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The Longest Night in Istanbul

On the night of 15th July 2016, just as on any other night, I am at home in Istanbul. My TV is on, as I am trying to follow the news. Reports of the bridge closing and tanks with soldiers gathering there start coming in. The first thing that comes to my mind is that maybe it is another terrorist attack. As I am looking to get more information on the Internet I receive a message from a friend: ‘I think there is a coup attempt in Turkey’. Shocked and afraid, I start searching for any refutation of what I just learned, hoping that perhaps my friend is mistaken. I start browsing through TV channels and open CNN Turk. And yes, it is happening: fighter jets flying low in the sky over Ankara, Turkey’s sky closed for military flights, tanks in Ataturk Airport in Istanbul, security forces urgently mobilised in the capital. On the one hand, news that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is confirmed to be unharmed is reassuring, but the news that there are many casualties is heart-breaking. I feel helpless, the only thing one can do is pray. Something truly terrifying is happening.

The night is not ending. The world’s media is watching with shock and what I perceive to be mixed signals. Commentators are quick to write off the President, perhaps hopeful that a secular regime will take over from the ‘Islamists’. Finally, Erdogan is on a cell phone, addressing the nation in a broadcast on CNN Turk. He urges people to protest on the streets but in reality, the moment the tanks and soldiers appeared, people went out from their homes to resist them, taking action way before the President asked them to do so. His appearance on television increased the numbers, but what is clear is that they needed little persuasion.

It was not only Erdogan’s loyal followers who streamed onto the streets that night, but also those who had demonstrated against him a couple of years ago at Gezi Park. That night, people of different political views and outlook gathered to defend their will and democracy in Turkey. Nationalists, Kemalists, Rightists – all united to resist the coup, the memory of Turkey’s past coups still vivid in their minds. Just when people thought that the era of military intervention had ended, this brazen act occurred. People were aware that no matter how many problems Turkey has, coups were never going to offer a solution. The failed military coup is no doubt a disaster for Turkey, but its success would have been a much bigger calamity. The way citizens mobilised to defend their democratically elected government is truly remarkable and has become a source of national pride.

The adrenaline of that night and the euphoria over the failure of the coup has ebbed in the aftermath. Erdogan’s response has been uncompromising: he has declared a state of emergency across Turkey and the closure of 131 media organisations, 626 institutions, and discharge of 1700 members of the armed forces. Most of these were connected to Fethullah Gulen, a US-based cleric who is accused by the Turkish government of being behind the coup.

Erdogan has emerged stronger than he ever was. By resisting the coup as the head of a democratically-elected government, he has strengthened his legitimacy and tightened his grip on power. A successful coup would have been a catastrophe for Turkey with unsettling long-term consequences. But the tumult caused by the events of 15th July continues to reverberate. Just as the nation united on that longest night, it must continue to work together to heal. 

Aysha Garaeva was born in Tatarstan in Russia. Since 2012 she has been based in Istanbul, Turkey, where she is an undergraduate student studying for a double major BA in International Relations and English Language and Literature. She is currently in London to complete an Erasmus summer internship at the Muslim Institute.