Turkey's Military Resignations Make Erdogan Even Stronger

Walking the walk: Erdogan (right) and many of Turkey’s military commanders who resigned last month. Cem Ozdel / SIPA

Flush with his third and most resounding electoral victory, Recep Tayyip Erdogan bestrides the Turkish stage like a colossus. That victory was his alone: polling shows that more than half of the 50 percent of Turks who cast their votes for the piously Islamic ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) last month were voting for the ruggedly populist prime minister himself, not his party. His electoral pitch looked far ahead, to 2023—the 100th anniversary of the founding, under Kemal Atatürk, of the modern, and secular, Turkish state following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. He makes no bones about intending to be in charge from now until then, as a president endowed with greatly expanded powers under a new Constitution that will refashion Turkey on the model of what he calls “democratic conservatism,” but that his political opponents grimly characterize as Islamo-fascist.

Last week marked another milestone in Erdogan’s march to power, with the appointment by him and President Abdullah Gül of new commanders across the entire span of Turkey’s once all-powerful armed forces, the first time that civilians, not the military, have had the final say. The military itself cleared the field: on Friday, July 29, the entire Turkish high command—Gen. Isik Kosaner, chief of the general staff, plus the commanders of the ground, naval, and air forces—simultaneously tendered their resignations.

The news shook Turks but not Turkey’s friends abroad—to whom the military SOS signal was primarily directed. In Washington, the State Department affirmed its “total faith” in all Turkish institutions, civilian and military. Ria Oomen, the European Parliament’s Turkey rapporteur, was positively gushing: “Turkey is getting more democratic by the day.”

The very opposite is the case; that was the farewell message General Kosaner was trying to get out. He was resigning, he wrote, in protest at the lengthy detention on remand of 250 generals, admirals, and lower-ranking commissioned and noncommissioned officers, 173 of them still serving, arrested without due regard for “legal rules, rights, justice, or conscientious values” and accused of membership in a conspiracy that they insist never existed. Earlier that Friday the prosecutors had demanded the arrest of a further 22, including the commander of the Aegean forces, the head of Army intelligence, and the military’s judicial adviser, this time for setting up a “hostile” website. Kosaner stood down, he said, because he had been prevented from protecting the legal rights of people who had not even been formally charged, let alone faced trial, in the twin “Ergenekon” and “Sledgehammer” cases. (The former refers to an alleged clandestine secularist group, the latter to an alleged coup plot.) And he accused the authorities of dragging out the investigations “to keep the Armed Forces continually in the news, thereby creating the impression in public that it is a criminal organization.”

That is how it increasingly looks to many troubled Turks who initially welcomed the pursuit of the once untouchable military as an overdue move against the “deep state” it had dominated and as a guarantee against further military coups. The European Commission has blandly described the Ergenekon and Sledgehammer trials as “an opportunity for Turkey to strengthen confidence in the proper functioning of its democratic institutions and the rule of law.” But the way the investigations have been conducted, and the ever-swelling list of detainees, suggests not so much a democracy resolutely confronting malign forces from the past as Stalin’s military show trials of 1938 and Hitler’s systematic crushing of all opposition after coming to power in 1933. As the supposedly “pragmatic” Erdogan stealthily undermines the separation of state and religion that was Atatürk’s key reform, there is a reek of totalitarian sulfur in the Turkish air.

Not only the military but journalists, academics, businessmen, and even jurists are vulnerable: anyone who criticizes the AKP; champions equal rights for Turkey’s large Kurdish minority; or, still more perilous, probes the penetration of Turkish schools, universities, media, and bureaucracy by the AKP’s own “deep state” ally, a wealthy and powerful Islamist movement directed from luxurious self-exile in the U.S. by Imam Fethullah Gülen, Erdogan’s friend and mentor. This was dramatically highlighted in March by the arrest of Ahmet Sik and Nedim Sener, radical award-winning reporters renowned for investigating abuses of power by the military. Both are now, preposterously, accused of complicity with Ergenekon. Sik was about to publish a book, The Imam’s Army, on the Gülen movement’s saturation of police ranks. As he was led away, he shouted: “If you touch them, you will burn.”

Turkey now tops the world in jailing its journalists, surpassing China and Iran. Nearly 70 are in prison, thousands more are under interrogation, and courts have imposed draconian sentences—dual life sentences or even, in the case of two journalists from the Atalim newspaper, 3,000 years each. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) reports that it has never before seen such a “pervasive, indiscriminate assault” on freedom of expression, and further adds that the government has exploited law 5651—enacted in 2007 purportedly to protect minors from Internet pornography—to block at least 3,700 websites, including YouTube. Phone tapping is so ubiquitous that no one, but no one, I met in Turkey last month dares to talk openly on cell phones. Thousands of homes and offices are bugged—even an office in the Court of Appeals. The OSCE reports with concern that the government—emulating Chinese practice—is developing a state-supported Turkish search engine that will reflect “Turkish sensitivities.”

“The message is don’t write, don’t read, don’t do anything, and our democracy won’t harm you,” says a young hotelier. A television producer elaborates: “Erdogan shuns religious language and peppers his speeches with the D word, but by ‘democratic,’ he means that the AKP reflects the ‘popular will.’ He once said that democracy was like a bus, useful to get to your destination. If his popularity wavered, he’d hop off that bus.” And he adds: “I met some Iranian journalists the other day. They said, ‘We used to look on Turkey as a model. Now we pity you.’ ”

The AKP plays to perfection the role of devout protectors of the poor, under constant threat from dark forces in the Turkish elite. Conspiracies, as Hitler demonstrated with the Reichstag fire, can be power multipliers. The investigation into the alleged Ergenekon armed-terror organization started in 2007, when police found 27 hand grenades in a shanty belonging to a retired noncommissioned officer. From that small beginning, prosecutors have spun a web of conspiracy charges, with an indictment stretching to 8,032 pages, and detained more than 400 military and civilian defendants.

The web stretched still wider last year after an unknown person deposited with a journalist a suitcase of documents and CDs purporting to contain proof of a coup code-named Sledgehammer, allegedly planned in 2003 under the leadership of the First Army commander, Gen. Cetin Dogan, for which nearly 200 officers face trial. The “evidence” is highly suspect. What is genuine in the dossier—an official recording of the Army seminar that was allegedly the plotters’ “dress rehearsal”—contains no trace of a conspiracy. The single incriminating CD containing detailed plans of the alleged coup, dated 2003, is a demonstrable fake created no earlier than 2009; it lists ships not then built, hospitals that did not exist, organizations not yet founded, vehicle license plates issued in 2006, and nonexistent military units. The alleged authors of other documents in the case got their own titles wrong, misspelled their own names, or magically contrived to use computers to which they had no access. Few Turks doubt that some in the military would dearly love to oust the AKP—but not a tenth of the entire military command, plus many more forced into early retirement. Erdogan can now pack the military with AKP loyalists—as he has already packed the Constitutional Court (a “reform” astutely included in a referendum package last year) with 110 new judges. The government’s repeated insistence that it is merely letting justice take its course is wholly unconvincing.

The question is, why go to such lengths? Turkey’s political opposition is fragmented, and a military coup implausible. Here is a crowd-pulling demagogue who is a hero among Turkey’s rural and urban masses, and who has solid accomplishments to boast about. In 2002 the AKP inherited a broke country, politically fractured and rumbling with resentment over glaring inequalities. Erdogan’s “forward democracy”—which he defines as a strong economy, a strong government, and, above all, a “strong party”—may not be remotely liberal, but it is efficient. Not only have health reforms given the poor access to high-quality care, but he has wrought a smile-or-you’re-fired transformation of the public sector, compelling bureaucrats to treat ordinary people not with contempt, but courteously. Slums are being razed in a massive and heavily subsidized state housing program (enriching “loyal” contractors in the process). He peppers his speeches with long lists of roads paved, clinics opened, and gigantic new projects.

Living standards have been boosted by a tripling of the Turkish economy: this year’s growth rate of 11 percent may look dangerously like overheating to foreign investors, but after decades in the doldrums, Turks are not complaining. But the price in freedoms forgone has been ever higher, and Erdogan’s absolute intolerance of criticism, even from within his party, more and more obvious. What does this strongman want, and what will he do with what now seems unassailable power? Atatürk changed Turkey from top to bottom and turned it westward. Erdogan is changing Turkey from bottom to top, and turning it toward its Islamic neighbors. If by your friends ye shall know them, Erdogan’s chums have, somewhat embarrassingly just now, been Muammar Gaddafi (from whom, last December, he received the El Gaddafi international peace prize), Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, and Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Hamas and Hizbullah are his soulmates; Israel, in a stark reversal of Turkish foreign policy, his enemy. In Egypt the Islamists already refer to him as a caliph, the leader of a postmodern Islamic umma, an Ottoman empire without borders.

Yet abroad this dictator in the making is still credited with restoring democracy to Turkey, albeit with an Islamic hue. The AKP benefits from Turkey’s strategic importance as a bulwark for stability in a nasty neighborhood, and also from the West’s desire, post-9/11, to befriend “moderate” Islamism. Governments do not care to inquire into the crushing of Turkey’s dissenting voices and the erosion of personal freedoms. They should think again. In Turkey last month I encountered not just anxiety but great bitterness. When it was a question of Kurdish rights in Turkey, they say, we in the West screamed blue murder, yet now that intellectual and political freedoms are being suppressed clean across society, there is total silence. We should wake up, they say, before the only question left is, who lost Turkey?

Righter is associate editor of The Times of London.