Turkish Coup Plot Awakens Fear Of Violent Nationalism


July 14 2008

Evidence of conspiracy to overthrow pro-Western Islamist government
lays bare resentment of country’s secular elite

In a recent declaration, Turkish nationalists identified what they
described as the ‘six arrows’ of the country’s proper identity:
nationalism, secularism, statism, republicanism, populism and
revolutionism. Judging by the events of last week, it is the last arrow
– revolution – that has preoccupied the more radical in recent months.

In an extraordinary raid which led to the arrests of 21 people
allegedly tied to Ergenekon, a shadowy nationalist grouping, police
uncovered documents that revealed plans for a sustained campaign
of terror and intimidation against the Islamist government due to
begin this week. A perfect storm of disruption was to be whipped up,
beginning with a groundswell of popular protest, followed by a wave
of assassinations and bombings, culminating in an economic crisis and
army coup. Turkey’s moderate Islamist government would be ousted in
favor of a right-wing secular dictatorship. The documents appeared to
identify a 30-member assassination squad targeting judges and other
prominent figures.

The episode is only the latest trauma to convulse the Turkish body
politic. As the raids took place, the AKP government, led by Prime
Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and President Abdullah Gul, was defending
itself in court from accusations that it is trying to transform
Turkey into a hardline Islamic state. If the AKP fails to convince
the judges, 71 leading figures in the party, including Erdogan and
Gul, risk being banned from politics for five years. Increasingly,
Turkish democracy appears vulnerable to a vicious power struggle
between a secular establishment and the affluent but religiously
conservative middle class.

According to Professor Soli Ozel, of Istanbul’s Bilgi University,
the more fanatical nationalists are determined to bring down the AKP,
which despite its Islamist origins is pro-Western and pro-EU. ‘They
are trying to pump up a modern urban Turkish nationalism with a racist
tinge,’ said Ozel. ‘They are anti-Western and want to ally Turkey
with Russia, China and even Iran. It’s very schizophrenic and full
of paradoxes.’

The Ergenekon group is named after a legendary mountain in Asia where
the ancient Turks are said to have taken refuge from the Mongols. Those
arrested in dawn raids in Istanbul, Ankara, Antalya and Trabzon
included two recently retired army generals, Sener Eruygur and Hursit
Tolon. Eruygur, a former head of the paramilitary gendarmerie for
internal security, is chairman of the Kemalist Thought Association,
a group dedicated to Ataturk’s ideals of modernism, which include
subjugating religion to the state. He is believed to have played a
central role in two previous failed coup attempts against the AKP,
which was re-elected in a landslide last July. Nationalist lawyers,
prominent secular journalists, far-right politicians and even a mafia
boss have also been detained.

The inquiry began after a cache of hand grenades was found in an
Istanbul slum in June last year. Investigators claim to have since
uncovered evidence of a motley coalition of secular nationalists
colluding in a catalog of past atrocities, including bomb attacks,
a grenade attack on a newspaper and the murder last year of a
Turkish-Armenian journalist, Hrant Dink. The alleged aim was to
destabilize the AKP government by creating a climate of chaos.

Critics were quick to question the authenticity of the documents
and accuse the AKP of instigating a witchhunt against its opponents,
using its friends in the police. Nevertheless the detention of two
former senior army commanders carried huge symbolic weight in a
country where the military has always played the decisive political
role since Ataturk established the modern Turkish state in 1923.

So, too, did the timing. The arrests came hours before the chief
prosecutor, Abdurrahman Yalcinkaya, appeared before the constitutional
court in Ankara to argue that the AKP should be closed for allegedly
undermining Turkey’s secular system. The case against the AKP is
contained in a 162-page indictment accusing the AKP of trying to
create an Islamic state, a charge it denies.

Given the conspiratorial game that Turkish politics has become, cynics
are suggesting that the Ergenekon case will be used as a bargaining
counter to ensure the survival of the AKP.

The constitutional court had been widely expected to close the party
when it delivers its verdict, probably next month. But with prosecutors
saying they are ready to press terrorism-related charges against up
to 60 suspects in the Ergenekon case, some suspect a deal has already
been struck with moderate army commanders to try to avoid closure.

Eruygur’s arrest inside a military residential compound may provide
a clue, since many believe it could not have happened without army
top brass approval. Erdogan recently met General Ilker Basbug, due to
take over soon as head of the army. Basbug appealed for calm after last
week’s arrests, but avoided condemning them. ‘We all have to be acting
with more common sense, more carefully and more responsibly,’ he said.

‘The arrests were a pretty coup for the AKP,’ said Professor
Ozel. ‘Many people think this couldn’t have happened without the tacit
approval of the military, at least from the legalists within it. If
there is a tacit agreement with the military and they are working
with the Prime Minister, you can expect that the court has decided
that the AKP is not such a big threat after all.’

Whatever the outcome of the forthcoming battle of wills between
Turkey’s nationalists and Islamists, the latest tremors in Turkey’s
political landscape have revealed the enduring shadow of the country’s
‘deep state’. Secretive nationalist elements in the security apparatus
are believed to have been behind a host of atrocities against the Kurds
and other minorities, including the Alevis, a heterodox Islamic sect,
during the 1990s. But, according to Ozel, if the Ergenekon trial ends
in prosecutions ‘maybe that kind of nationalism in Turkey is going
to weaken’.

Who’s who in Turkey

The AKP: First took charge in November 2002. Re-elected in July last
year. Islamist, but has so far pursued a pro-Western agenda. In favour
of Turkey becoming a member of the EU. Attempts to raise profile
of Islam in Turkish society have led its opponents to accuse it of
flouting Turkey’s secular constitution.

Republican People’s party: The main parliamentary opposition. Secular
and nationalist. Seen as hostile to the EU.

The PKK: Outlawed Kurdish separatist party

The judges: Trial involving AKP could lead to party being disbanded
for instituting Islamic state.

The military: Staged coup in 1980. Widely seen as responsible for
fall of Islamist government in 1997.

· This article was amended on July 13 2008. In the article above we
said the AKP had been ‘in power for a year’ when in fact it first
took charge in November 2002 and was re-elected last July. This has
been corrected.

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