For most people, both within Turkey and outside, the military coup attempt on the night of July 15th was the last thing anybody expected. Most Turkish people are familiar with the historical function of military coups: there have been three in the past three decades, occurring in moments when the military felt the government was swaying too far from its secular, democratic roots. Turkey had been, and remains, in a tense political moment — growing unease with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian rule, the inflammation of fighting with Kurdish factions in the southeast of Turkey, and questions over the condition of Syrian refugees in the country left many wondering about the country’s future. But the attempt by a small faction within the Turkish Armed Forces to oust President Erdogan was so unexpected that the night of the coup had the unique feel of a dystopian novel.
While strangely unbelievable, there was a very real physicality to the unfolding of events. I was out eating with friends from my program when the news started rolling in, and I remember being incredibly confused as the street outside began to condense into a mass of taxis and cars rushing to get home. After getting back to my dorm, I watched on the lobby’s television as the military declared through the official Turkish government media outlet that they had seized control over the country’s administration. A state of confusion ensued. Fighting began on the Bosphorus Bridge as military officers, many of whom unaware of what was taking place but following the orders of their higher-ups, rolled tanks onto the bridge and clashed with police and civilians. In Ankara, the capital city, jets bombed the Parliament Building.
From my relatively safe home in a university dorm near the Bosphorus Bridge, I began to hear F-16 fighter jets start shooting overhead around 2:30 a.m., flying low and circling. Which factions were flying these jets and what violence was occurring were unclear in these exhausting hours between night and day, the hours in which the coup’s efforts surged and failed. In the following days, multiple Turks told me that they thought large bombs were dropping on Istanbul that night, that their country was going into a civil war. Indeed, it was difficult to know exactly what the window-rattling roar of the F-16’s meant. With a lack of reliable news sources, my friends on the university campus were left to grab each other and dash to interior dorm bathrooms, while my friends in the center of the city huddled in the tiny living room of their flat, sitting in silence as their windows nearly shattered from the sonic booms. Before long it became increasingly clear that the coup would not succeed. In a particularly poignant moment, Erdogan Facetimed into CNN Turk to declare his continued safety. The sight of his face looming angrily within the tiny iPhone screen, compelling the Turkish citizens to take to the street to defend democracy in his name, was so tragically comic that it made many wonder if the whole coup attempt had been staged as an act of theatre on the part of Erdogan. That tragic comedy was contrasted by the following morning’s death toll of 300 people and injury count of more than 2,000, the aftermath of a failed coup. The confusing and opaque nature of Turkish politics spurred an uncountable number of conspiracy theories as to who had planned the coup. Because Erdogan had already so effectively purged the military to the point of there seeming to have been no opposition left in the ranks, some argued that Erdogan had staged the coup as a way to consolidate power after the coup’s orchestrated failure. This theory, while unproven, made me question all of the news I was seeing that night, and I was disturbed by my inability to know whether the videos of tanks running over civilians or of jets dropping bombs on the Parliament buildings were real or somehow fabricated.
The stance of the government, and the majority of Turkish people, is that the coup had been plotted from afar by one of Erdogan’s former-allies-turned-enemies, Fethullah Gülen, operating through his supporters still left within the Turkish army. Some also point to the fact that Gülen is currently taking refuge in Pennsylvania to argue that he is working with the United States, a theory reflecting the high levels of anti-American sentiment in Turkey. The air of paranoia and almost utter lack of reliable evidence led one of my Turkish friends to comment with a bitterly-comic tone that it felt like the scenario from the movie “The Truman Show,” and indeed, I repeatedly heard the sad sentiment that not only could one not trust the media, but also not trust other people.
Although it was impossible to know the details of the coup attempt, there was a sentiment among many Turks that while they had been concerned by Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian turn, they did not yet see democracy within a coup solution. There was also the stomach- twisting feeling that whatever was to come from Erdogan’s regime after the coup’s failure would be worse. On July 20th, I woke up to messages that Erdogan had declared a national three- month state of emergency and demanded the resignation of all the university deans (numbering 1577) in the country. In the weeks after the coup, Erdogan has continued an immense purge of so-called enemies of the state and supporters of Fethullah Gülen from almost all corners of government and civil society. Although difficult to obtain verifiable numbers, a website called Turkey Purge which tracks human rights abuses reports that over 100,000 people have been forced out of government jobs. More than 44,000 people have been detained. More than 24,000 have been arrested. A little more than 2,000 schools, universities, and dorms have been closed, and 160 media outlets shut down.
It is difficult to conceive of how deeply these political changes affect the lives of Turkish citizens. Many Turks feel both an incredible level of uncertainty for the future of the country, as well as a deep sadness in the degradation of free speech and legal institutions that would enable them to exact political change. At the same time as some feel hopeless, many Turks feel immense pride in what they see as the strength of Erdogan as a leader, as well as in the strength of Turkish democracy. For weeks after the coup attempt, Erdogan’s followers, as well as others coming out in the name of so-called “democracy,” gathered in Taksim Square to demonstrate their support of Erdogan, forming a sea of red flags waving with the Recep Tayyip Erdogan theme song booming from loud speakers. Standing in the middle of the square, I was overwhelmed by what felt like the unstoppable energy of these crowds.
These reactions, and the extremely mixed sentiment of many others, lie along massively polarized lines within Turkey. This polarization has resulted in the deafening of not only the government to its people, but person to fellow person. Many demonize, rather than listen to, those whom they say are ruining the country.
Yet within this political moment, as in all political moments, the potential for something else remains. Turkish people have their lives in Turkey, and while some have left either by choice or under force, most remain. Many want to continue to be in Turkey, and some are prevented from moving elsewhere by punitive EU and American visa requirements or prohibitions on leaving from the Turkish government. Life goes on. What will emerge from Turkey’s continual process of change remains unclear, but a recognition of both this current political moment, as well as the basic humanity of those far away, might make us more concerned about the US’s own involvement in far-away places and concerned for the future of those we don’t visibly see, yet with whom we remain inextricably connected.