The Coming Coup d'Etat?

Turkey is a haunted land. too often in its history, the past has been prologue. It may be so again. Almost 10 years ago, the Turkish military ousted a popularly elected Islamist prime minister. The circumstances that produced that coup are re-emerging today. Once again, an Islamist is in power. Once again, the generals are muttering angrily about how his government is undermin-

ing the secular state--the foundation of modern Turkey. As I rate it, the chances of a military coup in Turkey occurring in 2007 are roughly 50-50.

I saw the last one coming, thanks to a conversation with a senior military officer not long before the events of February 1997. "I asked the Iranian generals after the 1979 revolution why they had done nothing to stop it. By the time they realized how far the Islamists had come, they replied, it was too late," he told me. "We will never let that happen in Turkey." Indeed, this very principle is enshrined in the bylaws of the Turkish General Staff, which declare that the military is "the sole protector" of Turkish secular democracy and of the "principles of Ataturk."

And so it is now. Though most Turks agree that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is more moderate than his ousted predecessor, Necmettin Erbakan, he is nonetheless an Islamist. The outgoing president Ahmet Necdet Sezer publicly warns that Erdogan's government is broadening its fundamentalist platform day by day, and challenging the basic principles of secularism as defined in the Turkish constitution. Pointedly, Sezer reminds the Turkish armed forces of their pledge to serve as its guardians.

The hawkish new chief of the General Staff, Gen. Yasar Buyukanit, echoes that theme. In a speech at the opening of the academic year at the Turkish War Academy on Oct. 2, he asked: "Are there not people in Turkey saying that secularism should be redefined? Aren't those people occupying the highest seats of the state? Isn't the ideology of Ataturk under attack?" Buyukanit went on to declare that an affirmative answer to any of these questions would confirm that Turkey is threatened with "Islamist fundamentalism."

In recent weeks I have spoken with Turkey's most senior officers. All made clear that, while they would not want to see an interruption in democracy, the military may soon have to step in to protect secularism, without which there cannot be democracy in a majority Muslim country. These are no-nonsense people who mean what they say.

Why is this happening? Chiefly because of the European Union. Never mind Cyprus, or the new human-rights laws Turkey has willingly passed under European pressure. The real problem is the EU's core demand: more civilian control over the military. That, senior officers say, would inevitably produce an Islamic Turkey. As they see it, the nation simply cannot afford to follow the EU on issues that would theoretically ensure, but in reality endanger, its future as a secular democracy--that is, a country in which state and mosque are separated and in which freedom of (as well as freedom from ) religion is guaranteed for all.

The Turkish military is especially wary of how the EU is coping with its own Islamic problem. European governments are reaching out to Islamists, ostensibly in order to transform them into allies against domestic terrorism. That may work in the short-run, Turkish critics say. But a similar strategy would be intolerable to a majority of Turks, who fear that once the gates open to "moderate" Islamists, more radical forces will enter and take over.

With Turkey and the EU so sharply diverging, the danger is that the Turkish military, supported as in 1997 by other secularist groups, will no longer feel bound by the need to keep Turkey on its European path. And this time, unlike the past, the United States is in no position to restrain them. That's partly because of Iraq, and Turkey's unhappiness with what it sees as Washington's kid-glove treatment of Kurdish terrorists operating out of northern Kurdistan, and partly because of its embrace of Erdogan, most literally when he met George W. Bush the same day that Buyukanit made his remarks in Turkey. The United States opposed the 1997 coup, and it will do so again. But as one senior Turkish official recently put it: "If there were a coup, what would the U.S. do--enact sanctions against Turkey?"

To be sure, the military may exert its influence without resorting to force. And if a coup were to happen, it would not necessarily translate to a nondemocratic Turkey. More likely, it would simply mean the end of Turkey's current "Islamist experiment" and a return to a more conservative government--stalwartly secular, yes, but a democracy nonetheless. Ironically, this Turkey might ultimately be seen to be a better member of Europe than today's.

Join the Discussion