Climate of fear: Two years in Istanbul

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It is sobering and painful to imagine bad fortune befalling those places you hold dear; to know that the streets that you once frequented and the bridges you once traversed have become bit part players in a much larger tragedy.

I first discovered Istanbul during its calmer days. I arrived in the city in the autumn of 2013; my first encounter with the ancient cultural heart of an altogether unfamiliar country. Istanbul captivated me at once with its energy and quirkiness, with its fascinating and shambolic mingling of cultures, and with its passion and unrelenting buzz.

Admittedly, all was not entirely well in the Istanbul that I first saw. In the summer of that same year, the Gezi Park protests had brought the city’s various discontents into stark view. The heavy handed crackdown by Turkey’s government against those protests was an ominous sign of things to come. During the Gezi events the world saw a flow of images showing Turkish police with tear gas and water cannons turning on protestors with vicious intent. These images became a dominant motif for Turkey over the months and years that followed Gezi.

I will never forget one ordinary Saturday afternoon in late 2014. I was wandering Istiklal Caddesi with friends on a mildly sunny day. The avenue was busy with people young and old, families, and foreign tourists. Suddenly we were startled by people running in our direction. It turned out there were police hot on their tails armed with excessive amounts of teargas.

We were about to be caught in the crossfire and knew that a gassing could be really unpleasant. So we ran for the nearest side street and took refuge in a vehicle workshop, where the owners rushed to batten down the steel door and where together we all waited until the danger had passed by. Outside, the air was acrid with the lingering stench of teargas.

Since those early days there have been many more dramatic events in Istanbul and wider Turkey. Most notably, the ruling regime has stepped up its level of control, bolstered by another resounding win at the ballot box in mid-2015, when Turkey held its most recent general election. The leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is a divisive figure. At first I thought he was unpopular with most Turks, judging from the opinions of my liberal and mostly secular English-speaking Turkish friends, who never missed a chance to criticise him.

But as I got to know Turkey more deeply it became clear that the man had widespread popular support, just not from the demographic that constituted most of my social scene. On the contrary, Erdogan supporters came from the working classes, from the more religious and less well-educated sections of society. This is a general statement but one that largely holds true.

To understand Turkey better it is important to remember that Istanbul is not really Turkey, and Turkey is not really Istanbul. In fact, most of Turkey resides in the wider Anatolian regions, beyond Istanbul, where society tends towards the poorer, more conservative and more religious. These are the heartlands from where President Erdogan draws the majority of his support base. These are the voters that have kept the AKP (Justice and Development Party) in power for almost fifteen years.

Erdogan is undoubtedly a gifted politician. Although he may lack a university education (his degree is believed to be fake), he has used his time spent on the streets of Istanbul to learn exactly what makes the common Turk tick and he has leveraged this knowledge to great effect. He is ruthless too, as shown by his cynical manipulation of Turkish society to achieve his political aims.

In summer 2015 the tide shifted in Turkey. A challenger party, the HDP (People’s Democratic Party), won enough general election votes to give it a seat in parliament. This denied the AKP the majority rule it had expected to win. The result was a hung parliament amid calls for the ruling party to form a coalition. Anyone who knows Turkish politics and the personality of Erdogan himself knows how impossible this is. There was stalemate for a number of months until a second general election was called in November.

Between the first and second elections a number of unusual events befell Turkey. In July, not long after the first election result was announced, a truce between the ruling party and the PKK (Kurdish independence party, notorious for long-standing conflict with the Turkish state) suddenly fell apart. It was unusual, because this truce had been in place since 2013, with the goal to embark on a peace process. As a result, conflict duly resumed in the south-east between the PKK and Turkish security forces. Turkey was once again embroiled in a civil war.

Then, just before the November election was due, Turkey suffered the worst terrorist attack in its history. Two suicide bombers blew themselves to smithereens amid a peace rally in the capital Ankara, killing 102 people, most of them young. They had been rallying for peace in the Kurdish southeast. The finger was pointed at Islamic State. But the militant group, normally so quick to claim responsibility for its actions, has so far remained silent on this attack.

Eyewitnesses at the Ankara event noted the surprising lack of security forces during the peace rally. It was almost as if the government wanted the rally to be attacked. Some have even gone as far as to claim the AKP deliberately orchestrated the bombing to tip the November election in its favour. Be that the case or not, it worked. The AKP won a landslide victory and regained full control in parliament. I was out of the country when the results came through.

All the while tensions were ratcheting up across Turkey. The feeling was palpable in Istanbul’s over-crowded subways and heaving streets; not only tension but also fear. The country had started to feel unstable. I was fairly shielded from the effects of this fear, as I lived far from the city centre at that time. The place where I lived was a low-key working-class suburb, where nothing except occasional boredom was a concern. But friends living in the centre spoke of their nervousness using public transport and being in busy enclosed spaces such as shopping malls.

Istanbul was changing.

The following year, things took a turn for the worse. There were two separate suicide bomb attacks, one in January in touristy Sultanahmet followed by a second in March in the heart of Istiklal Street. Both times foreign tourists as well as Turks were killed. These two locations were absolutely the most effective choices for destroying the tourism industry in Turkey, which indeed they did.

Another suicide attack in late June, a particularly brazen one targeting Ataturk Airport, cemented the climate of fear in Istanbul. It sent many people fleeing elsewhere if they were able to do so. Expats began talking seriously about leaving; while Turks entitled to foreign passports were trying urgently to secure them.

To their credit, the Turks had the airport up and running again within hours of the attack, which was convenient for some but rather alarming for others. Things felt normal when I flew out of that same airport just days after the attack, apart from the commemorative display in the arrivals hall where 42 people had been blown and shot to shreds.

This leads us up to the most recent news of this weekend’s coup attempt. It’s a time of high drama for Turkey. Erdogan has called on the US to extradite his arch-rival, elderly Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen, who he has accused of orchestrating the coup via his many supporters in positions of power in Turkey. It makes little sense for Gulen to do such a thing.

What rings more true – alarmingly – is that the AKP somehow set up the coup attempt as justification for the subsequent arrest of thousands of judges and senior military figures – which happened within two days of the coup. How the wheels of so-called justice can move so fast is mystifying, unless of course the coup was expected, planned and carried out by those loyal to the AKP.

Now is a golden opportunity for Erdogan to make his final bid for total control. His dearest wish is to change the constitution to allow executive powers for the presidency. If this occurs, it could be a death knell for any semblance of democracy in Turkey. The country will have transitioned into a dictatorship in all but name, just like its current civil war in all but name against the Kurds in the southeast.

There is no telling now what the future holds for Turkey. If it continues down this path Erdogan is likely to achieve unquestionable power. What that means for the common people of Turkey is as yet unknown. Now relegated to an observer instead of a more active participant, I can only hope that whatever comes next will avoid doing further damage to the city, country and people among which I spent some happy, formative and productive years. It feels like Turkey is descending into an abyss, but inshallah, as the Turks say, things will not be as dark as they seem.

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