Erdogan’s ‘Tank Man’ Spreads Turkey’s New Patriotism

A former bouncer seeks to inspire stock traders with tales of anti-coup heroics

Metin Dogan lies in front of a tank at the entrance to Istanbul's Ataturk airport. 

Photographer: Ismail Coskun/IHA/AP photo

In a world where traders compete with computer programs that can place thousands of orders in the blink of an eye, Metin Dogan’s qualifications for teaching them about “the process of rapid decision making” are, on the face of it, few.

Dogan earns about 6,000 liras ($1,700) a month giving private math lessons, but he says he’s not interested in economics. He doesn’t own any stocks or bonds. His message that the pursuit of money amounts to a life wasted seems out of place at the Istanbul stock exchange, where an audience of investors gathered May 26 to listen to the brawny 41-year-old speak.

The act that’s made Dogan an authority on timely decisions, according to his hosts, was to throw himself under a rebel tank during last summer’s coup attempt, inspiring throngs of pro-government demonstrators who helped defeat it. In the nation that’s been reforged out of that struggle, those may be the only credentials he needs. 

His hour-long talk was thin on investment advice, but these days success in Turkish business requires a skillset he has in spades. Loyalty is paramount: Purges since that night have reached into all parts of Turkish public life, ensnared more than 100,000 state-employed workers, seen parliamentarians jailed on terror charges, and driven their free colleagues to brandish ballot papers in ostensibly secret votes.

Private industry hasn’t been immune either. The seizure of companies whose owners are deemed sympathetic to the opposition has silenced dissent among those who remain, and inspired lurid acts of devotion from would-be oligarchs vying to buy seized businesses on the cheap.

The building where Dogan delivered his talk bears witness to such power struggles. The Borsa Istanbul fired 120 staff members thought to favor the putschists after three people were gunned down here on that fateful night last July. While it’s often forgotten that the purge of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s enemies was accelerated—but not triggered—by the failed coup, it’s harder to overlook that here. Dogan’s host, Himmet Karadag, is chairman of an exchange that’s seen four CEOs in just over two years.  

Dogan says he didn’t take on the tank in pursuit of fame, though he’s gotten plenty of that. When he set out July 15 to confront the soldiers encircling Istanbul airport in their botched attempt to overthrow Erdogan, he says he was going there to die. He wasn’t intending to reenact a more famous tank standoff, though what eventually happened certainly evoked that famous picture

“It came to me that if people saw someone getting crushed under a tank, they’d realize the situation wasn’t a joke and they’d spill out on the streets,” he said at the exchange. “If our people didn’t come out into the streets quickly, then the other half of society would have and then it would be too late.”

Soldiers involved in the coup attempt surrender on the Bosporus bridge in Istanbul, on July 16, 2016.
Photographer: Stringer/Getty Images

By dawn the next day, thousands had followed Dogan into the fray. Since then, he says he hasn’t had a day off. His schedule is packed with speaking engagements, including 50 schools and 30 universities so far. He says he tries to instill in young people a love of god and country. At the stock exchange, the packed auditorium hangs on every word, rapt by a tale of accidental heroism that made the former nightclub bouncer a star.

“People were in shock,” Dogan says of the first few uncertain hours of the coup attempt, when his compatriots were glued to TVs trying to make sense of the standoff between military and police, and Dogan was racing toward the action on a motorbike. “There had to be a way to snap them out of it,” he says.

Dogan says he’s not a member of the ruling AK Party, currently led by Erdogan, its founder. He says he doesn’t watch the news or read newspapers, and contends he’s never registered to vote before April’s constitutional referendum (which in a country with compulsory participation puts him in a minority). Though he’s now met the prime minister, Dogan says he isn’t sure he could have identified Binali Yildirim before invitations from government ministries started rolling in. 

Knowing who Yildirim is has become less important since the referendum. Dogan says he was part of the 51 percent majority who endorsed constitutional changes that will abolish the prime minister’s job, concentrating even greater power in Erdogan’s hands. Meanwhile, the failed coup has become a curriculum item, with first-year pupils dressing up as putschists and martyrs in children’s day ceremonies across the country. 

Dogan’s professed disregard for politics makes him a draw for officials trying to present the president’s vision as something beyond party-political concerns. Quizzed in an interview about the lessons investors should draw from Dogan’s talk, Karadag, the Borsa chairman, lamented that in Turkey, politics often gets mixed in unnecessarily. 

“There ought to be very little difference between my truth and yours,” he said. 

Dogan was on a bus returning from the gym when he got his first inkling of the coup attempt, he says. He was appalled to hear fellow passengers unanimously celebrating. “Thank goodness!” he remembers hearing someone say. Another exclaimed “Just in time,” he says.

In his determination to get to the scene before the “other half” took to the streets, Dogan touches on the theatrics of the occasion. He says he saw how anti-government protesters were “tricked” into coming out during the Gezi Park protests in 2013, and if the same crowd got out first this time, it would be too late. It was important to be seen to lie down in front of a tank, rather than go the more obvious route of smashing a soldier’s face in, he says, otherwise the wrong sort of people could have been provoked onto the streets.

Once in place, “I left my head a little bit to the side so it would squash my heart and kill me quickly,” he said. The only time Dogan says he felt fear was when the standoff ended, and he instinctively lit a cigarette in full view of CCTV cameras. His 77-year old mother doesn't know he smokes.

Coups are, according to Edward Luttwak, the author of “Coup d’Etat: A Practical Handbook,” consummately about theater. But there are those who take this notion too far, claiming the latest one in Turkey was staged, Dogan tells the crowd at the stock exchange.

Soldiers accused of being involved in the attempted coup as they arrive at a courthouse inside Sincan Prison in Ankara on May 22. 
Photographer: Dem Altan/AFP via Getty Images

Dogan’s audience may have recalled that the head of research for one of Turkey’s largest brokerages was a victim of that phenomenon. “Some speculate that it was a ‘false-flag’ event stage-managed to give Erdogan an opportunity to purge the military of opponents,” the analyst wrote in a note to clients three days after the revolt, before dismissing the theory as far-fetched.

He was debarred from the profession and criminally charged. 

“You know how some people say it was a plot?” Dogan asks the crowd. “It’s because those people have neither the brain nor the heart to understand how two million people could have gone out in response to Erdogan’s request, out of love, to die.” 

Erdogan’s request that night was broadcast via FaceTime from the presidential jet. “I invite our people into the squares,” he said from a 4.7-inch screen, propped up in a news anchor’s hand. Although Dogan only watched when he was safely home the next day, the news that Erdogan was alive turned the tide. By morning, most members of the army’s rebel faction who hadn’t been killed or fled had been rounded up.

Dogan says he shunned publicity when his pictures first started making the rounds. Some friends recognized that he was the man in the picture blanketing Twitter timelines, but he said nothing. The day after the coup failed, a Moroccan man with a shiny bald head like his own gave interviews claiming to be the tank man. Still he said nothing. Then he says he learned that the tank’s commander had threatened to kill a subordinate when the younger soldier hit the brakes.

“I realized then that maybe God wanted me to speak,” Dogan says.

He muses whether he survived because his life has been spent looking out for the little guy. Dogan’s account of his personal history is littered with tales of fighting injustice. One kid stole another’s eraser in primary school, so he beat the thief. A policeman  manhandled a young girl at a protest he organized, so he beat the officer. As a bouncer in the nightlife district of Taksim, he explains, “there was so much injustice to contend with” that the streets were covered “either my blood or blood that I’d spilled.”

Dogan says he loves Erdogan because he stands up to injustice, just like him. “Despots breed of our fear,” Dogan tells the stock exchange crowd, alluding to enemies of his president. If rather than shrinking away we stand up to them, “we’ll see that they’re the pathetic ones.” 

Dogan says he’ll continue to travel throughout Turkey to give speeches, focusing on youth education. “Children need to learn to give their lives for their country without question,” Dogan  says. “We need heroes.”

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