How to stop the tanks

Issue: 151

Ron Margulies

The Turkish left has always been very fond of “the people”. Reference is frequently also made to the working class, of course, but it is the people, the oppressed, the poor who are seen as the agents of social change. People’s war, people’s assemblies, people’s liberation are popular concepts and aims.

On the evening and night of 15 July, the people came out onto the streets of all major cities, particularly Istanbul and Ankara. They came out in their thousands, to stop the military from overthrowing the govenment and taking power. In Istanbul, they rushed to the Bosporus Bridge, which the troops had closed down; they rushed to the airport, which the army had occupied; and they gathered on Taksim Square, the centre of the city. Everywhere, they shouted at and argued with soldiers, they stood in front of tanks and climbed onto them, they were fired on and did not retreat.

But much of the Turkish left did not like what was happening. They had always waited for the people, but when the people appeared, they did not like it!

Some of the left did not like the people because the people stopped the overthrow of a government which the left wants to be overthrown. And nearly all of the left disliked the people because many (but not all) of the people facing the tanks were supporters of the government. The left was also unhappy because some of the people (but not many) were shouting the name of Allah, and because prayers were broadcast from mosques throughout the night.

It is hard to know what the left expected the people to look like. Did they expect them to look like Norwegians? Did they expect them all to be atheists?

Here were tens of thousands of people putting their lives on the line (270 were killed), completely spontaneously and without weapons, to defend an elected government against unelected armed men. Whatever each person thought he or she was doing, they were, in objective fact, defending democracy. Everyone in the world, including the Turkish left, still uses the magnificent photograph of the young Chinese man who stood in front of a column of tanks and stopped them on Tiananmen Square in 1989. Here, hundreds of people did the same. One man dived under a tank that was about to crush him, laid down between its tracks, survived and did the same with a second tank, which took his arm away. He was just an ordinary man, a white collar worker who works as a computer programmer.

There can be little doubt that it was the people in the streets who stopped the coup. Clearly, most of the armed forces chose to wait and see how it was going before joining in. When they saw thousands of people facing the troops (something they did not expect at all), they decided not to take part. It is not easy to shoot and kill thousands, and then legitimise the coup in terms of bringing “peace and stability” to the country.

Everyone in Turkey knows what a military dictatorship means. And the left, having suffered more than most, knows it better than most. Therefore, they have not been able openly to express regret about the failure of the coup. Instead, they have been disparaging the people who stopped the coup as “religious reactionaries” who know and care nothing about democracy. One is immediately reminded of Bertolt Brecht’s advice to “dissolve the people and elect another”!

Instead of looking down upon the people who have shown immense courage and perfect political sense, what needs to be done is to argue with them that stopping the tanks is not enough, that we must now keep pushing to broaden the limits of democracy, that we must make sure the government does not use the attempted coup as an excuse to push through further authoritarian measures.

Ron Margulies is a journalist and a member of the Revolutionary Socialist Workers Party (DSIP) in Istanbul, Turkey.