One of the most striking episodes in Hasan Cemal’s new book, with the same title as my column, is about how the military command, disappointed and infuriated by what it saw as “remnant fundamentalist elements” coming back to power with a constitutional majority in Parliament, used the Cyprus referendum process to weaken it and derail Turkey from the path of European Union membership.
In minute detail, Cemal chronicles a day-by-day account of a tug-of-war between Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Abdullah Gül on one side and Rauf Denktaş and the generals in Ankara on the other.
Without a careful reading of that chapter of recent Turkish history, one is not able to understand the essence of civilian-military relations here, nor is it possible for EU politicians to realize how unfairly they have treated Turkish Cypriots all along. I will leave it at that.
Towards the end of his voluminous writings, Cemal takes us to the crucial question, “Has Turkey’s regime of military tutelage come to the end?” and, while elaborating on that, fires critical missives to what he describes as the “confused foreign press.”
When the daily Taraf, a key figure in the past eight-year power struggle between the elected government and the appointed high command, reported extensively on the so-called “Sledgehammer” case (a 5,000-page document revealing how the 1st Army in İstanbul eagerly departed from its regular duty of war games to a simulation of a coup using real-life names of politicians as targets), something out of the ordinary happened in Turkish politics early this year: after only four weeks of fierce debate, the judiciary moved in and conducted a large sweep of arrests. In one day, a total of 26 mid- and high-ranking officers, including 17 retired generals, were arrested. Never in living memory had a Turkish newspaper been so successful in accomplishing such sensational results simply by reporting.
This was, according to Cemal, “a breaking point.” The tight grip of military tutelage had come to the point of “normalization” on Feb. 22, 2010, the day of the arrests. Cemal has no doubts that “Sledgehammer” was a very serious threat to the elected Parliament. He comes back to a key element, as written in journalist Mustafa Balbay’s diaries, which clearly describes a lunch with Şenkal Atasagun, then-head of the (civilian) National Intelligence Organization (MİT). At one point, Atasagun tells Balbay and other guests: “Keep your eyes on the 1st Army; something is being cooked up there. They are preparing for a coup!” (Atasagun has so far not denied this).
Change had come; Turkey had started to go through its own 1989, Cemal argues. But, another key question was whether the foreign press was able to “read into” what was taking place. As a journalist with 41 years of experience, starting in Ankara in the mid ‘70s, Cemal is the right person to ask and comment about it.
He writes the following: “While the historic significance of the results of the Sledgehammer over the political regime was understood, there was confusion in the comments. … The Western press, which could easily understand the ‘opposition’ and the role of what it calls dissidents in, for example, Eastern Europe, was having difficulty analyzing the essence of the opposition to the regime -- or the system. In that context, the role played by Israel, the Israel lobby in the US and the remnants of the neo-cons must be underlined. Because, in the eyes of those circles, the important point was not the demolishing of the wall erected before of democracy, but “the continued existence of the ultra-secularist ‘Sledgehammer generals’.” But others in Ankara agreed with the “1989 argument.” Cemal quotes an anonymous bureaucrat, who towards the end of 2009 tells him: “Our Soviet Union is finally collapsing!”
According to Cemal, the inability to lucidly “read into” the developments in Turkey “today” by some serious parts of the foreign press (he gives examples of articles by the New York Times and Financial Times in early March) has led, in general, to the wrong focus: Instead of highlighting the significance of today, some of them became affected by blurred vision, and when attempting to emphasize “tomorrow,” became victims of exaggeration and external manipulations.
In his conclusions, Cemal points to another direction. Leave the fear mongering of Islamization and Putinization and the like aside, he says, and ask yourselves whether Erdoğan will be able to “surrender” to those who want to keep Turkey and its society under the grip of tutelage. Because, he says, what his predecessors did, by “surrendering” to the generals (like Demirel, Yılmaz, Çiller…), is tell us that there is also a “civilian side to Turkey’s military problem.” That is why what the Justice and Development Party (AKP) under Erdoğan does and will do is crucial for breaking the chains.