'A Very Sour First Anniversary': A Deeply Divided Turkey Marks the Failed Coup

With over 150,000 civil servants, security personnel, journalists and academics sacked over the past year, and 50,000 people arrested, Erdogan’s attempt at national solidarity feels elusive

People wave Turkish flags at a ceremony marking the first anniversary of the attempted coup, Ankara,  July 16, 2017.
Umit Bektas / Reuters

ANKARA — It was a wild Saturday night. Hundreds of thousands of people around the country celebrated the stifling of the military coup that roiled Turkey the night of July 15, 2016. But the solidarity that emerged in its wake has withered, and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s republic finds itself commemorating the first anniversary in two distinct camps.

Less than two weeks after the botched takeover, Turkey’s opposition leaders accepted Erdogan’s invitation to meet at the presidential palace in Ankara. About 10 days later, in yet another show of unity, these party chiefs took part in a mass rally in Istanbul. Political differences were put aside in the name of democracy, and the organization of U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, which has been accused of masterminding the coup attempt, was roundly condemned.

But the national solidarity feels elusive. The government and the main opposition party, the Republican People’s Party, are again at loggerheads. The leaders of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party, the only outfit excluded from Erdogan’s campaign against the putschists, have been jailed alongside a dozen other legislators. Millions have protested the purges over the past year that have been justified as a response to the plotters.

More than 150,000 civil servants, security personnel, journalists and academics have been dismissed over the past year. About 50,000 people have been arrested as the state of emergency curbs judicial guarantees.

“My son has been in jail since the night of the failed coup. They called him a Gulenist,” says Veysel Kilis, who describes himself as a conservative man of faith — and someone who supported Erdogan for many years before the failed coup. He shows a letter his son Selettin sent him from prison.

“You convinced me to go to the military academy, Dad,” Selettin wrote. “On that night, they put us on a bus to Bosphorus Bridge saying it was a drill. In the blink of an eye I found myself in court, and now I’m stuck in prison. Whose fault is it, mine or yours?”

A march inspired by Gandhi

A few weeks ago Kilis joined other parents with sons in jail on a 450-kilometer (280-mile) march launched by opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu to protest the purges. Kilicdaroglu has called the events of July 15 a “controlled coup,” implying that the government knew it was planned and let it happen so it could crack down on the opposition.

The march, which was inspired by Gandhi’s 1930 protest against British rule in India, known as the Salt March, brought together different elements of the opposition in a nonviolent protest against the government in the run-up to the failed coup’s first anniversary.

People wave Turkish flags at a ceremony marking the first anniversary of the attempted coup, Ankara,  July 16, 2017.
Umit Bektas / Reuters

At the march’s culmination in Istanbul on July 9, Kilicdaroglu called the introduction of the state of emergency on July 20 last year “a palace coup.”

“It is a very sour first anniversary of the coup for us”, says Devrim Kilicer, an academic from Ankara University who lost her job in February. “Innocent people were targeted and Erdogan managed to concentrate more power in his hands as he called for greater stability,” she adds, referring to last April’s referendum that made Turkey a presidential republic.

Hussein, a 25-year-old student from Ankara who declined to give his full name, agrees and adds that “all those responsible stayed free, and the innocents were jailed after the coup.”

Meanwhile, the government is pushing its own version of the events of July 15, hailing the people who took to the streets to protest that night. The failed coup should be called Turkey’s second War of Independence, officials of Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party told foreign journalists invited to Turkey to mark the occasion.

“During the first War of Independence the nation acted in unity under Mustafa Kemal [Ataturk], while this time, about a hundred years later, we acted together under the leadership of Erdogan,” said Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag.

This story line rests on a very careful choice of words. “The 15th of July should not be remembered as a mere coup, but rather as an attempt at foreign occupation,” said Fatma Betul Sayan Kaya, the minister of family and social policy.

‘The West chooses to believe the terrorists’ 

To bolster the comparison with the War of Independence in the early 1920s, the putschists have been labeled “foreign forces” by many officials and the pro-government press. Kurtulus Tayiz, a writer for the pro-government newspaper Sabah, has claimed that “July 15 was an external invasion coming from the U.S.”

Reacting to criticism that the purges went too far, Bozdag points to alleged “perception management operations” by Gulenists. “The West chooses to believe the terrorists instead of believing the democratic state of Turkey,” he said. “They obsess over the well-being of the Gulenists in our prisons, but they hesitated to show solidarity with us when we were attacked.”

The government, meanwhile, is publishing books, building statues and compiling archives of “veterans’ and martyrs’ stories” to push the point home and achieve its declared goal of making the failed coup “a landmark of Turkish history.”

Metin Dogan is a bodybuilder who took to the streets that night; in a famous photo he can be seen lying down in front of a tank at Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport. “I’ve been running from one event to another ever since the failed coup, teaching about democracy and patriotism,” he told Haaretz at a government photo exhibition about the coup in Ankara.

State officials, including Erdogan, with whom he has met six times, value the advocacy by common people who helped stymie the coup plotters that night.

“I felt I had to do something extraordinary for the people to come out to the streets,” Dogan says, adding that after the failed coup he even lectured Istanbul traders about the “process of rapid decision” and aspiring imams about “faith in God.”

“I said to the tank: I am a Turkish soldier; whose soldier are you?”

As the opposition seethes under Erdogan’s repression and dubs July 15 a “controlled coup,” the government uses loyalists like Dogan to spread its tale of heroism and defense of democracy — a clash of narratives that has marred the first anniversary of the failed coup.