Erdogan Won This Round, but the Battle for Turkey's Identity Is Far From Over

The secular protesters from three years ago were replaced on Saturday by men and head-covered women, who effectively ended the army's hold on power in favor of a new era - one that will not necessarily be more democratic or unified.

Pro-Erdogan protesters gather at Taksim square in Istanbul to support the government following a coup attempt, July 16, 2016.
Aris Messinis, AFP

ISTANBUL - Three years ago, they descended in a long march down Istiklal Boulevard to Taksim Square, divided by groups. Members of Marxist trade unions, Kamalist nationalists, Kurds and thousands of ordinary citizens, members of the secular middle class. From across the political spectrum, they joined in protest against President (then prime minister) Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

It was a giant show of force against the rule of the leader of the Justice and Development (AK) Party. The official reason for the protests was the campaign to save Gezi Park, a small green-area in the heart of Istanbul’s metropolis, which Erdogan’s cronies - the mayor if Istanbul and a consortium of businessmen - were planning to replace with a massive shopping mall. But above it all, it was a challenge to Erdogan. As they reached Taksim, the police tried to disperse them with water cannons, pepper spray and tear-gas. But tens of thousands clung to the park, staying there in tents, while the protests spread to other parts of Turkey. 

During those weeks, there were those who thought that Erdogan’s hold on power may be slipping. Police finally succeeded in evicting the protestors from Taksim but the city eventually abandoned the building plans. Gezi Park, dirty and dilapidated, remains with its tall trees in the heart of the bustle and the polluted air of central Istanbul.

The last three years have not been easy for Erdogan. He may have succeeded in perpetuating his rule, becoming president with expanding powers, but he also failed to secure the necessary majority to make sweeping changes in the national constitution. Turkey’s security has weakened, after it failed to ride the Islamist tiger trying to take control of Syria and Iraq across the border and in turn became itself a target of ISIS suicide bombing attacks.

Supporters of Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan wave national flags as they gather at Taksim Square in central Istanbul, Turkey, July 16, 2016.
Huseyin Aldemir, Reuters

Three million Syrian refugees poured into Turkey, some of them trying to reach the European Union, the economy which prospered for much of his time in power has gone into a downturn, and even Erdogan’s main achievement, the peace deal with the Kurdish minority, has been lost with renewed fighting in eastern Turkey and across the border with Syria. Despite all this, Erdogan continued trying to deepen his hold on the army and the judicial system. These were the conditions in which the attempted military coup took place as the sun was setting on Friday.

On Saturday night, tens of thousands marched again through Istiklal to the square. This time, they were mainly residents of Istanbul’s working-class neighborhoods, where the young Islamist activist Erdogan grew up. At first glance, it was difficult to tell them apart from the thousands who converged on Taksim three years ago; both groups were flying hundreds of red-and-white Turkish flags and banners, but a closer look showed clear differences. The Gezi protesters held pictures of Mustafa Kamal Ataturk, father of secular Turkey. These were replaced on Saturday by the mustachioed profile of the current president. Three years ago, secular wild-haired women in jeans were prominent on the front-lines of the protest. On Saturday, there was a large male majority and the young women who did arrive were mostly with chaste head-coverings.

It was their second night on the streets. On Friday, they came out to prevent the coup. They thronged to the bridges on the Bosphorus and challenged the soldiers with armored vehicles there. Others marched to Istanbul's Ataturk Airport, where they were expecting Erdogan to land, and lay in front of the tanks which were late in taking control of the strategic location. 

On the first night, there were members of opposition parties among them, some of which had come out three years ago to protest against Erdogan and were now on the streets again to oppose a military coup against the democratically-elected government. On Saturday, the rallies were exclusively of AK Party supporters. The slogans for democracy were replaced by cries in favor of Recep Tayyip. It was a jubilant but also more violent and nationalist atmosphere, with reports of violence against Kurdish citizens and vandalism of offices of the opposition HDP Party. 

A smaller rally took place outside the entrance to the airport, where Erdogan had spent most of the day, for fear of remnants of the coup forces still at large, until he went to a third rally of his supporters in one of his party’s strongholds in a neighborhood on the Asian side of Istanbul. He has yet to return to the capital Ankara. There are still conflicting reports on F-16 fighter-jets which may be operated by coup-supporting pilots. Meanwhile the battle for Ataturk Airport is already becoming part of the mythology of the night the coup failed. 

On Sunday morning, central Istanbul still seemed to be sleeping off a hangover. After two nights and a day of nationalist fervor many of the streets were almost deserted, aside from small groups of Syrian refugees and a few tourists. The hotels and coffee shops around Taksim were near-empty. At the airport, where planes barely took off throughout most of Saturday and is only slowly coming back to full operations, thousands of tourists were still stranded, many of them just passengers in transit waiting for a plane to fly them back to their countries. Some have already spent a second night sleeping on the terminal floor. It is a stark reminder to the deep crisis in Turkey’s tourism industry which has been ongoing ever since the ISIS attacks began. 

Erdogan and his loyalists took advantage of the first day following the coup attempt to arrest thousands of army officers and detain nearly three thousand judges and prosecutors. If any of the opposition members had some slight hope that the botched coup would cause the president to change tack and pursue a more unifying course, it quickly evaporated.

A man waves a Turkish flag in front of Ataturk Airport during an attempted coup in Istanbul, Turkey July 16, 2016.
IHLAS News Agency, Reuters

On Monday, Turks will return to work with their country more divided than ever, facing a series of economic, security and diplomatic crises. 

At the edge of Taksim Square there stood Sunday morning a riot-dispersal vehicle with a water cannon. It hadn’t been used over the last two days, there was no need. Opposite it stood an army armored personnel carrier used by soldiers who had been part of the coup. The APC had been blocked by hundreds of civilians surrounding it on Friday night. The symbol of Erdogan’s control facing the symbol of the military’s once-omnipotent might.

The failure of the coup proves that an era has finally ended in Turkey. Gone are the days when the army was the main source of power, sometimes in public, and for decades behind the scenes, in Turkey. But the new era is not necessarily one of more democracy and unity. It is just another period of struggle for the soul of this large country straddling Europe and Asia. Erdogan won this round but this was not the last battle for the streets of Istanbul and for Turkey’s heartland.

People celebrate in Taksim Square.