No exit on the Bosphorus

View from Galata tower, Istanbul

“May you live in interesting times”

The quote supposedly comes from an ancient Chinese curse, in which the word ‘interesting’ can be substituted for ‘dangerous’.

It rings true now more than ever. Our times could scarcely be more interesting, or more dangerous. At least it feels that way.

First this week came news of a shocking tragedy in Nice. A man murdered over 80 people by running them down with a truck on the city’s popular Promenade des Anglais. The attack was the latest in a growing parade of similar ones aimed at France.

The day after, it was Turkey’s turn to grab headlines. The country has already suffered more than its share of terrorist attacks, even more than France. But the latest news was something very different. It started with a few tweets about the sudden closing of Istanbul’s Bosphorus bridge. Next came more tweets about army helicopters circling the skies of Ankara. After that, #Turkey was trending on Twitter and social channels were flooded with all kinds of chatter. What for? The Turkish military had staged a coup against the government and announced they had taken control of the country.

A coup is not unprecedented in Turkey’s history; in fact the country has seen many before. But there have been none since the strongman Recep Tayyip Erdogan took power in 2002’s democratic elections. He has remained popular ever since, backed by a core base of near-fanatical supporters.

On the night of the coup Turkey’s mosques rang out with an unusual call, not the call to prayer, but a call from Erdogan for the people to fight back against the military. Accordingly, Erdogan loyalists took to the streets of Ankara and Istanbul in their jeans and t-shirts to battle the coup leaders and protest the coup itself. Later the following day, it was announced that the coup had failed.

No one in their right mind would wish a coup on any country. But in Turkey, people have long been simmering under tensions driven by the authoritarian governing style of the AKP, in particular Erdogan himself. He is a divisive figure who brooks no opposition or even criticism. He regularly arrests people deemed to have insulted him, including foreign citizens outside of Turkey.

To make sure they don’t pose a threat to his control, Erdogan has comprehensively muzzled Turkey’s press and stifled its academic community. His obsession with bringing down erstwhile ally Fethullah Gulen has become a defining feature of his rule. Indeed, there are already murmurings going around that Gulen and his supporters orchestrated last night’s coup attempt. No doubt, the AKP is the source of such rumours.

Now it’s the morning after the night before and Turkey has a lot of cleaning up to do. 200 people are reported to have died in the course of the coup attempt. Whatever the reason for this turn of events it is certain that Turkey today won’t be the same as yesterday. The tourism industry is already decimated, reeling from the effects of eight separate terrorist attacks since last summer.

Some say the coup attempt was orchestrated by Erdogan insiders as a way to secure even greater power. It may sound far-fetched to the casual observer. But for those who know Turkey the idea will have an ominous ring of truth. If that’s the case then it proves Erdogan will stop at nothing to reach his goals. The coming days will reveal all. These dark times for Turkey could soon get even darker.

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