Friday, August 9, 2013

Turkish history has lessons for coup-happy Egyptians


Turkey's Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan (L) checks his watch as he attends a wreath-laying ceremony with Chief of Staff General Necdet Ozel (R) at the mausoleum of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of modern Turkey, in Ankara August 1, 2013. REUTERS/Umit Bektas (TURKEY - Tags: MILITARY POLITICS)

Seizing control: Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is embracing tactics that will lessen the power of the nation's military. Photo: Reuters

WASHINGTON: There's no certainty that Egypt's ousted president Mohammed Mursi has access to the day's news while in detention but if he does, he must shake his head in wonder at the jailing this week of hundreds of senior military men, politicians and journalists in Istanbul - on charges that they plotted to overthrow Turkey's Islamist-inclined government.

Monday's verdicts in Heavy Penal Court No.13 concluded a five-year saga of litigation and politics with former armed forces chief of staff Ilker Basbug locked up for life, along with 16 of his former military colleagues.

Another court at Silivri, west of Istanbul, sentenced three opposition MPs to terms of up to 35 years for their roles in what was described as a plot to oust the government, which was to include the execution of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and other prominent figures. More than 20 journalists were bundled off to jail, too.

If Mursi is across all this, he will be mulling the case he didn't have a chance to bring - his own top generals in cahoots with the so-called ''deep state'', a cabal of unelected military, business and bureaucratic interests from the era of dictator Hosni Mubarak manipulating vital services like the judiciary and policing, electricity and petrol to stoke public anger at Mursi's style and policies.


The Turkish drama played out against a real ''deep state'' history - three military coups in the 20 years to 1980 and a ''post-modern coup'' in 1997, in which a forerunner of Erdogan's government was ushered from office by a military memo.

Erdogan has spent almost a decade putting the military in its place - and winning plaudits along the way. Just days before Monday's verdicts were made public, what was left of the old guard was further diluted when he announced a raft of new senior defence appointments.

But this instalment in what has been a long-running contest between elected civilian government and military brass over who safeguards the legacy of Ataturk, the founder of the modern Turkish republic, is being interpreted against the backdrop of Erdogan's uncompromising crackdown on the Gezi Park protests earlier this year and his government's growing contempt for freedom of the press.

A case first seen as necessary to assert civilian rule is being cast as an attempt to silence dissent and as Erdogan's revenge for the historic marginalisation of many of his followers - early in his career he was jailed for reciting a religiously inspired poem in public.

Reporters Without Borders cites Turkey as ''the world's biggest prison for reporters'', rating it at 154 out of 179 countries - worse than Russia or Iraq.

Monday's verdicts also emphasised the secular-religious divide in Turkey at a time when the country is often held up as model of east-west good sense - a Washington ally, aspiring European Union member and a member of NATO - for post-Arab Spring governments in the Middle East, like that of the hapless Mursi, before his generals decided to imitate the Turkish military's old guard and stage a coup.

The Turkish plot that led to this week's sentences was dubbed Ergenekon, after a mythical valley from which Turks supposedly proved themselves by escaping after being trapped for 400 years. More than 300 officers were jailed last year for their supposed role in an earlier conspiracy, called Sledgehammer, in which the plotters set out to topple Erdogan in his first year in office.

International protests focused more on the fairness of the trials than on the allegation of a plot. As revealed in the US diplomatic cables published by WikiLeaks, Washington was warned by its embassy in 2010 that the trials might provoke an ''unpredictable military reaction''.

''Much of Turkey's modern history has been dominated by a secularist military-bureaucratic alliance that regularly derails the democratic process when confronted with governments or political movements that threaten its political control,'' says Emma Sinclair-Webb, a Human Rights Watch senior European researcher.

While Sinclair-Webb is critical of the fairness of the proceedings, she also argues that the charges did not go far enough, claiming widespread human rights abuses and thousands of enforced disappearances, killings and illegal village evacuations in the south-east and political assassinations in the west of the country ought to have been aired in court.

Describing the outcome as a welcome sign of increased civilian control over the military, columnist Yavuz Baydar, writing in Today's Zaman, observes: ''But the way the trial proceeded left big question marks about justice. The verdicts will create a greater cleavage between secularists and Islamists.

''The trial was disappointing for those who had hoped for a distinction between those who were really responsible [for the plot] and others who were seen as innocent.''

For now at least, Erdogan seems to have bested the military and while he did that within the niceties of the legal system, the same cannot be said for the police brutality he resorted to against the June protesters or his recent forays into social policy.

He has been talking about clamping down on abortion, berates Twitter and social media as ''the worst menace to society''. And he is beset by problems - the Syrian conflagration next door, unrest among his Kurdish minority and a showcase economy in decline, in part based on the hit tourism is taking because of the unrest and the bad press he gets.

All that and the collapse of the Arab Spring make it harder for the Turkish leader to strut the region as a role model, donor and investor. Erdogan has been endorsed by the people three times, in part because his Islamism is in the mild, non-ideological vein. Mursi, on the other hand, was pushed out before he might make another run.

That electoral record makes Erdogan a star. But given the turmoil in the region, he can't be sure he has an audience any more, and events in Cairo suggest few are listening to Turkish analysts who warn that Egyptians should not allow their military leadership to lord it over a civilian government.

Writing in Foreign Policy, Ihsan Dagi, a professor at Ankara's Middle East Technical University, describes the Turkish military as historically a ''retardant'' to the democratic process. ''It interrupted and significantly delayed the process … [it] installed a 'tutelary democracy' in which the military set limits on political activities and positioned itself above the government with formal and informal supervisory functions.

''The political system, thus shaped by repeated military interventions, lost its ability to resolve problems. Political actors and parties, unable to act independently, became increasingly weak and inefficient.''

That process, Dagi says, inevitably gave rise to radical political movements - including the Islamists.

Turkish-style military rule might appeal to Egyptians who saw risks in democracy, but just as happened in Turkey, Dagi warns military suppression of the Egyptian Islamist movements in time would earn those movements popular sympathy, enabling them to make a stronger comeback at elections in the future.
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