Turkish President President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is furious at foreign criticism of the crackdown that has followed the 15 July coup attempt. What does anyone expect after a military power grab? he wants to know. So has the West been holier-than-thou its reaction? And have innocent people been swept up in the purge?
Ankara 27 July 2016
Her husband said he’d divorce her when she was suspended from her job teaching in Ankara school.
“I never knew I was living with a Gülenist,” he said.
He was joking. In fact, they both thought it was pretty funny.
“I laughed,” she told us in a local office of education union Eğitim Sen. “I thought it was a joke because it seemed like a joke and funny for a leftist and democratic person such as myself to be a part of such a frame.”
But the next day the seriousness of her situation was beginning to sink in. She could lose her job. She could be labelled a coup supporter for life. Even if she is reinstated, the suspicion could remain.
This teacher, who didn’t want her name given, was one of about 21,000 teachers in public and private schools to be suspended.
Only 88 of them are members of Egitim Sen, which does not recruit in the private sector, but Ankara organiser Kamuran Karaca was amazed to find any.
The union is resolutely secular, campaigning against religion in schools, and its activists tend to be left-wing, while Fehtullah Gülen, the man the government accuses of being behind the failed putsch, is a right-wing Islamist who, according to his opponents, works within Turkey’s secular democracy in order to subvert it.
The union is no stranger to legal action, however.
Six of its members are currently awaiting trial, because of their role in strikes and their support for Kurdish rights, according to the union – one of them having been charged since the coup attempt.
The evidence against the suspended members appears to be mainly that they have taken loans from an allegedly Gülenist-run bank, Bank Asya, or have bought books or office supplies from shops believed to be run by the movement.
Karaca points out that, since the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) for a long time worked with the Gülen movement, many of its members must have done the same.
“We are concerned that there is a tendency to regard the oppositional segments of society as putschist as well,” he remarks.
Lazmi Özgen’s shares that fear.
He’s an organiser for the Kesk public-sector trade union, 32 of whose members have been in prison since January for offences he says are linked to their union activism.
Over 50,000 public-sector workers were suspended within two days of the coup attempt. So how did the authorities know who to pick?
It is common knowledge that the lists already existed, Özgen claims. Tens of thousands of public employees had been illegally profiled “Gülenist, separationist, Alevi, Atheist, secular” and so on.
The teacher we met mentioned that she was an Alevi, a religious minority that was often persecuted in the Ottoman era and whose followers tends to have anti-establishment opinions.
To read my report for RFI Turkey’s purge becoming witch-hunt, activists click here
Erdogan angered by purge criticisms
The scale of the purge, in the public sector, the armed forces, the media and industry, has given rise to expressions of concern in Europe and the US, which in turn has infuriated Erdogan.
AKP supporters point out that France has had a state of emergency for eight months because of a series of terror attacks, which for all their gravity were not an attempt to seize power by arms by people involved in a longstanding conspiratorial network.
Of course, France hasn’t suspended more than 50,000 people from their jobs, detained thousands of soldiers and given prosecutors the right to search lawyers’ offices and seize documents.
And Erdogan was already well down the road to authoritarianism before the failed putsch, building a megalomaniacal presidential palace, effectively taking political power into his own hands, pushing out prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu for being a potential rival, purging the magistrature and the police following an allegedly Gülen-inspired investigation into AKP corruption, prosecuting hundreds, including two opposition party leaders, for a republican version of lèse majesté – he has magnanimously declared that those charges will be dropped since the coup – and harrying critical media.
His desire to be a new sultan is widely mocked. But he is not the only ambitious politician on the planet.
Sure, abuses of France’s state of emergency have been relatively limited – alleged troublemakers banned from ecology and anti-labour reform protests and some apparently arbitrary house arrests, for example.
But I hate to think what powers French Prime Minister Manuel Valls or, for that matter, former president Nicolas Sarkozy, would give themselves if there was a serious attempt at a military coup in France.
The Turkish coup attempt was a serious threat to a democracy that has been overturned on four occasions, apparently launched by a network that has infiltrated the state, the media and private industry.
Since it was defeated, it has strengthened Erdogan and allowed his government to purge that state machine, a purge which, the evidence already shows, is unlikely to be confined to people who really did plot to seize power.
Who defeated the coup and why?
“If they had let us, we would have got into those tanks. We would! It was our duty to kill those two soldiers inside,” Ahmet, a taxi driver who’d confronted the troops in front of parliament on 15 July, told us.
Little doubt that he is an AKP supporter. Little doubt that most of those who faced down the tanks were, judging by the divide between AKP and secular supporters I witnessed on the rallies in Istanbul.
So, although the popular mobilisation was certainly to defend a democratically elected government, can we really describe it as a mobilisation to defend the principle of democracy, as the Turkish government claims.
Like the rest of us, Turks tend to be most enthusiastic about democracy when it produces the results they desire.
Of course, opposition MPs courageously went to parliament on the night of the coup, as the vice-president of the secular People’s Republican Party (CHP), Bülent Tezcan, reminds me at the party’s huge Ankara headquarters.
As jets flew overhead, they held a special session, even discarding the jacket-and-tie dress code given the circumstances, although they took to the bunkers when the bombs started falling.
“We call the Turkish parliament a veteran parliament,” Tezcan declares in poetic-historic mode. “Because this parliament managed the independence war and this parliament was built through that battle, that struggle. And that night the parliament showed that it is a veteran parliament.”
The following day all the parties, including the left-wing, pro-Kurd People’s Democratic Party (HDP) whose members had not been in the parliament building overnight, signed a declaration in support of democracy.
“The unity that emerged out of the struggle against the coup still continues, we are working for it to continue and we are working for it not to dissipated,” Tezcan says. “I hope it will continue.”
CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu has made a big play of national unity, in part, one suspects, for defensive reasons. The secular camp is afraid that a strengthened Erdogan could use the state’s beefed-up powers against them and is anxious to make it politically difficult to do so.
For the moment Erdogan is playing along, inviting Kılıçdaroğlu and right-wing secular leader Devlet Bahçeli to a meeting, along with Prime Minister Binali Yildirim.
How far is the CHP prepared to go?
Erdogan said that there appeared to be consensus to “minor changes” to the constitution, a puzzling formulation when referring to a state’s fundamental law.
“What was discussed was a quick amendment in the provisions of the constitution concerning judicial processes,” Tezcan says. “Our position concerning judicial process has not changed. We have previously stated that we stand for the primacy of independence and impartiality of the judiciary. For all the amendments we will approve, our basic and essential condition will always be the independence and impartiality of the judiciary.”
But Erdogan had already hinted that the secular parties might be ready to go along with his pet plan of establishing a presidential system.
Tezcan claims to believe that he won’t push that too far. “I don’t think he will damage conciliation with a discussion of the system of government. The president of the republic may argue for a presidential regime, we defend parliamentary democracy. To have differences of opinion should not prevent dialogue, conciliation and working together.”
To read my my report Will Turkey’s political unity last? click here
That evening in a sprawling restaurant on the outskirts of Ankara I meet the mayor of the district that is home to the Akinci airbase, from which the planes that bombarded parliament took off.
He proudly describes how residents surrounded the base, set fire to their furniture and bales of hay to prevent the planes taking off and eventually forced the rebels to surrender, capturing key plotters.
Eighty-four people are still in hospital after having been wounded.
The mayor is given to professions of loyalty to democracy and the president.
Bosnian, Turkmen, Arab and Syrian immigrants live there, he says, people of all ages are “standing together, waiting, guarding” in response to Erdogan’s appeal in case of a new attack on democracy.
“Until our president and our superiors tell us to go home and stay home, we are going to be guarding the streets.”