An AFP photographer who was in Istanbul during last week’s attempted military coup said he was “shocked” when he realised how many pro-government protesters were willing to risk their lives to thwart the soldiers’ uprising.
“People started to march on the Bosphorus bridge and the soldiers started to shoot into the crowd,” Bülent Kılıç, who is from Istanbul, said in an interview with AFP’s blog. “And when I saw this, I thought this is something serious.”
He continued: “I took cover. I was shocked — I didn’t expect so many people would be ready to die. I could see the soldiers shooting. But they, the people facing off in front of them, they didn’t stop.”
Many who bore witness to the military uprising last week were not as shocked by the soldiers’ mobilization — the Turkish military has a long history of intervening in domestic politics — as they were by the people’s willingness to face off against tanks, rifles, and air power in the name of preserving Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s leadership and party, the Justice and Development Party (AKP).
To that end, most analysts agree that the coup lost any chance of succeeding the moment Erdogan appealed to his supporters via FaceTime to take to the streets.
Once they did, it became clear that they were prepared to fight until the end. At least 173 civilians died in the clashes, most of whom were shot by pro-coup soldiers.
“One of the guys who was in that minivan with me was shot in the head,”
Kılıç said, referring to the van he drove in with other civilians in the uprising’s early hours to get to Istanbul’s Taksim Square.
He continued: “He was a meter away from me. I saw him drop to the ground. I heard bullets whizzing past me, I saw the spent ones falling at my feet. So I began to run. I ran and ran and ran. After about 200 meters, I stopped next to a white car. The driver had been shot, slumped in the seat. I was shocked. I couldn’t understand what was going on, what was happening.”
Some of the bloodiest scenes occurred at Istanbul’s Bosphorus Bridge, which was closed by the military and later swarmed by pro-government protesters demanding that they return to their base. One of Erdogan’s closest allies and confidants, 53-year-old Erol Olcak, was shot and killed there, along with his 16-year-old son.
“He believed in democracy,” Firat Arslan, a planning director at Olcak’s political-advertising firm, told The Wall Street Journal this week. “He worked for real democracy for his entire life and after all died for it.”
‘Now the people are divided’
By Saturday morning, it had become clear that Olcak did not die in vain: The government regained control less than 24 hours after the soldiers first mobilized, aided by civilians who lay in front of tanks and confronted soldiers head-on.
But the mobilization of “Islamist mobs” — as a senior Western diplomat characterised the pro-Erdogan protesters who took to the streets that night — apparently has some worried about what such a galvanised AKP base, and weakened military, means for Turkey’s long-term stability, Reuters reported.
Indeed, as another AFP photographer who witnessed the uprising noted, it was not only civilians’ willingness to die to defeat the military that was shocking. It was also the fact that they turned on the military — long the most respected and cohesive institution in Turkish society — so quickly and ferociously.
“The images from the bridge, they will change the country, nothing will be as it was before,” Ozan Köse, the photographer, told AFP.
“The Turkish people have always had respect for the military and on that bridge, they actually killed soldiers and posted the images on social media. Everyone is shocked.”
“I saw the eyes of the soldiers on Taksim. They didn’t seem like they knew what they were doing. They seemed lost, totally lost. This coup attempt has left so many people dead. Everything in Turkey will change. Now the people are divided into two sides — those against Erdoğan and those for Erdoğan.”
Erdogan’s supporters bravely mobilized to defend his democratically elected government against the military, and in doing so proved how far they were willing to go to defend his party’s leadership.
The problem now, some experts say, is how to demobilize a predominantly Islamist crowd that may be helping to fuel the ruling Justice and Development Party’s crackdown on the country’s more secularist actors and ultimately driving opposition figures deeper into hiding.
“How you demobilize the crowd is a concern. I don’t think it is high up on the list of concerns of the AKP government because they really feared for their lives,” Hakan Altinay, of Washington’s Brookings Institution, told Reuters on Tuesday.
As Turkey expert Aaron Stein of the Atlantic Council noted in a recent analysis, “
The Turkish military has traditional viewed its role as guardians of Turkish secularism.”
The backlash against the military from Erdogan’s supporters, then, indicates their comfort with his — largely unchecked — Islamist government. Now, with a fractured military hierarchy and mass arrests of suspected coup sympathizers, Erdogan will have virtually free reign to expand his Islamist and increasingly authoritarian rule.
“Being critical of [Erdogan] at this stage is not possible,” Mustafa Akyol, a columnist and author of “Islam Without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty,” told Reuters.
Erdogan has gotten “so much power and prestige now,” Akyol said, that if you criticise him “you will be accused of being with the coup. The upheaval will be there for a while.”
The former US ambassador to Turkey and Iraq, James Jeffrey, agreed that Erdogan will “be unchecked as long as he maintains the reins of power and can motivate his corps of supporters, especially among Turkey’s devout Muslim majority.”
“In the absence of military checks and bolstered by the adulation of a motivated ‘street,’ Erdogan now has the momentum he needs to take Turkey in almost any direction he wants,” Jeffrey, now a fellow at The Washington Institute, wrote in The Cipher Brief.
“No wonder he called the coup a ‘gift from God.'”
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