Another 50 officers were arrested last week for suspected involvement in a 2003 plot to overthrow the government, including the current chief of the navy, a retired air force chief, and a former deputy chief of the army.
The plot, code-named “Sledge-hammer”, was revealed when the newspaper Taraf began publishing information gleaned from five thousand pages of stolen army documents that came into its hands early this year. This comes on top of the Ergenekon scandal of 2008, in which several hundred people including four-star generals were arrested for belonging to a secret organisation of that name that was also planning a coup.
The main Ergenekon trials, with 142 defendants, have been underway for more than a year, and have brought a constant drip of revelations about the group’s attempts to create an atmosphere so tense that a military takeover would be welcomed, including an armed attack on a court and the bombing of a newspaper. The army’s morale was already low before the latest arrests — and public anxiety about a military coup was already high
In fact, however, the threat of a coup has been declining for years. The information is only coming out now, but the actual coups were planned for 2003. In at least one case, the army high command intervened directly to block it. And today’s army chief of staff has accepted the arrest of dozens of generals and admirals without protest.
General Basbug is not happy about it, and he disputes the meaning of some of the documents, but his outburst (quoted above) was more a plea than a threat. The real drama happened years ago, and the winners were democracy and the rule of law.
Turkey has been a democracy for half a century, but it was a rigidly secular democracy (in a 99% Muslim country) that allowed no reference to religion in its politics. If any politician hinted that he had “Islamic” leanings, he faced prosecution in the courts. If he became prime minister, he faced a military coup — and there have been four such coups since 1960.
The reason lay in Turkey’s history. The Ottoman empire was an Islamic state, but in the end all the Muslim subject peoples became nationalists and rebelled against Turkish rule. Turkey itself was nearly divided up into European colonies at the end of the First World War.
It narrowly escaped that fate under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal (Ataturk), and the conclusion he drew from this history was that to survive, Turkey must become a strong, modern state — which at the time meant only one thing: it must become a fully European society. Islam was a potential weapon in the hands of those who wanted to resist that change, and therefore it must be rigorously excluded from politics.
By the start of this century, Ataturk’s goals had largely been achieved. Turkey was a powerful country with a higher average income than several of its Balkan neighbours, and more people than all of them put together. It was also a democracy in most respects, and even a candidate to join the European Union. But the total ban on religion in politics survived, and so did the (unwritten) right of the army to enforce that ban.
The Justice and Development (AK) Party has its roots in political Islam, and since it won power after the 2003 election the country has been divided into two camps. It’s not just the army: despite that “99% Muslim” figure, Turkey is a typical European country in that many of its citizens are not very religious. Some are not believers at all, though it is still unwise to say so publicly.
Devout Turks, on the other hand, do not see why they cannot organise politically to resist anti-religious discrimination. The AK Party swears that it has no wish to shove religion down the throats of secular Turks, and in six years in power it has not done so. But secular people suspect that it is just biding its time until it has tamed the army, the historic guardian of the secular state — and then it will be full steam ahead to the Islamic state.
That seems unlikely to me, but more importantly, it seems unlikely to the collective leadership of the Turkish armed forces. Groups of generals may plot coups, but the high command blocks them. And it should be noted that both the coup plots that have now become public were hatched back in 2003, when the AKP had just won power and suspicion about its intentions was at fever pitch among secular Turks.
The murders and bombings allegedly carried out in later years by Ergenekon, like the bombings of mosques and the war with Greece that the more recently discovered Sledge-hammer plot envisaged, were intended to raise tension and force the high command to accept a military takeover. But they failed: there was no coup. And there will not be one now.
Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist.