Wednesday,15 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1306, (4 - 10 August 2016)
Wednesday,15 August, 2018
Issue 1306, (4 - 10 August 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Erdogan and the army

Purges and propaganda is the order of the day in Turkey. But can the Turkish president ever be commander-in-chief — as he plans — of a military institution he seeks to diminish, asks Sayed Abdel-Meguid

Al-Ahram Weekly

The controversial histrionic attempted coup has segued into to an extremely vindictive and brutal phenomenon that has all the markings of a coup. Its aim is not just to clip the wings of a once proud and revered military establishment but to topple its structural edifice and the identity it had acquired in the course of the Turkish Republic’s progress as it emerged from a decrepit empire and the disasters caused by the whims and foibles of omnipotent sultans and the dervishes of the caliphate and marched westward toward democratic refuge from theocratic rule. Among the hundreds of senior military heads that rolled in the post-coup purges were dozens who not only had no connection with Fethüllah Gülen but actually hated the Islamist preacher who founded the Hizmet movement and who allegedly masterminded the aborted coup from his Pennsylvania hideaway.

Its other aim is to sweep away what remains of Turkish secularism and to efface the Kemalist heritage established by the republic’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, from all facets of public life. Out of this process a totally new entity is envisioned, something that will be a long cry from the Turkey the world has known since it shed its tattered Ottoman garbs in the 1920s.

Ironically, the post-coup campaigns and purges are parading beneath the banner of “safeguarding democracy”. Since what is called “democracy” in Turkey today is very different from the kind that has flourished in Western nations for a few centuries, it is only natural that events in this post-coup period and their intended output would assume Kafkaesque proportions with strong “Erdoganesque” overtones.

As Cumhuriyet’s editor-in-chief put it, a climate of terror reigns. It is spread through the unbounded democratic zeal of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the ardour of its faithful media armies, fired by calls for “death to traitors”. A dreadful fate awaits anyone who might criticise this brand of democracy or, worse, who would venture to raise his or her voice against the light of truth that radiated from the person of the great “Zaim” as he proclaimed the ultimate victory over the terrorist “junta” disguised with medals and epaulets. Large portions of society are trembling in the face of the Stalinist waves that can eliminate anyone who has been a nuisance in the past or shows signs of being disagreeable in the future by simply levelling the charge of belonging to FETÖ/PDY (“Fethüllah Terrorist Organisation / Parallel State Structure”).

But even the blinding brightness of this dawn could not prevent whispering tongues from furtively voicing suspicions tinged with mounting anger. Is there something about what is going on today that has a familiar ring? The answer comes more quickly than expected: Why yes, it is reminiscent of parts of the earth that are steeped in dictatorship and tyranny.

For three solid weeks, the televisual media have resounded a single strident voice (it is unlikely an alternative one will be heard in the foreseeable future) and reiterate around the clock the scenes of fighter helicopters that bombarded the parliament building, the “citadel” of Turkey’s democracy, followed by a montage of images of the brave and glorious masses who took to the streets to defy the “coup-makers” and the followers of the arch-traitor Gülen, all culminating in the thrilling sight of those culprits dressed in the uniforms of the national Turkish army being dragged away in chains, their faces bruised, their helmets torn off their heads and trod underfoot by jubilant crowds who climbed aboard tanks and crowed as they waved pictures of the glorious leader.

It required no Einstein to grasp the message: the military is the enemy of freedom. But the ultimate purpose of all the scenes of degradation is to destroy the dignity and prestige of the institution that had once occupied such a revered place in the national consciousness. One is reminded of the fate of the Iranian counterpart at the end of the days of the Shah, which paved the way for the emergence, under the leadership of Khomeini, of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard. Today, a similar scenario is unfolding in Anatolia, even if the captions read “democratic parliament” and “state ruled by law”.

As for the Anatolian leader, he has never forgotten that offence done to himself early in his political ascent when he was dismissed as mayor of Istanbul and sentenced to prison for having recited a poem that the authorities held was intended to incite hatred and strife. The government at the time dispatched some tanks to patrol the streets of the Sincan district of Ankara as a means to remind Erdogan and his Islamist colleagues of certain red lines. Today, as he pursues his rise to ever more ethereal heights, the “Zaim” is relishing in the opportunity for revenge. In the very same place, he has ordered tribunals to be built to try the “coup-makers”. True, no court is large enough to accommodate that many defendants, but that does not go far to explain the choice of location — not as far as his long harboured rancour. Perhaps, too, Erdogan and his clique’s long cherished vindictiveness against the army is also fed by another source. That army had the nerve to equate the first Islamist prime minister, Adnan Menderes, with the PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan. Both were tried and condemned to Imrali Island in the Sea of Marmara, with the difference that Ocalan was sentenced to life in the high security prison while Menderes was executed 55 years ago.

So after this orgy of purging and revenge, what next? What does the future hold in store for the Turkish military establishment? Will the Turkish strongman be able to assert his complete control over the institution that he plans to become commander-in-chief of, once he secures his desired constitutional restructuring? The answer is a definitive no. True, the army has never been weaker and its structure is rent by a massive fissure. But it is difficult if not impossible to conceive that, after nine decades, it could be reduced to a tool to serve the whims of Erdogan and the partisan purposes of the AKP. The army is still Kemalist to the core, in spite of the purges and humiliations to which it has been subject over the past decade and despite the systematic attempts to gnaw away Ataturk’s legacy. Also, and perhaps more importantly, the army still resonates in the hearts and minds of average Turkish citizens as a cherished symbol of bravery and valour.

So the modern Turkish army is not destined to be consigned to the past. Erdogan knows this. Perhaps for this reason he seems haunted by the spectre of another coup at any moment.

In fact, last Sunday, the inhabitants of the southern town of Adana, home to the famous Incirlik airbase, awoke to news of high security precautions and official statements based on intelligence leaks that there was a military movement in the vicinity. To heighten the alarm and the drama, government microphones are calling on the people to sustain their demonstrations and sit-ins in public squares until 25 August. To facilitate this, public buses were available free-of-charge.

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