Istanbul’s towering Palace of Justice opened in 2011, a gleaming 19-story behemoth and the largest courthouse in Europe.
For more than a week, Emine has camped there with only a handbag in tow, hoping to catch a glimpse of her 22-year-old son, a low-level military conscript, who was detained in the aftermath of Turkey’s coup attempt on July 15. The morning after he rode in a military vehicle outside Istanbul's Ataturk airport, he texted her: “I think they’re taking me.”
She hasn’t heard from him since.
“He’s a child, he didn’t do anything,” Emine said, asking for her last name to be withheld. In Turkey, military service is compulsory and her two younger sons are slated to serve soon. “Now neighbors say he was a terrorist...does anyone know what is going on? Has the world turned upside down?”
After decades of stability and economic growth, few in Turkey expected the country’s generals to usurp power again as it had in 1960, 1971 and 1980. When they did, however, thousands heeded the call from President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to stand up for “the people’s will.” Even Erdoğan’s staunchest opponents came out against the coup, offering a rare moment of unity and optimism that Turkish politics had finally progressed and perhaps embraced democracy.
But what has followed in recent days reeks more of revenge than progress or democracy.
More than 50,000 people have been rounded up, sacked or suspended from their jobs by Turkey's government. Last week, Erdoğan called a three-month state of emergency to “cleanse terrorist elements” from the military, referring to supporters of his erstwhile ally and now foe, U.S.-based Muslim cleric Fethullah Gülen. The government accuses Gülen of orchestrating the attempted coup, a claim Gülen denies.
“Erdoğan will use the botched coup to become Supreme Leader of Turkey,” said a Turkish human rights activist, requesting anonymity for fear of losing her job. “Dark days are coming.”
Indeed, many are concerned about Turkey’s future, particularly the direction of its democracy, which has not come easy, if at all. Democracy in Turkey has not always prioritized the rights and freedoms of the individual or the collective whole. Instead, it has taken a majoritarian approach – might makes right – drowning out diversity and dissent.
Since the founding of the Turkish republic in 1923 and for much of the 20th century, the urban white collar elite was that majority. The rural and largely pious underclass was ignored, relegated to the margins of society. Erdoğan tipped that balance.
“He’s from this neighborhood, he’s like us...he understands,” said Ömer Emeroğlu, 26, when asked why he supports Erdoğan and why he went out on the streets to stand against the coup attempt on July 15. The president has long strummed his backstory as a common boy from Kasimpaşa, a working class district of Istanbul, like a well-versed instrumentalist, playing for a constituency that has long felt oppressed and disenfranchised.
“He’s a real Turk, a son of this neighborhood,” Emeroğlu says. “And I would die to protect the country Erdoğan gave us.”
Erdoğan has delivered much needed services to Turks who live in the county’s ghettos, villages, and towns. As mayor of Istanbul and later prime minister, Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party, better known as the AKP, improved infrastructure, attracted investments, expanded the economy, and jumpstarted social mobility. Most importantly, they spoke about a “new” Turkey in which everyone would be heard, minorities would be respected, and tolerance would triumph.
Yet as his rule, in the face of a weak and inept opposition, went unchallenged, Erdoğan changed. He was no longer an outsider fighting against the establishment. He, the scrappy soccer player from Kasimpaşa, had become the establishment. His focus veered away from a “new” Turkey to maintaining the status quo – his power and the ability to hold on to it.
This white-knuckled grip on power came to light during the 2013 anti-government “Gezi” protests that opposed the razing of a park outside Istanbul’s main Taksim Square. Erdoğan responded in textbook strongman fashion with water cannons and tear gas. Critics and dissenters were arrested. When corruption allegations surfaced later that year, Erdoğan shut down social media sites and fired judges and police officers whom he believed were linked to Gülen, whom Erdoğan thinks leaked the allegations.
As his term as AKP leader started to draw to a close in 2014 and he campaigned to become Turkey’s president, Erdoğan talked about the need to rewrite Turkey’s constitution and overhaul the country’s system of government. Turkey, he argued, needed to move away from a parliamentary system toward a presidential one – a system in which Erdoğan would gain unprecedented power, solidifying not merely majoritarian but strongman rule.
In such a system, there is much at risk beyond civil liberties, justice and human rights. Many are concerned about the future of Turkey’s once dynamic but now stalled economy. Turkey’s economy depends on exports, especially with its largest trading partner, the European Union.
Even more wonder what will become of the country’s relations with its neighbors and allies, including the United States and NATO. This is especially important as Turkey grapples with Syria, its own Kurdish issue, and the rise of Islamic extremists. At the end of June, Erdoğan mended ties with Israel and Russia. In the days following the coup attempt, however, Ankara has lashed out at Washington, with which it has had strained relations for the past several years. Ankara has demanded that the Obama administration hand over Gülen – and threatens to “review” their relations if it does not. Both capitals remain on edge.
So do most Turks. On Sunday, thousands gathered in Taksim Square to protest the coup attempt. The rally was held by Turkey’s main opposition party, the Republican People's Party (CHP), but members of the AKP joined in a historic gesture of unity.
“This isn’t just about the coup, we are saying no to dictatorship, too,” said Hale Ersoy, a CHP supporter, offering a thinly veiled critique of Erdoğan. “We will be back in the square if democracy isn’t upheld. We’re watching.”
Just a few miles away in Kasimpaşa, Erdoğan’s old stomping grounds, youth like Emeroğlu are watching, too, and championing the coming days as a much needed restructuring of the state.
“What would Obama do if this happened in America? This plot will only make us stronger and reveal the traitors. Erdoğan is saving Turkey,” said Emeroğlu, before joining the Taksim rally. “Nothing can stop him.”
And that’s exactly why mothers like Emine, who camped outside the marble fortress of the Palace of Justice, fear the days ahead might go down as some of Turkey’s darkest.
Lauren Bohn is the GroundTruth Project's Middle East correspondent based in Istanbul. Elmira Bayrasli is a lecturer at NYU and the author of From The Other Side of The World: Extraordinary Entrepreneurs, Unlikely Places. Together they founded Foreign Policy Interrupted, an initiative to amplify female foreign policy voices.