Turkey and the coup attempt: How it changed the country's behaviour

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Two years later, the anger and fear which flowed from the failed coup are still fresh for many people, say academics and experts

Pro-government police stand on a captured tank on the Bosphorus Bridge on 16 July 2016 (Reuters)
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Monday 16 July 2018 10:00 UTC
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It was a warm evening on Istanbul's Bosphorus Bridge when Ahmet Alkilic was hit by the bullets which nearly killed him.

The businessman was one of millions of ordinary Turks who came out onto the streets on 15 July 2016, amid reports that the military was attempting to stage a coup against the rule of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Hours earlier, Alkilic, the owner of a construction company, had been watching TV in his office when he saw a TRT presenter forced to read a statement issued by the coup plotters. On another channel, Erdogan, speaking to a presenter via FaceTime, was calling on people to oppose the insurgency.

We went out onto the streets for our country and nation. We didn't even fear being wounded or killed

- Ahmet Alkilic, businessman

"We went out onto the streets for our country and nation," Alkilic recalled. "This feeling was similar to what the soldiers felt during Turkey's war of independence. We didn't even fear being wounded or killed."

Alkilic headed for the bridge, one of the key links between the European and Asian sides of the city, realising it would be a crucial site to oppose the coup (by the end of the year it had become a symbol of resistance and renamed the 15 July Martyrs' Bridge).

There he found the coup plotters firing on civilians. Alkilic flung himself to the ground - but had already been shot.

"I felt something hit my head, then immediately lost connection with real life," he said. "My inner voice was reminding me about my responsibilities in my life, and the works I needed to complete.



People take over a tank near the Fatih Sultan Mehmet Bridge in Istanbul on 15 July 2016 (AFP)

"Then I heard someone yelling my name. I remember someone carrying me on the shoulder, taking me to hospital."

Alkilic was one of more than 2,000 people injured by forces supporting the coup. At least 250 more people were killed. It took Alkilic five months to recover, to be able to walk again. By then, his life had changed.

Fear of a carve-up

The July 2016 coup bid, carried out, the government says, by supporters of exiled Fethullah Gulen, was the bloodiest in modern Turkish history. Social observers and analysts report that the anger and fear it generated still permeate Turkish society two years later.

People from very different segments of society united under a perceived threat of their country being carved up

- Pinar Akpinar, academic

Nurullah Ardıc, an associate professor of sociology at Istanbul Sehir University, said that while the defeat of the coup had strengthened social bonds, it had also weakened the prestige of the military, police, religious groups and even NGOs.

According to a survey on social cohesion in Turkey conducted by the Istanbul Policy Centre (IPC), an independent research policy institute at Sabanci University, between January and February 2018, 47 percent of Turks were happy about the measures taken by the government to restructure the state after 15 July, against 21 per cent who were not.

Pinar Akpinar, an academic at the centre, said: "One cannot really speak of an overall 'change' of society but, rather, the alleviation of fears."

She said the coup had touched on several existential fears of Turks, including Sèvres syndrome, named after the post-First World War treaty which abolished and then divided the Ottoman Empire.



An Istanbul rally in July 2017 marks the anniversary of the coup attempt in Turkey (AFP)

That fear, Akpinar said, meant that "people from very different segments of society united under a perceived threat of their country being carved up".

But that moment of unity, she said, was very short-lived. "Eventually, Turkish politics went back to its usual agenda of polarisation."

And then the troops opened fire

Like Alkilic, Adviye Gul, 17, took to the street on the night of the attempted coup, along with four other members of her family. She headed for Istanbul's Sarachane district, where she and hundreds of others gathered outside the municipality building to prevent it being taken over by coup plotters.

I am now awake to the facts about our history and the dangers we face today

- Adviye Gul, protester

"We went out to the streets, praying," she said. "We stood against the traitors and occupiers, with bare hands and the love of our land.

"Normally, I'm a very young person with dreams for the future, and I wouldn't risk my life. But, that day, my god had completely taken the fear from us." 

Eventually, forces who backed the coup opened fire on the crowd: Gul was hit in the arms and remained in a critical condition for four days.

Before the coup she had always been interested in politics. But now she has taken more of an interest and watches the news more frequently.

"I am now awake to the facts about our history and the dangers we face today. As a young Turk, I'm now more hopeful and confident about my future."

'June 24 elections was a response to the West'

As news of the coup reached the wider world, the response from the West was slow in coming, with many governments lukewarm in their support for Erdogan.

Gurkan Zengin, formerly news director of Al Jazeera Turk, who wrote Kusatma (Siege) about the coup attempt, said that events in July 2016 woke Turkish society to the "level of danger the Gulen movement poses to Turkish society".

He said that the general perception was that the US wanted to depose Erdogan and his regional policies by using Gulenist supporters.

"No one in Turkey can believe that any military coup can occur in a Nato country without approval from the Pentagon or another US security and intelligence apparatus."

It can be safely concluded that 15 July had a decisive influence on the 24 June election results

- Ali Yasar Saribay, academic

That sense, academics believe, was also at play on 24 June 2018, when Turkey held its first presidential and parliamentary election since the attempted coup, despite the two events being almost two years apart.

Ali Yasar Saribay, political sociologist at Uludag University, said: "It can be safely concluded that 15 July had a decisive influence on the 24 June election results, meaning that Erdogan was supported by the electorate, against the West."

He said that several of the political, legal and economic measures that Erdogan's ruling AK Party had taken after 15 July were not fully backed by the West.

"The support in the election was not only a show of favour for Erdogan, but a political reaction against the Western world fuelled by instinctive preservation of the state. It's difficult to understand this without taking into consideration the sensitive points of the state-society relations in Turkey historically."



US President Barack Obama (R) greets President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Paris in December 2015 (AFP)

Pinar Akpinar of the Istanbul Policy Centre believes that the process of securitisation began before the coup and pinpoints security and the economy as the two biggest concerns for voters.

"The collapse of the Kurdish peace process, the ongoing war in Syria, rising anti-immigrant/anti-Muslim/anti-Turkish sentiments in Europe and the growing rift between Turkey and its traditional Western allies all fuelled this process of securitisation and the fears of Turkish people."

Is nationalism on the rise in Turkey?

Nationalist parties did well in the June elections. The MHP secured 11.1 percent of the vote and another nationalist party won 9.96 percent.

At the previous parliamentary elections in 2015, the MHP was the only nationalist party in the parliament, with 11.9 per cent of the votes.

Nationalism was already somewhat popular before the coup attempt, but it definitely boosted this ideology

- Nurullah Ardic, academic

Some believed the results indicated a rise in nationalism among Turkish society and wider politics. For instance, Nigar Goksel, Turkey director at the International Crisis Group, told the Financial Times just after the elections that the "success of the AKP-MHP partnership shows that the Islamist-nationalist fusion is alive and kicking in Turkish society".

But several analysts told MEE that there had not been a discernible rise in nationalism since the coup attempt. Ardic said: "Nationalism was already somewhat popular before the coup attempt, but it definitely boosted this ideology.

"While the social-psychological impact of the failed coup, in terms of making 'national unity' the most important issue and boosting solidarity of the Turkish people, is one factor, the Gulen organisation's ties with the US is another.

"Western leaders' somewhat late responses to the coup attempt might also have an effect on that."



Recep Tayyip Erdogan greets supporters after the Turkish elections on 24 June 2018 (handout/AFP)

Zengin said that while there were clear and growing reactions to US and European policies towards Turkey, these were not signs of "rising nationalism," which he called an illusion, as demonstrated by the recent election results.

"The reason why they preferred the MHP was because this party was in the same bloc as the AK Party. We don't see any nationalism factors here. Pragmatic reasons played a role in these preferences."

'Turkey's economy is under attack'

When Alkilic was recovering from his injuries, he decided that if he could walk again, he needed to do more for his country.

I don’t care even if the lira hits 10 dollar. I would keep working for my country

- Ahmet Alkilic, businessman

"Our country has been a target of conspiracies and troubles in recent years," he said. "I think that I have more of a responsibility than before to serve my country as a businessman, by developing my work."

He now believes that Turkey's economy is under attack from outside and that it is the duty of businessmen such as himself to protect it by growing the economy.

"I don't care even if the lira hits 10 dollars. I would keep working for my country. Money or property is not important to me. For me, now, the most valuable wealth is to serve my country and to help its economy to develop. I can sacrifice everything for this."