Turkey: Soul-searching after the failed coup


    The sights and sounds of attempted coup


The sights and sounds of attempted coup 01:38

Story highlights

  • Mass crowds heed the president's call to demonstrate each night
  • But away from the protests, Turks are re-evaluating everything

Arwa Damon is CNN's Senior International Correspondent based in Istanbul. She grew up in Turkey and has reported on the country, its people and politics for years.

Istanbul (CNN)The power of the President to call up massive crowds of supporters has been on clear display in Istanbul's Taksim Square every night since last week's failed coup.

"Work during the day, and come to the square at night" is the message put out by the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. "The threat is not over."
    As evening comes and the summer heat begins to ebb, the crowds start to trickle in. It becomes intensely loud each night, with the honking of horns seemingly by every passing vehicle. By the time it's dark, the square appears red, blanketed in a patchwork of Turkish flags that are handed out for free.
    Turkish flags turn Taksim Square into a sea of red.
    It appears there is a concerted effort to try to change the atmosphere of the square, even superficially, from a rallying ground for Erdogan supporters to something that stands more for the nation of Turkey itself. There are fewer political anthems lauding Erdogan's Justice and Development Party, the AKP, and more songs that are simply patriotic or popular; there are fewer banners with Erdogan's image fluttering in the breeze, more Turkish flags.
    Small white tents shelter volunteers handing out food to the crowds -- many of whom are being bussed in even though public transport is free across the whole of this historic city that is the connection between Europe and Asia. Some passersby mutter that it's more like a fairground than a nation that many would expect to be in mourning with more than 200 dead in what appeared to be a section of the military trying to take power in a nighttime coup.
    Voices at the microphones -- mostly AKP members and supporters -- deliver a litany of messages about Turkey's strength, not forgetting the price the nation paid. There are more sinister reminders, too, such as one man who, standing in front of a newly erected billboard with the names of the dead, held a bullet and reminded the crowd: "This on Friday could have hit anyone of you, it could have had your name on it."
    It is perhaps a stark reminder of how shaky the nation is, of how for many a sense of security they had once taken for granted is more shattered than it already was, of how deeply July 15 -- despite the failure of the coup itself -- continues to unsettle this country.
    Turkey has been through coups before, the successful ones of the past were bloodless. This one -- violent -- did not succeed. Part of the reason for that was because the authorities got wind of it just in time, and the attempted takeover was poorly executed. But arguably the key reason for failure was that the coup leaders did not take into account Erdogan's people power. And, one could argue, they did not take into account that, whether Turks love Erdogan or hate him, the vast majority of this country does not want to have a democratically elected government brought down in a military coup.
    That night resulted in rare unity among Turkey's main political party leaders and among its population.
    In the aftermath of the coup, the numbers of those detained, suspended or suspected has risen to the tens of thousands.
    Erdogan's supporters have no qualms about the government's reaction. Erdogan is their man, they have unwavering faith in his abilities and they have proven they will lay down their lives for him.
    But for his opponents, the fear is that it's the start of a more sinister era of what they call Erdogan's authoritarian rule, an opportunity to crack down further on any voice of dissent, an opening to push through constitutional and other changes that would give him greater powers.
    On Wednesday, Erdogan announced a three-month state of emergency to protect Turkey's freedom and democracy, saying Turkey will work to cleanse the "viruses" within the armed forces and other groups.
    "It started as a reaction to the coup," a woman getting her roots done chatted to a salon owner earlier in the day. "But now it's becoming something else," she said, touching on those fears of more authoritarianism, before the focus returned to the business of the salon.
    Away from the nightly Taksim Square celebrations there is a sense that people are merely going through the motions of daily life as if in a daze, conversations that invariably drift toward recent developments tend to still be preceded with "can you believe ... "
    There is a general incredulity, with the weight of what happened only just beginning to sink in.
    My neighborhood acquaintances -- grocer, building manager, gym staff -- respond to the usual "How are you?" with a dejected shrug at best.
    A colleague joked that she would have to postpone her family holiday because her husband works for the state and is facing newly imposed blanket travel restrictions.
    She is among those trying to put on a brave face, finding the cynical dark humor that helps some through dire circumstances.
    But the events of July 15 cut deep. So deep that some are even having serious conversations about moving away, checking out jobs in Italy, sussing out real estate in Greece, or at the very least trying to put together a plan B.
    This is not a nation displaying its resilience in the face of a terrorist attack, as Turks have done in the past. This is not a nation that can bury the dead and try to move on. This is a nation in uncharted territory.
    Hulya Gedik, a young woman, could not hold back her tears when we met at one of the mass funerals over the weekend.
    "Every bit of news we got that night (July 15), every explosion was not something that was just happening outside," she explained. "It was as if each one tore our soul apart."