stadium chanting. For two more days all public transport was free of charge so as to allow everyone to come to the square. There were immensely long queues for sandwiches or the rice and beans kindly made available by the organisers of this event.

A huge screen showed an outline of Turkey filled with images of the square and the words “Turkey is you”, “the guardians of the square” and “democracy’s lead players”.

The celebrations were fuelled by the constant flow of people coming and going. Children sat on their fathers’ shoulders and street vendors sold T-shirts, gadgets and balloons decorated with the colours of the Turkish flag. The failure of this coup d’état has been presented as the result of the reaction of ordinary people who “side by side” answered the president’s call to arms and stood tall against the tanks driven by those who betrayed the state, thereby contributing to the “triumph of democracy”.

The merry-go-round of cars, motorbikes, vans and trucks made a deafening noise and blocked access to the square. In order to see such a scene in Italy it would be necessary for the national football team to win the World Cup.

The other 50%

The National Security Council’s decision made on July 20th was preceded by days of purges, expulsions, suspensions, arrests and dismissals, affecting over 60,000 people and involving almost all ministries, the police, the judiciary, universities and of course the army, a faction of which had been involved in a rather improbable coup. How could one possibly envisage that less than 10,000 men could take control of a country that is almost three times the size of Italy?

A few days after the failure of the aforementioned attempted coup, the president proclaimed a “state of emergency”. Curfews will be imposed and freedom of circulation, assembly, protests and the press may be restricted or suspended. Searches of persons and locations by the police will be allowed and police officers will also have the power to authorise or forbid protests, marches or meetings, including the right to register the names of participants.

The result? While in dozens of squares, thousands celebrated, the rest of the country trembled at the idea of what might happen in the coming months.

Three players but only one winner

Leaving aside the marginal role played by opposition parties, one can say that in Turkey over recent years, power has been vied for by three main players; Erdogan, Fetullah Gulen and the army.

On the one hand, the current president and, on the other, the multi-billionaire and Islamic ideologue, self-exiled in the United States since 1998. Between 2000 and 2012, before a resounding rift, these two men joined forces against the army, the intervention of which is intertwined with Turkey’s history.

The army’s role in Turkey was envisaged by the republic’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, as that of guardians of laicity and of the secular state. Over time, however, with four coups d’état in 37 years, the army abused its power, causing a wave a repression and a lengthy series of human rights violations, the memory of which has never been set aside by most of society, which, not coincidentally, presented a united front against this coup. In Turkish history, tanks on the streets mark the annulment of all rights, of freedom, democracy and certainties. The army’s first intervention dates back to 1960, followed by events in 1971, the bloody coup in 1980 and then the tanks that in 1997 obliged Necmettin Erbakan to resign.

Erdogan’s (and Gulen’s) safety net

When he first became prime minister in 2002, Erdogan’s priority was to weaken the army to avoid being deposed in the course of a few years, or even months, which was a real possibility. Further weakening of the armed forces implemented between 2002 and 2010 had been made possible thanks to the alliance between the president and Gulen.

Two judicial investigations ordered by Balyoz (2003) and Ergenekon (2008) allowed the army’s leaders to be removed and restricted their links to politicians, intellectuals and journalists, often using tailor-made false evidence. The 2010 constitutional reform, also voted by liberals and a significant part of the opposition, further weakened the army, which at that point saw its intervention margin reduced to a minimum.

The army’s weakening corresponded to a progressive strengthening of the police, whose numbers rose exponentially, while, simultaneously, their power and areas of competence also increased. All this occurred following a very specific strategy. Erdogan wanted a different army whose loyalty was not up for discussion.

A new army in a new state

A Turkey protected from the risk of a coup was basically a new country, dominated by people extremely loyal to Erdogan and Gulen. This alliance, progressively infiltrating the police, the judiciary, the ministries, universities and the press, reached its peak by occupying high ranking positions in the army. It was a coexistence that lasted until 2012, since an alliance based on opposing a common enemy loses its raison d’etre when this enemy is defeated.

At that point the “parallel organisation” led by Gulen became enemy number one, and for years has been considered by Erdogan as a terrorist organisation to be fought “exactly like the PKK or Islamic State”. It is no coincidence that Gulen was instantly named as being responsible for the recent attempt to overthrow the government. The attempted coup of July 15th was planned and implemented not by the entire Turkish army, but by a faction of it. For the first time in Turkish history, intervention was not planned and implemented by its army in a unanimous manner, but only by a faction, because it is no longer the army Ataturk had envisaged, but an army that is the result of positions being distributed in past years by those loyal to Erdogan and Gulen. This dividing factor turned out to be decisive.

The extremists involved in the coup

It is disconcerting to observe how, while watching a nation coming together against the idea of yet another military junta, many in Italy were disappointed by the coup’s outcome. Such a position overlooks the fact that military juntas in power in Turkey in the past have always proclaimed martial law and military censorship. Furthermore, anti-terrorism legislation in Turkey, criticised by the EU and which has allowed Erdogan to become increasingly authoritarian in recent years, was imposed precisely by the army with the constitution enforced with the 1980 coup. While it is true that in recent days we have found ourselves drafting lists of purges implemented by the AKP government, it is equally true that if the coup had succeeded we would probably be doing the same thing. There are no reassuring precedents for a democratic transition implemented by soldiers following a coup d’état. Certainly not in Turkey.

A year after the Suruc massacre

On July 20th, 2015, thirty three young pro-Kurdish activists were killed by an ISIS suicide bomber in the small town of Suruc, on the Syrian border.This was the first attack after years, in a country that has been on an (impossible) quest for a majority capable of governing. It was an attack that indicates to what extent things are changing and were changing just as the country celebrated the end of Erdogan. In the June 7th 2015 elections, after thirteen years the AKP no longer had a majority of seats in parliament.

365 days were to pass from the celebration of Erdogan’s loss to his complete victory. In between these two events there has been the resumption of the conflict with the Kurds, the humanitarian crisis experienced by Syrian refugees, eight terrorist attacks that between Suruc, Ankara and Istanbul have caused 300 deaths, the crisis and then peace with Russia, the unjustified imprisonment of journalists and the progressive elimination of those criticising the government.

Erdogan lost votes, strength and power during a period of relative calm in the country, then gradually strengthened his position following every crisis, exploiting the mistakes made by those who oppose him.

The war with Gulen is now over, the army will not plan another coup d’état and one can be certain that, over the next three months, no pity will be shown for those preserving even minimal links with the Imam.

The country is divided into two, between those who adore the president and are ready to die for him, and those who hate him and will never vote for him. The first group celebrates until late into the night; the second is terrified by the idea that the state of emergency will be used to spread the ‘clean-up’ well beyond Gulen’s associates, and remove all critical voices.

A frightened Europe should regret its unilateral interruption of the 2008 negotiations to bring Turkey into the EU. It is now a missed golden opportunity for a country inevitably moving towards an authoritarian if not a religious, bigoted and conservative shift. The role played by Islam, too often emphasised in the West, should not overshadow one’s perspective. The Turkey of the future will be far more like Putin’s Russia than Khomeini’s Iran.

Translated by Francesca Simmons