With Its Back to the Wall

Following the latest arrests of high-ranking officers in Turkey, charged with conspiring to overturn the government, the military is coming under increasing pressure. The days when the military pulled the strings seem to finally be over, says Jürgen Gottschlich

Prime Minister Erdogan (left) and the Chief of the General Staff Ilker Basbug; photo: dpa/DW
The two arch rivals are squaring off in a battle of wills, yet Prime Minister Erdogan is against replacing Chief of the General Staff Ilker Basbug, fearing that his successor would not "guarantee a democratic ethos."

​​ "For decades, they've observed, bugged and kept files on us. Anyone whose wife wears a headscarf and who holds conservative opinions came under suspicion and was registered. But now it's over. Now we're in power and we're going after them."

When Avni Dogan, a representative of the ruling AK Party, recently made this statement, party leaders reacted with great alarm. Avni Dogan was reprimanded. A speaker for the party explained that what the government undertakes is never motivated by revenge, but rather to establish democratic standards.

Nevertheless, Dogan's words probably echoed in the minds of many Turks last week. Across the country, special police units were underway apprehending active or pensioned generals and other high-ranking members of the military.

A nightmare for the military

In a campaign unparalleled in Turkey's history, 49 high-ranking officers were arrested, among them nearly the entire General Staff from 2003 and 2004. But that was only the beginning. While the current Chief of Staff Ilker Basbug maintained a shocked silence – he had evidently not been apprised of the action – the military men were brought before the judge one by one as the nation looked on.

the Turkish military (photo: dpa)
After setting the political tone for decades (the army has perpetrated four coups against the civil government since 1960), the Turkish military has been put on the defensive by a wave of arrests and allegations

​​ They are all charged with colluding to stage a putsch against Erdogan's government. Their plot allegedly included blowing up a mosque in order to destabilize the populace, and even shooting down a fighter jet over the Aegean to shift blame onto the Greeks.

On the first days following the arrests a meeting was held between Chief of the General Staff Basbug, President Abdullah Gül and Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan. Basbug gave his assurance that the armed forces would naturally bow to the judges' decisions.

As a reward, the three formerly highest-ranking generals were set free that same evening. But the nightmare is far from over for Turkey's military.

On Friday last week a new series of arrests were made. And at the beginning of this week, Basbug was forced to admit that a previous putsch plan, which had already been revealed to the public some time ago, was in fact not a fabrication as he had previously maintained, but had instead apparently been hatched by members of his own staff.

Connections to the Ergenekon secret alliance

Faced with these developments, the military finds itself with its back to the wall. Some 50 prominent officers are now in custody following last week's arrests. They join additional ex-generals who were already apprehended in 2007 and 2008 in the course of the so-called Ergenekon investigation.

Ergenekon is the codename for a secret alliance of members of the military, bureaucrats, journalists, professors and judges who all shared the common goal of overthrowing the government of the Islamic AKP Party.

A host of special prosecutors throughout the country have been busy since mid-2007 hunting this real or alleged network of conspirators.

Their efforts have involved extensive wiretapping. More than a few Turkish intellectuals, for example sociologist and columnist Haluk Sahin, lament that the boundary between potential putschists and peaceful critics of the government has long since been overstepped. "A system of intimidation reigns."

Meeting of Prime Minister Erdogan, General Basbug and President Gül (photo: AP)
Searching for a way out of the crisis: following his three-hour meeting with Prime Minister Erdogan and General Basbug, President Gül called for loyalty to the constitution in the battle over the military's planned putsch

​​ While the country held its breath after the first arrests of high members of the military, anxiously wondering if tanks would begin rolling in response, these fears have long since been allayed. Instead, there is now talk of the possible early retirement of Chief of the General Staff Ilker Basbug.

Erdogan is apparently against this move, however, because Basbug's designated successor would not "offer any guarantee of a democratic ethos."

Just six months ago, it was inconceivable that a Turkish head of state would ever dare to simply send the Chief of the General Staff off into early retirement. And today the situation is such that people would rather have the acting supreme commander of the military in office until satisfactory arrangements can be made to replace him.

The beginning of a new era

This spells the end of a 90-year-old institution in the Republic of Turkey. The days when the military pulled the strings either openly or behind the scenes are over for good. Even Chief of Staff Basbug admits that this is so. "The days when the army plotted to overthrow the government are over", he said last week.

Nevertheless, the mood in the country remains cautious. Except for a few well-known Islamist commentators, who have greeted the event with occasional fanfare, people on the streets are none too thrilled about the triumph over the military.

Spiralling unemployment, fear of job loss and the daily fight against declining social standing dominate the daily lives of the majority of Turks, who have long suspected that the power struggles between Islamists and Kemalists only serve to distract attention from the country's real problems.

A different attitude prevails amongst intellectuals, artists, writers and cultural producers. While some, such as editor-in-chief of "Taraf", Ahmet Altan, or the successor to Hrant Dink as editorial director of the Armenian-Turkish newspaper "Agos", Etyen Mahçupyan, vehemently defend the democratic achievements of the AKP government, others fear that their country has jumped from the frying pan into the fire.

Under the sharp eye of the Islamic moral guardians

One of them is Özen Yula, author and script analyst. "I fear for my life", he said through a speaker for Istanbul's off theatre "Kumbaraci 50" last week. Özan Yula is the author of piece whose name means: "Lick It Up, But Don't Swallow It".

The play was to have its premiere in recent days, but was cancelled when Yula and the other members of the ensemble received massive threats. The piece is about an angel who tries to find one good human being on earth. The angel appears as an impoverished housewife who supplements her income by acting in porno films.

That sufficed to prompt the Islamist daily paper "Vakit" to launch a regular hate campaign, demanding that the performance be banned on the grounds that pious Muslims were appalled at the filthy show.

In reaction, the AKP-led district administration of Beyoglu had the theatre locked up, under the pretext that fire protection regulations had not been observed. A prominent television moderator took up the story and stirred up so much public pressure that the district office was forced to back-pedal. Nevertheless, fearing for the lives and limbs of the actors, the theatre's managers ultimately cancelled the piece.

The fate of this theatre is symptomatic of a much wider problem. Art showing naked skin encounters major problems in today's Turkey. Even the producers of the country's most popular television series have had to come to grips with the new moral climate. The hit soap "Aşk-ı Memnu" (Forbidden Love) has also been licensed to the neighbouring Arab countries, where it has attained somewhat of a cult status.

"Forbidden Love" on the index

Poster of Turkey's biggest hit television series (Forbidden Love)
A thorn in the eye of Islamic guardians of public virtue: "Aşk-ı Memnu" (Forbidden Love), Turkey's biggest hit television series

​​ After Islamist clerics in countries including Saudi Arabia demanded that the show be banned, Turkey is now also considering putting "Forbidden Love" on the index. The series, which is about a man who falls in love with his sister-in-law, undermines the country's family values, the new Family Minister, Aliye Kavaf, recently criticised. Since then the RTÜK media authority has been looking into censoring the series.

The cultural battle between a society struggling for its freedom and increasingly influential religious groups and parties is not limited to theatre, film and television, though.

Last summer, visitors to a popular seaside bar in Istanbul's Moda district were surprised to discover that beer and all other alcoholic beverages had vanished from the menu overnight. The bar had been leased by a ferry company, which put a stop to the sale of alcohol.

Angry beer protest

While in other places such prohibitions have been silently accepted, this move led to an uproar in the Western-oriented city district of Moda. For weeks, demonstrators strode back and forth before the bar, beer in hand, and demanded the right to drink alcohol in their free time in this beautiful setting. As reply, the police arrived and beat up protesters so many times that eventually no one dared come back.

All the same, Istanbul is still a cesspool of vice in the eyes of many Islamic zealots. In most Anatolian towns it is impossible to obtain a liquor license at all anymore. Major cities such as Konya or Kayseri are practically "dry".

In view of such developments, even longstanding AKP supporters are growing sceptical. One of them is columnist Mustafa Akyol, who has always defended the government's decisions. Two days ago he wrote: "I think that the political culture of the AKP is tending more and more toward authoritarianism. A Turkey under the complete domination of the AKP will therefore not be cheerful, free or democratic."

Jürgen Gottschlich

© Qantara.de 2010

Translated from the German by Jennifer Taylor


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