Delivering a speech to the nation from a lectern embossed with the presidential stamp, perfectly placed between two bold red Turkish flags, Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan looked stronger and more formidable than ever just five days after rebel military jets had his plane within their sight. From his stage on Wednesday night he informed the Turkish nation that a state of emergency was being enforced for ninety days in the name of freedom and democracy.
The morning after his speech Turkish citizens received a personal text message on their phones, an almost daily occurrence now, reassuring them that the move was to protect their freedoms. Signed by R.T Erdogan the message reads, 'The streets do not belong to tanks, but belong to the people.' A message he has repeated since appearing on the popular private news channel CNN via Facetime not long after jets flew low over Istanbul on Friday night. To some these messages will be music to their ears, an attentive personal approach from their dear president, but to others it is a menacing interference into their personal privacy.
The speech was a remarkable come back from a man who was almost ousted from power on July 16th by a group of rogue soldiers attempting to overthrow his government. In his speech Erdogan justified the state of emergency by referencing 'other countries have used such measures in the fight against terrorists'. He wasn't specific but one can only imagine he was pointing to France since Paris has implemented a state of emergency since the Paris attacks, but the comparison was far from equal.
Turkey's state of emergency is unlike the French application. Since the failed coup Turkey has dismissed thousands of judges, teachers, banned over two million civil servants from international travel and published humiliating images of beaten soldiers stripped down to their underwear while being herded onto buses and detained. The kind of crackdown the country is experiencing is far from European. The images of bruised soldiers paraded on TV legitimise torture which is a crime and is triggering a very deep and real trauma in those who have lived through military coups in the past.
A thirty-five year old product designer who lives in Istanbul told me that his sixty-year old father spent Saturday at home crying because of these images. Then, after witnessing his father break down for the first time in his life, the day got progressively worse, he had a fistfight with his uncle who was pleased about Erdogan's tightening grip on power.
What happened last weekend is tearing families apart because it reminds them of a time when the military could intervene in politics. Later on Saturday afternoon in the same Istanbul apartment block residents began removing their names from their doorbells because they live in a secular neighbourhood and are afraid of what might happen next. With the state of emergency these fears are compounded because the president will have greater powers to arrest.
While a part of Turkey mourns the traumas of the past, hoping the rule of law will protect their affection for a dearly beloved European styled secular democratic lifestyle, Erdogan's supporters are on the street every night rallying around their president chanting 'God is Great.' But who could blame them? They are after all following their dear leader. Erdogan himself described the attempted coup as 'a gift from God' moments after his plane landed in Istanbul on Friday night.
So what can he do in his largely ceremonial role as president? Under the state of emergency, he can together with his cabinet enact laws bypassing parliament thereby securing more powers to arrest as the purge of state institutions continue. Although he has no executive power as president under the constitution this new state of play will put him at the helm of government, which is terrifying for anyone who opposes him.
In his speech to the nation Erdogan warned those who criticise him to 'stay out of our way' sending a clear message that there is zero tolerance for descent in the new Turkey while further empowering his supporters to do what ever they deem necessary to quash the opposition. A foreign tourist said he'd see a man wielding a machete in an Eastern city, a man who had heeded Erdogan's calls to take to the streets.
The president blames Fetullah Gulen, an Islamic cleric living in self-imposed exile in the US, for the coup attempt. Ironically, the pair were once allies in the fight to curb the military's powers in political life. Turkey's generals have long been viewed as the protectors of the secular state. Gulen has an extensive network of businessmen and wields influence in the police and security services, hence the purge of these institutions this week, a follow on from a previous campaign. Even still, whether Gulen was directly involved in Friday's military action is impossible to know. Could those responsible have been inspired by him? Yes.
Gulen also wields major influence in Turkish life through a network of schools. Another reason for Erdogan to crackdown on his network. Since Friday over six hundred private Gulen schools have been closed while tens of thousands of teachers have been suspended from the secular state school system. Does this mean he's going for the jugular? The education system? To imprint his version of what it means to be Turkish on the young and impressionable? Not unlike what Ataturk did when he steered Turks towards Europe as the great Islamic Ottoman empire collapsed.
It's hard to see where this will end. Erdogan wants to transform Turkey in many ways, yet his first challenge is to secure his executive presidential power. Even though that in itself is largely symbolic because he already has legitimacy to implement his vision of democracy with over fifty percent of the electorate voting him in to power. There is a worrying atmosphere of revenge in Turkey these days, a vengeful willingness to oppress the oppressors. Turkey's culture war is swinging the other way after almost a century of secular rule. Just how far Erdogan's project to reshape the republic will go is anyone's guess, but he will definitely have to watch his back trying.Suggest a correction