Sunday,17 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1160, (15 - 21 August 2013)
Sunday,17 December, 2017
Issue 1160, (15 - 21 August 2013)

Ahram Weekly

Beneath the volcano

Despite the show of confidence being put on by Turkey’s Islamist government, the position of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan may not be as secure as it seems, writes Sayed Abdel-Meguid in Ankara

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Al-Ahram Weekly

Turkey seems to be sitting atop a volcano these days. On the surface, all appears to be calm, and, for the powers-that-be in Ankara, everything is more or less going according to plan, leaving no room for surprises.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been proceeding with his scheduled activities, bringing him into contact with what he calls the “real people” of Turkey. These are not the same as the ones that have been packing the central squares of Turkish cities in protests against the government, whom Erdogan has dismissed as “Marxist extremists”, “rats” and “çapulcular”, a Turkish word which can be roughly translated as hooligans.

One highlight of Erdogan’s busy schedule occurred last week, when he personally conducted the first test-drive of an electric train through the 6.2 mile-long undersea railway tunnel that will connect the European and Asian sides of Istanbul.

The completion of this section of the new Marmaray Metro, which will unite the two halves of the historic city as never before, is a feat that has long been awaited by the city’s residents, and Erdogan has seized on the occasion to trumpet other accomplishments that will see the light soon, such as the new high-speed railway linking Istanbul and Ankara, shrinking the distance between the former Ottoman capital and the modern capital of the Turkish Republic from seven to only three-and-a-half hours.

Yet, beneath the tranquil exterior, anxieties have been mounting. People sense that the economy is not as stable as the largely government-dominated media claims, and then there is the secular identity of the country that has been allowed to lapse as the government moves to assert a new identity with conservative religious overtones.

The opening days of this month may have marked a turning point in this regard, when on the eve of the annual meeting of the Supreme Military Council (SMC), which is presided over by Erdogan, the ranks of the Turkish air force were shaken by the sudden resignations of generals Nezih Damci and Ziya Cemal Kadioglu, the head of the Air Training Command.

Although the air force commanders did not cite the reasons for their resignations ahead of the SMC meeting, it was clear that they had been motivated by the anger and frustration they felt at the deterioration of the military establishment they had once been proud of.

Although the army chief of staff attempted to persuade them both to retract their resignations, they refused, indicating that they were no longer able to tolerate the material and moral attrition to which they and their fellow officers have been subjected.

One significant repercussion of the resignations is that they have bolstered a growing reluctance among young Turks to pursue a military career, which was once an honourable profession in Turkey where the military was long seen as the guardian of the secularist order.

Since the beginning of this year, some 170 commissioned officers have resigned from the Turkish air force alone, among them 123 pilots. According to military sources, the rise in resignations has been due to dismay at the deteriorating status of the military establishment, as well as to the relatively low salaries, especially when compared to those offered by the civil airline companies.

As anticipated, the four-day SMC meeting, which began on 1 August, issued a number of decisions that included the dismissal of some generals and the promotion of others. These were then immediately ratified by President Abdullah Gul.

However, what had not been anticipated was the forced retirement of chief of the gendarmerie General Bekir Kalyoncu. The latter had been expected to replace the current chief of the army, according to customary practice. This would have put him in line to replace the current chief of general staff, General Necdet Özel, in 2015.

Kalyoncu has openly criticised the government of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the rise of Islamist activities in Turkey, which he has described as a “looming danger” that poses as grave a threat to the country as the separatist Kurdish Workers Party (PKK).

He has also voiced a dissenting opinion on the Ergenekon and Baloyz cases that involve allegations of a 2003 conspiracy to carry out an alleged coup.

It was therefore no coincidence that Gul ratified the SMC decisions at the same time as the judicial rulings in the Ergenekon case were being announced. Most of the sentences that were handed down against the defendants were unwarrantedly harsh, in the opinion of Kemalist and secularist political forces.

The Islamist forces, on the other hand, rejoiced, claiming that the rulings had delivered a death blow to the “deep state” in Turkey. Erdogan had asserted his mastery over the military, they said, meaning that from now on it will be impossible to mount a military coup against a civilian government.

It is also important to bear in mind that the AKP-dominated parliament has recently amended Article 35 of the Turkish constitution which had formerly given the army the right to intervene in politics in the event of a serious threat to the Turkish Republic and the six core principles on which it is based.

One of these principles is the secular character of the Turkish state. Article 35 had been used as a justification for the coups in 1960, 1971, 1980 and, more recently, 1997. The latter, dubbed the “White Coup”, led to the dismissal of the coalition government headed by Necmettin Erbakan, the leader of the subsequently banned Refah (Welfare) Party.

The question remains as to whether the rulings handed down by the Silivri Criminal Court in Istanbul have really brought the curtain down on the role of the generals in Turkey and the secularist political forces along with it. They could be just the legislative and judicial developments that will set the scene for a tragedy that will soon unfold.

Many commentators believe that the latter could turn out to be the case. With the arrival of autumn, which in Turkey begins in mid-September when the summer holiday season ends and the academic year begins, a broad range of opposition forces and civil society organisations are expected to rally in large numbers in the central squares of Turkish cities to protest against the repressive policies and practices of the ruling AKP government.

Recent months have brought a wave of arrests and the imprisonment of various political activists and journalists, among them members of the Turkish Youth Federation and the Communist Workers Party, as well as journalists working for the Aydinlik newspaper and the ULUSAL satellite news channel.

Although it is premature to make predictions, it is becoming clear that the Turkish polity is deeply and perhaps irremediably split. The rulings in the Ergenekon case with their contentious ramifications have sent tremors through public opinion in the country, and these might mark the beginning of the end of the AKP.

 

 

Turkey’s Egyptian scenario

Many weeks used to go by before Egyptians living in Turkey would read a word about their native country in the Turkish press, unless there was a news item on the Kurdish cause or the Islamist currents, both of which are subjects that have been highly sensitive in Anatolia.

The audiovisual media fared no better, being loathe to feature material about Egypt apart from National Geographic documentaries about the country’s antiquities dubbed into Turkish. Perhaps this lack of information about Egypt in the Turkish media helps to explain why Egypt, for the vast majority of Turkish people, was often reduced to its Pharaonic antiquities and, specifically, to its Pyramids.

However, when the change came to this situation it came in a radical form. As a result of the events that have taken place in Egypt from the 25 January Revolution until today, the Turkish media has swung from indifference and lack of attention to the polar opposite, and today barely a day goes by without some item appearing in the Turkish media about Egypt.

Unfortunately, most of the media are still highly selective in what they choose to report on, generally constructing a narrative of the political turbulence in Cairo that conforms with the views of Turkey’s ruling elites whose influence over editorial policy is formidable.

But even if coloured in this way, news from Egypt often tops the news bulletins on Turkish television stations, especially influential ones such as the state-run TRT.

As a result, Egyptians living in Turkey are often the object of intense curiosity on the part of Turkish nationals. What is happening in Egypt, they will ask. How could the situation have turned out as it did, and why did the generals turn against democracy and the ballot box?

Because of various legal and punitive measures, the Turkish media has in many cases been cowed into submission by the ruling Turkish Justice and Development Party (AKP), meaning that it has helped to shape a public outlook that sees the events in Egypt since 30 June as a military coup carried out by a fascist junta against a democratically elected government.

One thread of this official narrative is pitched toward the rural areas that are remote from Istanbul, Ankara and other cosmopolitan centres, playing on the religious sentiments in these areas and casting the Egyptian army as being hostile to the Islamist character of the ousted regime.

It was therefore little wonder that Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s emotionally charged remarks in which he expressed his “infinite sorrow” over the lives lost in the killings in front of the Republican Guard Club in Cairo should have been given such prominence in news reports on the Turkish satellite stations.

In like manner, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan took advantage of the heightened piety during Ramadan to voice his views, and, speaking at a Ramadan breakfast, he condemned the killings on Al-Nasr Street near the Rabaa Al-Adaweya Mosque in Cairo, in which 200 pro-Morsi protesters were killed.

Turkey “would not remain silent” in the face of what was happening in Egypt, Erdogan said, adding that those who remained silent were effectively “condoning the crime.”

Since the military intervention that took place in Egypt on 3 July, the powers-that-be in Ankara and the Turkish media have been working to raise public alarm against military coups, aided by the fact that Turkey’s modern history has been punctuated by such coups.

It has not been difficult to remind people of their bitter experiences of the coups that took place in 1960, 1970, 1980 and more recently in 1997, in Turkey, the latter being the “white coup” that forced the government of Necmettin Erbakan, the leader of the Islamist-oriented Welfare Party, to resign in June the same year.

Turkish television’s Channel One aired a documentary on the intervention of the army in politics last weekend, in which historians and experts came together in emphasising a single theme: the destructive effects of the militarisation of civilian life and the military’s hostility to democracy.

The timing of the broadcast was no accident since it coincided with the handing down of verdicts against army officials who had been arrested and charged with conspiring to engineer a coup against the AKP government in 2003, and unsurprisingly a central protagonist of the documentary was the AKP leader Erdogan himself.

According to the film, the generals had singled him out for their particular wrath by dismissing him from his post as the elected mayor of Istanbul before prosecuting him and sentencing him to ten months in prison. The message was clear, being that the Turkish people must do everything in their power to prevent the Egyptian virus of military interventions from spreading to their country and directing itself against the ruling party and its leader.

Even though a large portion of Turkey’s military top brass is now in jail, the fear of generals sporting medals on their chests is still strong enough in Turkey for the film to tap into a sense of alarm against the spectre of the Turkish generals taking their cue from their Egyptian counterparts and turning against the government. 

But Erdogan and his government may have other reasons to be fearful, since in a recent analysis of the situation in Egypt the Turkish journalist and Middle East expert Kenan Georgie turned his attention to the espionage charge that has now been brought against the ousted former Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi.

This, he said, could affect Erdogan personally, in view of his and his party’s close relations with the former Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt. After Erdogan returned to Ankara following his visit to Cairo in November 2012, the Turkish Intelligence Chief Hakan Fidan remained behind, and he may have participated in a secret meeting that brought together Mossad, CIA officials and Egyptian Intelligence.

There is a possibility that Erdogan persuaded Morsi to push Hamas into an agreement with Israel with the ultimate aim of eliminating Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

If, as some think, the charge of espionage is a powerful tool to be brought against the former president and his supporters in the light of the antagonism towards the US-Zionist camp in Egyptian public opinion, what is to prevent a similar scenario from being repeated in Turkey?

Could the large segments of Turkish public opinion that are opposed to Erdogan and his Islamist-oriented government attempt to wield a similar weapon? Might they, for example, charge that contrary to the government’s claims it in fact cooperates closely with Israel?

The situation in Ankara is very different from that in Cairo, but the accusations being levelled against Morsi could still serve as a warning to Erdogan not to put himself in the same position as the former Egyptian president. As if to confirm this, a number of Turkish journalists and commentators have described the events in Cairo’s Tahrir Square as tantamount to the “collapse of Erdoganism” in Egypt.

Is it possible that Erdogan could meet the same fate as Morsi?

The coming days may hold the answer, especially in view of the likelihood that the demonstrations against the government will now resume in Taksim, Kizilay and other places around the country, which, some say, may usher in the beginning of the end of the Turkish ruling party.

 

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