Walking the streets of Istanbul, Erdogan's crackdown lingers heavy in the air

Erdogan has extended Turkey’s state of emergency by 90 days and the Turkish lira has fallen – I guess that’s what 'normalisation process' means

Robert Fisk
Thursday 06 October 2016 14:34
A huge pro-Erdogan rally in Istanbul the wake of the failed summer coup. Many fear that the subsequent state crackdown is a threat to Turkey’s secular and democratic traditions
A huge pro-Erdogan rally in Istanbul the wake of the failed summer coup. Many fear that the subsequent state crackdown is a threat to Turkey’s secular and democratic traditions

On vast building sites around Istanbul, the hoardings announce that the people “will never submit to terror”. Others near the Sea of Marmara confidently predict that “the people will not let terror overcome their patriotism”.

Driving around this city gets a bit tiresome after a while. The attempted coup against President Erdogan is almost three months ago. The dead – memorialised now in a bloody swath of crimson string lights at night over the great Bosphorus Bridge – produced a crop of martyrs scarcely greater in number than a single day in Aleppo. An economic magazine quotes US businessmen as saying they will maintain their Turkish investments because they are unnerved by “the heinous failed coup”. Which is not, I suspect, quite how the Americans referred to the event.

Then I open a copy of Habar Turk, a Turkish newspaper. It’s full of economic improvement (an illusion) and show business (illusion of a different kind), but at the top of page 5, there’s a frightening 2x3 inch photograph of 14 haggard men, hair uncombed, in T-shirts or open-necked shirts, marching towards the camera. An even smaller picture shows another unidentified man bending towards the camera in apparent fear, hair tousled, with what might be a bruise on the left side of his jaw. “They are some of the generals,” a Turkish acquaintance tells me. “They have been beaten.”

Somehow the smallness of the pictures makes them even more sinister – as, I suppose, they are intended to be – since there are now tens of thousands of prisoners in Turkey’s forbidding jails; cops, generals, corporals, sergeants, security agents, judges, school-teachers, academics, doctors. Another 540 soldiers were arrested on Tuesday.

All day in Istanbul you are bombarded by what the government now calls its “normalisation process” (a very Soviet expression, when you come to think of it; Stalin’s purges come to mind) – good news about the Turkish airline industry, the new tunnel under construction between the Black Sea and the Bosphorus. I have shaken my head in near disbelief several times these past 24 hours.

Then you find Basar Arioglu, the chairman of Atas, the company hired to design, build and operate the tunnel, saying of the attempted coup in a magazine article: “We have to forget it, not even talk about it and look to our future … It’s a dark day of our history now.” So do we forget it, shut our mouths and look to that “future” (under Erdogan, of course)? Or do we look again at those fearful generals – remember, Erdogan has talked of a possible renewal of the death penalty – and tremble a little?

As a Turkish friend put it to me: “Anything can happen, anything is possible.”

Certainly, it would be better not to be a relative, however distant, of Fethullah Gulen, the self-exiled cleric blamed by Erdogan for the attempted July coup. There’s a popular (and true) story going the rounds in Istanbul of the poor university professor “related to relatives” of Gulen, who was arrested.

The elderly man is unlikely to have supported the cleric, who is of course safe in America. The old boy turns out to be both an atheist and a Marxist. But they’ve put him in the slammer anyway. Court hearings are to begin “soon” – no-one knows when, possibly not even the prosecutors, because the evidence to support these mass trials may not exist.

Erdogan has just extended Turkey’s state of emergency by another 90 days, and the Turkish lira has just fallen to more than three to the dollar. I guess that’s what “normalisation process” means.

I have lunch with two Turkish acquaintances. All such meetings must now be smothered in anonymity. That is the rule if you’re going to write what they say (unless it contains grovelling praise for Erdogan). But it’s a revealing moment when one of them says to me that they “also have difficulty in understanding this”.

So here’s the first explanation of one of the two friends. “You must understand that this was a real attempted coup d’etat. You must be careful not to repeat what some said in the Western press, that this was actually staged, a fake coup by Erdogan to get rid of his enemies. This is rubbish. It was real.

“It was against Erdogan, and Gulenists were involved. A retired major said that if you take all the business class passengers off a plane, you have the Gulenists, and so they did the coup. The men behind the coup probably hoped the Kemalists would come on to the streets.”

The “Kemalists” are those who still believe in the precepts of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey and hero of Gallipoli, who fear that Erdogan is going to destroy his secular legacy, either by turning Turkey back into a caliphate or “forward” into some other kind of Islamic state. I noticed that quite a lot of portraits of Ataturk have disappeared in Istanbul, even in my own hotel. The friendly receptionist explained that there had been a “renovation” and Ataturk’s portrait had been hung elsewhere – in the hotel staff offices.

“Some officers,” my friend continued, “would have been eliminated if the coup had been successful. Some probably thought they’d be promoted if they joined, or would lose their jobs if they didn’t.”

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On the day of the planned coup, Turkish military officers apparently went to the army chief of staff at 3pm or 4pm – they told him he could telephone Gulen to hear what he said – but the chief of staff refused. Instead, he ordered all soldiers confined to barracks that night. From that moment, the coup plotters knew that the plan may be exposed. Coups are supposed to take place at 3am or 4am in the morning when cities proverbially sleep. But, having failed to keep their plans secret, they went ahead on the grounds that “we’d better do it anyway”.

The Russians, many people in Istanbul confirmed, also tipped off Erdogan. That’s almost certainly true.

There’s an instructive Turkish account of the Putin-Erdogan meeting on the edge of the recent G20 summit in China. Putin apparently paid special attention to one man in the Turkish delegation, Hakan Fidan, the head of the Turkish National Intelligence Organisation. “We do not have anything to talk about if your chief intelligence officer is here,” joked the former KGB intelligence man in Dresden. “He (Fidan) has already informed you of everything.”

So how did Erdogan’s men know which of the tens of thousands should be picked up? “Simple,” said my other acquaintance. “Until two years ago, the Gulenists were allies of Erdogan’s AK Party in government. Everyone knew who had been appointed by the Gulen people and who was appointed by the AK. They knew which general, which professor, had been favoured for a position by the Gulenists. And there are informers everywhere.” It’s a reasonable explanation – but, I think, it’s not the only one. Besides, proof is escaping with those who fled Turkey. When the Erdogan cops closed down the only English language (and Gulenist) newspaper in Turkey, Zaman Today, they destroyed the daily’s entire archives. Now that’s an odd thing to do in the offices of an opposition paper which so often taunted Erdogan.

And what did the eight air force men who fled to Greece from Turkey by helicopter, and who have not (so far) been returned by the EU, actually know? Erdogan has been making noises about taking back the Greek islands of the Turkish coast. The Greeks are all of a fluster.

“This is entertainment,” my other friend says. “Erdogan likes to make enemies.” Then, in the taxi back to central Istanbul, I watch the giant billboards again and cynically observe a prayer.

“God save Erdogan,” I mutter. My friend laughs. “Erdogan saves God,” he replies.