Ashgabat, 18 July 2016 (nCa) — Taksim Square was pleasantly lit; neither too bright, nor really dark. It was the last week of May, more than a month and half before the failed coup attempt of 15-16 July 2016. The Istanbul evening was cool with gentle breeze.
People were lounging about in small knots, mostly distributed by age. Many of them were munching on roasted chestnuts or corn-on-the-cob. The man with a big thermos was selling Turkish tea in plastic cups
A noisy group of about twenty teenagers arrived. One of them tentatively shouted a slogan against Erdogan. He repeated, and repeated again. Presently, all of them started chanting slogans against Erdogan.
In less than a minute the other teenagers scattered in Taksim Square began grouping and started counter-slogans in favour of Erdogan. The two groups were facing each other, their voices rising with each slogan; one for Erdogan, the other against him. The tempo seemed to be moving fast to a fisticuff situation.
Everyone else in the square continued with whatever they were doing. The lone policeman remained inside his cruiser. I was the only one alarmed.
Perhaps it was just a way to exercise their lungs, perhaps something else. Whatever, they soon burst into laughing and hugged each other. The roasted chestnut vendors did a brisk business.
Some of them settled on a stone slab where I was sitting.
“What was it all about,” I asked them after introducing myself.
The girl in white trousers and reddish jacket, who could speak good English, laughed.
“This is us. You may not understand,” she said.
“I can try to understand.”
“Look, most of us, I mean teenagers, have seen only Erdogan as our leader. He has shaped Turkey as it is today, and in a way, he has shaped us.”
“He turned around the economy, he made Lira a strong currency, he checked corruption, and he gave us a new sense of self-respect.”
“We love Erdogan and we are grateful for everything he has done for us, for all of us have benefited directly from his leadership. We can disagree with some of his policies and sometimes we disagree very vocally even violently. But, the difference is with some of what he is doing, not with the whole of Erdogan.”
The boy in black-striped shirt waved the passing tea seller and bought everyone steaming Turkish tea. It was refreshing.
“She is right,” he said. “Erdogan has given us many things, self-respect above all.”
“Why self-respect above all?” I asked.
“Simple. Self respect needs solid ground, justification. We are an economic powerhouse, we are a regional power, and we are participating in world events more than ever before, all because of Erdogan.”
* * *
The banker was lean and muscular, in his late twenties. We were sitting in a roadside café in Gaziantep. He proudly explained the various loan packages his bank was offering to individual entrepreneurs.
The conversation inevitably turned to Erdogan.
“Do you think Erdogan is scooping all the powers into his own hands, kinda transforming into a Soltan?”
Perhaps this was not the right question – at least it was not rightly phrased.
The banker was clearly angry. His eyes narrowed and voice rose. “None of your business,” he said.
He calmed down fast.
“Please don’t judge with inadequate knowledge,” he said.
“Erdogan is definitely accumulating powers but it is not for himself. He is immensely popular and he can get his voice heard even if he will not have any office. He is redefining the system to ensure efficiency and stability. And he is plugging the holes to prevent any military intervention in the civilian government. He is mindful of the fact that the future leaders may not enjoy the same level of popularity but would need the same extent of authority to function proficiently.”
We had finished the cheese dessert and the banker left for a meeting.
Curious about his remarks on plugging the holes to prevent military intervention, I later did some Google search and found the following:
- In 2003, the composition of the national security council was changed with the appointment of a civilian secretary, and it was made mandatory to call the meeting of the council every couple of months, thus introducing real-time supervision of the military establishment by the elected government.
- The military budget was reduced, making it less than the allocations for education.
- In 2006, the military criminal code was amended, restricting the jurisdiction of the military courts to only such civilians who committed a crime in collaboration with a military person.
- In 2009, the law was approved under which the military persons could be tried in civil courts during the times of peace.
- In 2010, the provision was revoked that allowed the military to undertake an operation in the internal affairs of the country without consulting the civilian government. This used to be the license for coup.
- The same year, the constitutional amendment was approved allowing the military personnel to appeal against the decisions of the supreme military council.
It is important to remember that in the recent history, Turkey has seen four military coups: 1960, 1971, 1980 and 1997.
* * *
Zeki is well read, well educated and well traveled. His designer jewelry business keeps him on the go.
We were taking lunch in an upscale restaurant in Ankara.
Nearly the entire conversation was about Erdogan. Here is what Zeki had to say:
Erdogan is not just a man; he is a phenomenon.
After Ataturk, he is the best thing that happened to Turkey. His policies have lately irked some segments of the population but you must understand that he is the president of Turkey, and Turkey is not just Ankara and Istanbul. He is moving ahead in resonance with the aspirations of the majority and that is what democracy is all about.
He is someone everyone can relate to. He sold lemonade and buns on the streets of Istanbul. He played professional football there and he rose to be the mayor of that megapolis. That is where he proved that he can deliver, that is where he proved that he can create tremendous momentum for fundamental change.
His core team [such as] Abdullah Gul and Davutoglu has differences of approach with him for now but all of them are looking in the same direction. All of them were there at the wedding of his daughter [which took place in May 2016]. Their differences have not caused rift among them. Their friendship goes back thirty years, in some cases more.
You will see. If the time comes – and I hope it doesn’t – even those who oppose him bitterly will come to the streets in his support.
* * *
The Turkish armed forces have an invisible dividing line among their ranks: the pre-Erdogan generation and the Erdogan-era generation.
Late in the evening of 15 July 2016, when the coup started unfolding, most of the younger soldiers were tricked into believing that they were engaged in a military exercise. They are globalized through the social media and they have a profound sense of self-respect, where Erdogan is an integral part of how that self-respect defines itself. They are Erdogan-era generation.
The timing of the coup attempt and the apparent haste with which it was planned and executed, poses one very dangerous question: Who doesn’t want the normalization of relations of Turkey with Russia and Israel?
There are doubts, though there is no proof as yet to back such doubts, that some western leaders and governments may have been hoping for the coup to succeed even if they didn’t actively aid and encourage it. This doubt is nurtured by the initial doublespeak response of the USA and some European countries in the early hours of the coup attempt.
The truth may or may not come out eventually but the doubt has its own roots in the ground and it will keep growing.
* * *
On the night between 15 and 16 July 2016, there was a time when Erdogan was cut off from any access to the media. His smartphone was the only link to the media, and therefore to the people. He used it effectively.
He called on FaceTime app to the anchor of CNN Turk and asked her to put her phone before the camera. This is how message reached the people that Erdogan was safe and sound and he wants the people to come out on the streets to block the spread of the coup.
Simultaneously, he used Twitter, where he has some seven million followers. The rest of the team Erdogan used their own social media reach to make sure that everyone got the message loud and clear.
The mosques played equally important role in bringing people to the streets. In Turkey there is hardly any area where you are not within earshot of the loudspeaker of a mosque.
* * *
The appeal reached the people and in no time at all they poured into the streets in every city and town of Turkey.
Even when the people responded to Erdogan’s message, the question was how far would they go to stop the military might, how big they sacrifice they were willing to offer to keep the civilian government in power.
The answer was forthcoming immediately – they were willing to lay down their life for an idea, a cause, where the idea and the cause was embodied by Erdogan.
* * *
The people have done what they could and now it is back to Erdogan.
Erdogan, the iron man, the brave man, the falcon, sobbed uncontrollably during the funeral of Erol Olçak and his son at a mosque on Sunday (17 July 2016). Erol Olçak was an old friend and longtime political ally of Erdogan and both he and his son died resisting the coup.
Erdogan is possibly overwhelmed with emotion. It is the state of mind where people can make costly mistakes even when acting in total sincerity.
There should definitely be accountability, very strict accountability, but it must not be driven by emotion or vendetta.
The Turkish army is the second largest in NATO and a great institution. The Turkish nation should justifiably be proud of its army. The coup plotters and participants should not be given the same treatment because many of the participants were not even aware that they were rolling out a coup.
The Turkish judiciary is a great institution, populated by some of the best minds in the country. Even if some of them subscribe to the ideology of Fethullah Gulen, it doesn’t automatically make them traitors. Each case should be viewed on its own merits.
The Turkish media is vibrant and hugely productive. Muzzling it is counterproductive. The playing field must remain even and that is how it will strengthen democracy and rule of law in Turkey.
Erdogan has the ability to look beyond the obvious and now is the time to exercise that ability in full. In the coming weeks, through magnanimity, compassion and wisdom, he can prove that he is everything people believe him to be.
Saygin Erdogan, your admirers are in many countries, not just Turkey. You are our leader. Please use this failed coup to make Turkey stronger, more unified, more tolerant.