Erdogan loyalists in no mood to forgive and forget

On night of coup d’état, this stronghold of the Turkish president did not let him down

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned coup supporters that “they will pay a heavy price for their treason to Turkey”. Erdogan served as Prime Minister from 2003 to 2013 and President since. Video: Reuters

 

In the early hours of Saturday morning, as tanks were rolling through Istanbul and the city seemed on the verge of chaos, the warren of narrow streets around Sipahi Firini Street was suddenly filled with an unusual sound. From the minaret of the local mosque came verses of sela prayers, normally only heard to announce a death in the area.

“The message was: stay united,” says Akay Yapici, sitting in the shade beside the tea house he runs in the courtyard of the mosque.

The district, Kasimpasa, is a stronghold of Turkish president president Tayyip Erdogan. He was born and raised here, and it was on its gritty streets, on the banks of the Golden Horn, that he built a political machine that brought him first to Istanbul city hall and, ultimately, to the highest political office in the land.

As soon as the call went out in the dead of Saturday night, hundreds of loyal locals took to the street, erecting human barriers to prevent the movement of tanks. Others were sent towards Taksim Square as a declaration of resistance to the unfolding attempt to seize power.

Four days on, a triumphant Erdogan, having seen off the coup plotters, has moved swiftly to consolidate his power. Many of Kasimpasa’s residents beam with pride at their role in his success. In the shadow of the Recep Tayyip Erdogan Stadium, the streets are festooned with bunting in the red and white of the Turkish flag. On one street, a loudspeaker atop a flag-draped van blares out Erdogan speeches.

“He’s one of the people. He belongs to us. That’s why people here love him,” says Özgür Akkaya, who runs a grocery shop on Sipahi Firini Street.

Tackled problems

Fidelity to a local son may partly explain Erdogan’s popularity in Kasimpasa. But just as significant in cementing his reputation, Akkaya says, are memories of his period as mayor of Istanbul. During his term in office, from 1994-1998, Erdogan tackled chronic infrastructural problems stemming from the city’s rapid growth, including water shortages, poor rubbish collection and traffic chaos.

“In the old days, there was no water and there were mountains of rubbish on the streets,” Akkaya adds. “Erdogan made the place prettier.”

It’s a recurrent theme. In the neighbouring district of Tophane, another conservative working-class bastion of Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), a group of men drinking tea at the Bitlis cafe are unanimous in singing the president’s praises.

“He’s a good man,” says cafe owner Mehmet Tekin Terim. “In the past, the streets were full of rubbish. There was no money.” He points to a modern building across the street. “That’s for people who can’t afford food, where they can eat and take baths. If you’re hungry, they give you food without asking any questions.”

This is Erdogan’s legacy, he says. “Why wouldn’t you like a man like that? Of course we like him. He gives everything.”

The municipal investment in the area is unmistakable: the streets are clean, and across the road from the cafe is a brand-new playground, an astro-turf football pitch and an employment centre.

“In the past there was rubbish everywhere,” says Terim. “There were black flies, there were mosquitoes. Look around. Do you see any rubbish? There are 10 rubbish bins in this area. They pick them up every day.”

Pinned to the fence at the football pitch, overlooking the area, is a 10-foot poster of the district mayor, who belongs to the AKP.

When news of the coup attempt circulated in Tophane on Friday night, groups of locals gathered in the cafes to discuss how to respond.

Eyüp Güzel, founder of the local Tophane Haber newspaper, says memories of two previous coups were etched in their minds: the ousting in 1997 of Islamist prime minister Necmettin Erbakan by the generals, and the 1960 coup, when a group within the armed forces toppled a government led by a religious-leaning prime minister, Adnan Menderes.

In particular, the older generation remembers how in 1960 the people failed to turn out on the streets in protest. That was a key factor in the decision to send 200 men to Taksim Square on Friday night to confront the young soldiers stationed there by the coup organisers.

Stayed in

“What made us especially proud was that our grandparents, during the 1960 coup, didn’t go out onto the streets,” Güzel says. “We did go out. We didn’t let them take our president.”

He feared, in the first few hours after tanks blocked the Bosphorus Bridge, that there would be “a lake of blood”. Then, “at the square, when we saw how many people had turned out, we realised it would fail”.

Among those who answered the call to take to the streets was Terim, the cafe owner. He beams at the recollection. “I’m 64 years old,” he says. “I’ve had surgery on my lungs. I would happily have gone to my death. Of course we were afraid, but there is nothing else you can do. If we had died, we would have become martyrs.”

The crumbling of the coup was greeted with jubilation in Kasimpasa and Tophane. And while Erdogan’s swift purge of thousands of public servants has alarmed critics at home and abroad, here his response is widely greeted with approval.

“I think the death penalty should come back,” says Akkaya, taking up an issue raised by Erdogan in recent days. “Those who are against the country shouldn’t be able to eat at our expense.”

Execute leaders

Güzel concurs. He sees foreign criticism as “double standards”, given that the US and many other states use the death penalty. The leaders of the coup “must be executed”, while those farther down the chain should have their assets confiscated and given to “the families of the martyrs and the ghazi [holy warriors] who fought”.

And whereas a stronger Erdogan is a source of concern among his opponents, for Güzel it’s only a cause for celebration. “The traitor was inside the house. There were people the AKP had trusted . . . [But] Erdogan is somebody who God is protecting.

“Every time someone tries to attack Erdogan, there is a big blow against them.”

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