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Attempted coup: On Istanbul's streets, a bid to parse exactly what happened

Many are asking what it means for the future of a country already on uneasy ground following a recent string of terrorist attacks and political shake-ups. 

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A Turkish police officer sits on a ACV-15 Armored Vehicle in Istanbul, Turkey, Saturday.

Baz Ratner/Reuters

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Returning home from a Friday evening workout, Asli checked the headlines and noticed that government troops had closed down bridges over the Bosporus.

At first, she thought there must be a security threat. But then she noticed that it was the Army, not the police, stopping traffic.

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Then it began to set in: her country was experiencing an attempted military coup. At her corner grocery store, residents had picked shelves bare stocking up on supplies. Asli got what she could, watched the news on the shop’s TV with other customers, and went home.  Throughout the night, she could hear gunfire and jets circling. When the military aircraft flew low over the city, shaking buildings with sonic booms, she thought they were dropping bombs. Finally, in the early hours of morning, she managed to fall asleep. 

“I woke up, I checked out the window to see what was there still. Nothing was gone. There was no smoke, it was like nothing had changed. It was just a regular Saturday,” says Asli, who asked to use only her first name due to security concerns. “Now I’m still scared because things are looking so normal.”

Less than 24 hours after a faction of the Turkish military – with which President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had clashed early in his tenure, but whose relations with had seemed to improve in recent years – failed to overthrow the government, many in Istanbul are still trying to piece together what exactly happened and what it means for the future of a country already on uneasy ground following a recent string of terrorist attacks and political shake-ups. 

By Saturday afternoon, the Turkish government reported that it was in full control, arresting at least 2,839 people. President Erdogan has vowed that those involved in the plot “will pay a heavy price.”

The violence left at least 161 people dead, including civilians. On Saturday morning many in Istanbul had bleary eyes after a night spent glued to the Internet and TV or unsuccessful attempts to fall asleep amid the sound of gunfire and low flying jets. 

Though many groggy shopkeepers and residents tried to reopen their shops, a number of businesses remained closed. Along Istiklal Street, a major commercial artery and tourist attraction, the normally packed streets were mostly empty. In Taksim, a political epicenter and the scene of major anti-government protests in 2013, at least one group of locals asked to take their picture with the police. Others marched, waving Turkish flags or wearing them as capes. A number of people reported receiving a text message today from the government telling them to go to main squares and express their support. 

Outside a number of stores, shopkeepers hung flags. Turkey is no stranger to military coups. Since 1960, the country has experienced four, with the last one in 1997.

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Memories of some of these previous attempts against the government are still fresh in Ertan Keser’s mind.

“I’ve known other coups in the past, so for me this is nothing,” he says. “The other ones were really scary.”

 Although calm has returned for now, he says he worries that tensions could eventually boil over between those in the country who support the government and its opponents. For most in Turkey, events have unfolded at a pace that leaves a number of questions unanswered.

But for business owners, especially those that depend on foreigners, there are concerns that last night’s attempted coup will come as another blow to their bottomline. Already, Turkey has seen the number of foreign visitors plummet following a wave a terrorist attacks, mostly recently an attack at Istanbul's Ataturk Airport late last month.  

“It’s bad. It means less tourists, less foreigners coming to live here. Almost half my customers are foreigners. That means less money gets spent,” says Tarik Biyikli, who runs an artisanal cookie shop in Istanbul’s trendy Cihangir neighborhood. “It will obviously have a little impact, but I guess it will be all right. There’s always a need for cookies.”