This is the first in a multi-part series on the political situation in Turkey. It is accompanied by the personal testimony of an activist who has requested anonymity.
We spent longer at the airport immigration desk than usual; my partner was more nervous than usual. That’s how it started. The regular trips to see family or friends, or for work, in Istanbul. Staying with a good friend, a long-standing human rights activist and feminist who was at the heart of the Gezi park protests and lost friends in the attack on the HDP rally in Suruc in 2015 – which, thankfully, flu kept her from attending.
“Just be aware you guys, I get up at 5am now, we all do, because they are known for their dawn raids – I need to be ready”: a matter-of-fact comment, tossed out after eating some tantuni and drinking some very bad duty-free Irish whiskey.
From the balcony of this apartment, baskets of food, water and lemons were lowered down to Gezi Park protestors escaping the tear gas, a few short years ago in the summer of 2013. That was a period of both repression and hope, when efforts to defend against the development of a small Istanbul park became the epicentre of a national resistance to the sell-offs of public space, which were being imposed across Turkey with ever more despotic disregard for the wishes and wellbeing of the public.
Then, though – despite the relentless violence meted out by the riot police and the clouds of teargas that routinely hung over the city – there was a kind of gritty defiance and a species of hope in the city. Much of that hope has now given away to fear, sorrow and frustration. Not that it will never return – but before the dawn, there is most certainly a great darkness in Turkey.
Around the corner from this apartment, a short walk away, is the new Besiktas football stadium, where 38 people were killed and 166 injured in a bomb attack by TAK, a breakaway from the PKK, on December 11th 2016. You can walk in perhaps 20 minutes up to Istiklal, the delightfully pedestrianized main shopping street in Istanbul – a good place to buy shirts or walk to Taksim Square. It is also the site of the weekly gatherings of the mothers of the disappeared. A bomb attack on Istiklal in March killed five and injured 33.
On the evening of January 1st 2017, we returned from Buyukada Island – to which Trotsky was once exiled: his residence is still there, rotting and collapsing behind a high wall – to this apartment. 39 people had been shot dead at the Reina nightclub at 1.15am that morning, 75 minutes into the new year. Reina is a glitzy high-end club located just by the base of the Bosphorus Bridge in central Istanbul. Many of its attendees that night were killed or injured by an attacker or attackers in an incident claimed by Daesh. Subsequently Abdulkadir Masharipov a Kyrgystan national was presented to the world as the alleged perpetrator, his face bruised and swollen, one eye puffy and half closed, his shirt splattered with blood.
On July 15th the same friend had stood next to the balcony of the same apartment, holding the windows to keep them from shaking as four F16 fighter jets flew low over the Bosphorus at supersonic speeds again and again, blasting sonic booms across the city that smashed the windows in apartment buildings as the coup attempt got under way, and the tanks rolled out to block the main bridges between the east and west of Istanbul.
Across Turkey 284 people officially died in the coup attempt; unofficially, others put the numbers at well over 300; thousands were injured. A new one-lira coin has now been issued to commemorate the ‘Martyrs of July 15th’, and Istanbul’s Bosphorus Bridge has now been renamed ‘The Bridge of Martyrs’.
Nobody saw it coming. Not a single commentator, nobody on the left saw it on the horizon; it was a bolt from the blue. Living in self-imposed exile in a small town in Pennsylvania since 1999, Fethullah Gulen was certainly known and talked about, as indeed were Erdogan’s battles with his erstwhile compatriot and prior ally of the AKP. Gulen was strong and firm supported of Erdogan in the formation of the AKP in the 90s, an opponent of the military and of the secular nationalist right in Turkish politics, the two men had shared objectives in the early in the days of the AKP. Gulen brought to Erdogan a network of schools and professional institutions across Turkey and globally, a capacity to mobilise and a shared objective. The relationship between the Gulenists and the AKP became increasingly strained from the point of the AKP taking power in 2002, ostensibly regarding allocations of Cabinet seats in the new government. By 2013, the rift had become absolute. Gulen, from afar, criticised the handling of the Gezi Park protests but more critically, was widely suspected of exposing major corruption in the Turkish government.
But, by 2016, in a country where conspiracy theories and whispers abound, aided and abetted both by fear and by censorship, the conventional wisdom was that Gulen had become relatively marginal, little more than a convenient crackpot bogeyman. The spectre of Gulen was routinely rolled out by Erdogan as an imaginary threat to deflect from the allegations of massive diversions of state funds to private Swiss accounts that had engulfed the President, his son and senior AKP ministers.
And yet the Gulenists did stage a coup, and they were very nearly successful. In Ankara, Istanbul, Bodrum and elsewhere, sections of the army and the air force led a coordinated coup attempt.
It is likely not an accident that the coup was staged one day before the passage of new legislation that would render military leaders legally liable for their actions. This legislation was the prelude to a purge, and a progressive-sounding measure in many jurisdictions, but it was also a clear assertion of the authority of the President over the military in a country where the autonomy of the judiciary is eroding day by day.
There are those who have compared the coup attempt to the 1933 Reichstag Fire, a pivotal attack on the German parliament by a Dutch communist, which the Nazi party seized upon as a rallying point for the consolidation of their rule. Others have called the attempt a false-flag operation. It will likely be years until we know the truth. However, while the AKP is an authoritarian populist party, it is not the Nazi party of 1933. There is more than enough history – from 1960 through to the 1990s, a period during which four Turkish governments were overthrown or undermined in military coups – to believe the government’s account of events. That said, there is no doubt at all that in the aftermath of coup attempt the AKP and especially Erdogan have seized the resultant political moment with an authoritarian zeal.
The arrests, the disappearances, the torture, the firings. Very few Turks do not know somebody in their family or extended circle who was impacted by the periods of military rule. Erdogan himself was jailed and banned from politics in 1997 for reading a poem at a rally, under laws stemming from the coup era.
To this day, every Saturday around noon the increasingly frail and greying ‘mothers of the disappeared’ and their supporters gather on Istiklal, the Regent Street of Istanbul, holding up the fading laminated pictures of those lost during the period of military rule: almost certainly tortured and killed, buried in unmarked graves or dumped at sea. These are fragments of the cultural memories and histories passed down in families, some of whom now huddle against the rain in small groups amid a small square opposite a Starbucks and just up from a Benetton.
It was no surprise, then, that in city after city – despite dissatisfaction in more urban centres with the AKP and with political corruption – sections of the population rose up to physically block the tanks. It was they – the taxi drivers, shop owners, market traders, mechanics and students – and not the regime who stopped the coup.
In Ankara, crowds confronted the coup plotters while being fired on by helicopter gunships; in Istanbul they dragged insurrectionist soldiers from tanks on the bridges, and literally placed their bodies in front of those tanks; traffic police with pistols arrested soldiers with machine guns. Every party in the Turkish Parliament condemned the coup attempt.
That is not to say that the resistance to the coup was a pretty affair – resistance to coups seldomly is – and in the days that followed resistance blurred easily into retribution, and there is clear footage of young conscripts being severely beaten as a mob mentality took hold.
It is also true that, in the aftermath, crowds marched through Alevi neighbourhoods of Istanbul chanting against the Alevi community; in certain parts of the city Syrian shops were attacked; and at one mass rally thousands chanted for the return of the death penalty. Called by the AKP, daily rallies subsequently took place against the coup attempt, some with attendees numbering in the millions. On the one hand this was an assertion of mass defiance and pride in the coup’s defeat; on the other, it was an assertion of the AKP’s moral and political authority. Amid that fusion of nationalism, defiance and an element of chauvinism, it is not without reason that some supporters of the pro-Kurdish HDP and some on the left stayed away from these rallies.
However, this populist trajectory had already been well underway. After the AKP lost its parliamentary majority in the June 2015 election – owing to the surprising breakthrough of the progressive pro-Kurdish HDP, which won over 13% of the vote – the war in Kurdistan was reignited quite deliberately. Erdogan adopted the strategy of constructing the powerful narrative of a nation at war both from within (against the PKK) and from without (against Daesh). This narrative provided the justification for enacting a series of measures designed to limit, constrain and demonise opposition, ostensibly “in defence of the nation” under attack.
Having spent several years, to their great credit, in secret and then open talks with the PKK leadership aimed at ending the 40-year war in Kurdistan, the AKP changed tack in the face of its electoral setbacks of the summer of 2015. The regime began to identify the increasingly frequent attacks of Daesh and the PKK as one and the same thing, and to veer to the right and play to the nationalist element in Turkish politics. They programmatically exploited the perceived need for a firm hand, courting the nationalist MHP and CHP base. It is hard to convey to non-Turks the scale of the impact of the war in Kurdistan and of the associated war fatigue. Over 40,000 have died in the last 40 years: a figure that dwarfs by a factor of ten the number of those killed in the war in Ireland since British troops went in to Ireland in 1969 through to the Good Friday peace accord of 1999.
The responsibility for the reignition of war in Kurdistan lies first and foremost with the AKP, but was also driven in part by persistent nationalist criticism of the AKP’s Kurdish peace talks. This criticism was a cynical electoral strategy adopted by the CHP and the neo-nazi MHP, and it met with an equally populist and cynical response.
It is not without irony that the MHP – Turkey’s most fervent anti-Islamist nationalists – are now in effect keeping the AKP in power, with a de-facto coalition majority. The MHP, are the ultra secular nationalists in Turkish Politics, historically vehement opponents of the predecessors of the AKP and widely believed to have links to the neo-nazi Grey Wolves, a notorious network of armed fascists.
That said, when the state of emergency came, there was little opposition at all, all parties across the spectrum opposed the coup. Most people had thought that the army as a primary player in Turkish politics was a thing of the past: that the shake-up and imprisonment of some of the army’s top brass undertaken by the AKP early in their rule – a move that gained support across the spectrum – had finally put the army to bed as a political actor. We were wrong.
And so it was that the state of emergency in the aftermath of the coup attempt went largely unopposed, at first. It was seen by many, in fact, as a necessary or rather an inevitable measure to defang the military once and for all. Indeed, the first waves of arrests were all of alleged coup plotters, largely within the ranks of the military.
Within weeks, however, and with ever-increasing scope and reach, the state of emergency transformed from a tool to defang the military into a wholesale dragnet deployed against any and all forms of opposition. This was, or at least should have been, foreseeable.
Gulen ran, or rather runs, a vast network of schools, cultural programs and universities, among other ventures, all over the Islamic and not-so-Islamic world, including many in Turkey, most of which are now closed. Using this as a pretext, the clampdown rapidly extended to encompass schools, universities, newspapers, radio and TV stations, the judiciary and other societal institutions.
In some ways the state of emergency has simply facilitated the process of embedding and deepening authoritarianism that had already been well under way before, but it has escalated dramatically in the aftermath of the 2015 reignition of the war in Kurdistan.
The numbers alone are staggering: 15,000 educational staff have been suspended, 21,000 teachers at private institutions have had their licences withdrawn, almost 3,000 members of the judiciary have been fired. At least 40,000 have been detained in mass arrests. 10,000 are reportedly under investigation for social-media posts. 169 media and print outlets have been closed, 148 journalists (as of December 16th) are in jail, about 3,600 academics have been fired, tens of thousands more civil servants and academics are suspended and banned from travel. This is the scale of repression in Turkey today. The HDP, pro kurdish left opposition now have 15 members of their leadership, members of parliament, in Jail – charged as supporters of Terrorism, as we write two are facing potential jail terms of 185 years in jail and 85 years respectively. For activists, this period is one of intense fear, an anonymous post captures well some of the current atmosphere. Published in the Index on Censorship in early January, this gives a sense of what it is to be a left activist in Turkey now.
Enişte is a London-based activist, writer and health researcher