Can Europe Make It?

Engineering an uprising: what the democracy rallies in Turkey tell us

Since this initial mobilisation and the thwarting of the coup, the Turkish government has done all it can to sustain the momentum behind what it describes as a kind of popular uprising.

Beatrice White
3 August 2016
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Photo provided by author

A striking feature of the aftermath of the attempted coup in Turkey are the mass gatherings and demonstrations that have been taking place on a nightly basis in towns across the country. But what has spurred people to take to the streets in such numbers? And how is the government’s narrative of traitors and infiltrators, in opposition to defenders of democracy, likely to shape future developments in Turkey?

Whereas significant incidents, such as the spate of recent terrorist attacks, have generally been met by an immediate media blackout in Turkey, this time the media clearly had a crucial role to play. It was in a live broadcast on CNN Turk that President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan launched his appeal for people to take to the streets to ‘defend their democracy’, as the military coup attempt was unfolding on July 15th. The call was made via mobile application Facetime and was then widely disseminated via social media – an irony given Erdoğan’s well-known aversion to such platforms.

In what may have come as a surprise to those familiar Erdoğan’s polarising rhetoric, people across the country heeded the call in vast numbers. Zehra Aydogan, living in an area close to Istanbul’s main airport, reported that within an hour the streets of her neighbourhood were flooded with men and boys streaming towards the airport.

In surreal scenes, crowds marched to areas and buildings occupied by the army – among these were the offices of Hürriyet, a newspaper which, less than a year ago, was attacked by supporters of the government, who threw stones and smashed windows, to vent their fury about the newspaper’s reporting of events. This time, some of the same individuals turned up to ‘liberate’ the media outlet, explains a source working for the Doğan Media Group, speaking on condition of anonymity. 

Since this initial mobilisation and the thwarting of the coup, the government has done all it can to sustain the momentum behind what it describes as a kind of popular uprising. This has been accompanied by the emergence of a narrative which portrays the protestors, a large majority of whom are AKP (Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party) sympathisers, not only as heroic figures (and those who killed in coup violence as martyrs), but also as representative of the feelings of an entire nation.

Citizens ‘on duty’

When I arrived in the Turkish capital of Ankara on Sunday night following the coup attempt, the streets into the city centre from the airport were lined with men and women of all ages, including children, waving Turkish flags enthusiastically, while others drove around their neighbourhoods flashing their emergency lights and sounding their horns.

In short, behaviour resembling the kind of national jubilation that would not have seemed out of place if Turkey had just won the European Football championship, for example. Yet in this case, the celebrations followed a traumatic and violent night, as attested to by the still visible damage and destruction around the city, particularly at the Turkish Parliament and the headquarters of the Turkish Army General Staff and of the Police Forces.

To maintain this mood and entice people to remain on the streets and in the squares to ‘stand guard’ over their democracy, some impressive infrastructure has been put into place. Large stages and screens have been erected in the centres of towns across the country, where nightly rallies are held (In Istanbul’s Taksim Square one such stage is emblazoned with the hashtag ‘#Meydannobeti’ – roughly translated as ‘squares on duty’).

Graphic images and footage from the night of coup is broadcast, interspersed with passionate speeches from political figures. Advertising billboards feature enormous Turkish flags, digital signs on the motorways display warm messages of gratitude to the people of Turkey, rousing nationalist songs are piped from Istanbul’s tram stop shelters, and the names and faces of the ‘martyrs’ are displayed on a loop on screens on its metro. Material incentives such as free transport in the cities and free food at the rallies have also been generously extended.

Traitors v. Martyrs

Erdoğan’s fondness of broad-brush statements and rhetorical claims to represent the ‘will of the people’ or the nation are well known from his political campaigns. But it seems that his misuse and abuse of the word ‘democracy’ (as synonymous with his government hence using the baffling slogan ‘democracy has won’ when his party wins elections) has now become fully mainstreamed among not only AKP supporters but across the country.

Photo supplied by author

As I was leaving Turkey, just a handful of protesters remained at the entrance to Istanbul’s main airport. But I was struck by a large screen emblazoned with the message ‘We curse the traitors’. Such strong terms are commonly used in the media and in political rhetoric to refer to the events and those involved. Now it seems as if even actors outside the political sphere need to make such declarations in order to distance themselves from the coup.

In addition to the usual duty free shopping catalogue and in-flight magazine, Turkish airlines had provided all passengers with a one-page leaflet, which included the sentence: ‘Our noble people who founded our country with their lives, once again heroically guarded our independence and democracy. We strongly condemn those who betrayed the people's will and those who supported these traitors.’

A black and white discourse which condemns traitors and infiltrators while lauding defenders of democracy and martyrs has become the only language in which the coup can be publically discussed, and this tone itself is symptomatic of a deep polarisation in Turkish society. Yet it remains hard to tell to what extent such statements are carefully crafted to avoid giving rise to suspicion under the current circumstances, given the extent of the sackings, arrests, seizures of assets and closure of media, which have been taking place.

The ubiquity of the Turkish flag in cities such as Ankara and Istanbul, displayed on every surface imaginable, heightens this oppressive sense that opposition to the coup can only take certain, very restricted, forms. Naturally this only serves to entrench the lack of tolerance for diversity in symbols and expression, and pluralism in general, despite the fabric of Turkish society which is far from homogenous.

What prospects for bridging the gaps?

Against this backdrop of polarisation and division what prospects can there be for healing the deep rifts which have been widening in recent years, accelerated by incendiary political rhetoric and violence? In the current climate, many Turks feel pessimistic about prospects for improvement, while many foreigners and expats living in Istanbul have either left the country or are seriously considering the prospect of leaving, explains Suzanne Carlson, a long-term resident in Istanbul.

A rally against the coup called by the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) may have shared the opposition to undermining democracy, but drew very different crowds, chanting slogans about Ataturk and secularism rather than Erdoğan and Islam. In his quest to consolidate his position as a head of state with real power, however, Erdoğan will need allies, which means he has to reach out to other parties and their support base, rather than alienating them.

Yet it is clear that the main winner from the outcome of the thwarted coup has been Erdoğan, and this is likely to boost him in his attempts for reform and changing the Constitution. The broader impact has of course been to strengthen the government’s grip on power. Those who do not align themselves with the government’s particular brand of rhetoric are instantly cast as enemies of democracy and the nation, as guilty as the coup traitors themselves, and most have fallen into line as a result, even if they do not support the AKP.

Yet the government’s dedicated efforts to get people onto the streets and keep them there tell us something more, in my view. Despite Erdoğan’s condemnation of the peaceful protest movement sparked in Gezi Park in 2013, it is almost as if he is deliberately trying to instigate a similar movement, albeit one with very different symbols, values and objectives. Using tools and inciting people to behaviour which he previously violently condemned, it seems Erdoğan was so deeply marked by the passion, energy and resilience of the mobilisation that he is desperate to have his own ‘Gezi moment’ to claim for himself.

Acknowledging that some of those on the streets today may have felt alienated by the Gezi Protests of 2013, writer and activist Özgecan Kara has appealed for mutual understanding: ‘So I guess half of the nation is scared of me and I am scared of them. But why so? Can’t we just live together, without being scared? This is the country that you have to live in. These were the people that were living with us all along. We were not seeing each other. We were not crossing our pathways but this is it.’

Echoing this, and in light of the risk for a potential escalation of tensions, Istanbul-based writer and academic Ceren Sözeri told me, 'They [protesters] say they are on the streets for democracy but in fact it is for Erdoğan. Clearly they believe in something, or in him, and we have to understand that and connect with them, otherwise we will just kill each other.'

Although it seems difficult to imagine that such understanding and openness to the other’s view can be attained in the current context of suspicion and accusation, it is clear that this is the only path to overcoming polarisation, avoiding a further escalation of social tensions, and rebuilding trust among Turkish society. 

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