Istanbul, Turkey – As tanks rolled on to the streets and fighter jets took the skies of Turkey’s major cities during last Friday’s attempted coup, the regular clashes between police and working-class residents of Istanbul’s Gazi district came to an abrupt halt.
The minority Alevi neighbourhood has a long a history of anti-government protest and intense police crackdowns. Fierce confrontations between residents and security forces have been a common occurrence for years.
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Armoured police jeeps patrol the main streets of the neighbourhood at all hours and residents have long complained about a lack of social services, minority persecution, and systematic police violence. However, on an evening when supporters of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan stared down tanks and clashed with soldiers trying to topple the civilian government, Gazi experienced a sudden yet temporary return to calm.
Locals describe scenes of a police force, which actively confronted the mutiny from a faction of the army around the country, immediately retreating to their barracks where they hunkered down behind water-cannon trucks.
It is not that people here embraced the attempted coup, or have any support for military rule. In this notorious hub of left-wing activity, where sympathy for the banned Revolutionary Peoples Party (DHKP-C) is common, people fear the army more than most.
“We are not pro-coup, we are against it,” says Arif Kavak, a 29-year old who has lived in Gazi all his life and works in advertising. The skinny, bearded man who sports a tattoo of Ali ibn Abi Talib and his sword on his right arm sits on a patio with three friends, smoking and thumbing through one of the DHKP-C magazines that litter the tables of the local cafe.
They discuss how friends jailed for their activities with DHKP-C, a group with a long history of bombings in Turkey, were singled out and moved to isolation on Friday as soldiers announced they were seizing key state institutions and infrastructure.
“[The coup attempt] was worrying because we always experience the worst of it,” Kavak emphasises, referring to the military’s history of violently suppressing left-wing groups and working-class communities when it has come to power.
Still, he and his friends give vivid descriptions of mobs of pro-government supporters attacking residents of the fiercely anti-Erdogan neighbourhood since a widespread purge began in the wake of the failed military insurrection.
As Erdogan calls on his supporters to stay on the streets and members of the government have suggested citizens arm themselves to prevent another coup attempt, Kavak says he has joined a local neighbourhood defence committee to confront the attacking pro-government mobs.
Clashes between Erdogan’s supporters and Alevi communities across the country have flared since Saturday. According to Ertugrul Kurkcu, a national parliamentarian and leading member of the HDP– the socialist, Pro-Kurdish party, minority communities across the country have started establishing volunteer neighbourhood protection groups.
“People are now setting up self-defence units to protect against AKP mobs,” he says, referring to supporters of the ruling party. “The most vulnerable groups are women, Alevis and Kurds,” he adds.
At the same time, Taksim Square has become the new hub for emboldened Erdogan supporters and a government-mobilised anti-coup movement. Every night since Friday, throngs of people gather in a square, where a military junta massacred striking workers in 1977, to call on the government to punish those who attempted to return the army to power.
Next to a large stage where Erdogan pledges to reinstate the death penalty for leading coup plotters, his picture hangs from buildings that, just three years ago, were draped in opposition banners and surrounded by the barricades from the mass Gezi park protest movement that he crushed.
Sitting on the edge of Taksim as people start gathering for an evening protest, 40-year-old Omer Bas clutches a Turkish flag in his right hand. Originally from the southeastern city of Siirt, he now lives in Istanbul’s deeply religious neighbourhood of Esenler and describes joining his neighbours on the streets on Friday after heeding the president’s Face Time call to do so.
“We came out to the resist the Gulenist organisation’s junta,” he says, referring to the movement the government accuses of organising the faction of military that attempted the coup.
Fethullah Gulen, leader of the Gulen movement who lives in self-imposed exile in the US, was once a strong ally of Erdogan. Yet their fallout has led to spiralling polarisation between Erdogan’s government and a movement that has a significant membership in the army, police, civil service, media, and academy.
Bas endorses the message coming from members of the government for people to arm themselves in the current political climate, and says he has had a gun since living in Turkey’s majority Kurdish southeast. “I got it to protect my family from terrorist acts,” he adds, referring negatively to the Kurdish national struggle.
For Bas, there is no choice but to stay on the streets as long as the government calls on its supporters to do so. “We know what happened with Egypt,” he says ominously, referring to the 2013 coup that toppled that country’s first democratically elected government.
Draped in a Turkish flag, Abdul Sawed – a scruffy-faced 18-year old – sits next to Bas and depicts Erdogan as a father-of-the-nation figure. He sees the fight to secure his own future dramatically playing out in Erdogan’s purge that has spread from the army into the police force, judiciary, civil service and academy.
On the one hand, he frames the current political struggle in terms of ensuring the survival of democracy, yet he focuses on nationalist and religious qualities of the president and his government.
“If President Erdogan falls, then Turkey falls and Islam falls,” he says decisively.
Despite the nationalist and populist tones in the rhetoric of those taking to the streets, others supporting the protests highlight both their religious values and a desire to preserve the democratic process as a reason for their support for Erdogan.
“Erdogan is one of the people, put there by the people,” says 51-year-old Serap Kuguk, who makes a point of identifying herself as Muslim first and Turkish second. Sitting in her hole-in-the-wall downtown cosmetics shop, the conservatively dressed, cheery shop owner extolls the governing AK party’s civic accomplishments.
“No one has built as many roads and bridges as he has,” she argues.
Kuguk is from a generation that has seen several coups in its lifetime but, like many, she believed that chapter of Turkish history was over. “I would have never guessed that something like this would happen today.”
If there is one consensus in the country, it is that the military no longer has a place in politics, and that coups are a part of Turkey’s past, not its future.
Sipping tea and chain smoking at a sidewalk cafe in the liberal, secular, upper-class neighbourhood of Cihangir, one of Turkey’s contemporary-establishment dissidents doesn’t mince words when condemning the attempted coup – or Turkey’s president.
“Our low-level democracy is the result of a history of military coups,” contends Ahmet Sik.
Sik spent a year in a Turkish prison for his unflattering, then unpublished, manuscript of a book about the Gulenist movement at a time when Erdogan and Gulen were still allies.
He was visiting a friend in prison when he first heard the news of Friday’s attempted military overthrow and describes how an immediate feeling of pessimism came over him.
“The current government is against a republican era of human rights, but even that is better than what the military brings,” he maintains.
Sik’s sentiments are common for Erdogan’s opponents across the political spectrum, and even hard-line secular nationalists express doubt about the military’s attempted return to state power.
“A coup is an event that throws back the country 50 years,” says Zeynap Banderma, a 22-year-old university history student in Ankara, who is originally from Istanbul. She describes how the army killed a friend of hers when he took to the streets of the capital on Friday, but is unwilling to blame the soldier who shot him.
Banderma is from a younger generation in Turkey that has never witnessed a successful military takeover, but she is from a staunchly nationalist, middle-class family and embraces the notion of the army’s secularist values. For her, the army is the guardian of the nation. She loathes Erdogan and conceptually believes the army could play a role in bringing down his government. Still, sitting a few tables over from Sik, she describes last Friday as a dangerous farce and notes that realistically, the era of the military shaping politics is over.
Alongside a common sense of social and political unity in opposing the army’s attempt to wrestle power from Turkey’s elected officials, Kurkcu paints a picture of a country whose multiple deep divisions have come to the surface since Friday. He notes that it was only Erdogan’s supporters who first took to the streets and continue to remain there, while his opponents fear their participation would be manipulated into being presented as an endorsement of the government’s policies.
For him, the current power struggle in Turkey is best expressed as a dichotomy between a bloody attempt at military rule and a broad, expanding and violent purge.
“There is a saying in Turkish that you have a choice between being killed by 40 knives or pulled apart by 40 mules.”
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