Mass protests across Egypt and an ultimatum from the military leadership paved the way for the removal of the country’s first freely elected president, Mohammed Morsi, on July 3. The demise of the Morsi-led Muslim Brotherhood (MB) regime raises two important questions for Turkey: How sustainable is the competitively authoritarian and moderately Islamist regime of Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP)? And what position will the Turkish Armed Forces (TAF) take should a similar development occur in Turkey?
On July 5, Prime Minister Erdogan, strongly criticized Western nations, particularly the European Union, for turning a blind eye to the military intervention against Morsi. He compared the current situation in Egypt to events in Istanbul’s Gezi Park a month earlier: “The minority imposing their will on the majority” (Today’s Zaman, July 5). Deputy PM Bekir Bozdag agreed, stating, “The power change in Egypt was not a result of the will of the people.” Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, joined the chorus of criticism by declaring that Turkey did not accept the removal from power and detention of elected leaders through “illegitimate means, even more, with a military coup.” Within almost an hour of Davutoglu’s words, the foreign ministry released a written statement expressing Turkey’s firm support for Morsi (Hurriyet Daily News, July 4). Although such objections partially reflect the historical ideological affinity and shared strategic interests of the AKP and the MB in the region, they should also be interpreted against the background of the recent Gezi protest movement that has shaken the entire Turkish nation.
Erdogan, who was famously the first world leader to call on Hosni Mubarak and Bashar al-Assad to listen to their people and step down, has defied Turkish protestors with an analogous shortsighted authoritarian reflex. During the recent demonstrations that began on May 28 in Istanbul’s Taksim Square and then spread throughout the country, at least 8,000 people were injured and 3 protestors died because of disproportionate police force (Turkish Medical Association, June 27). Thousands have been treated for exposure to tear gas, and nearly 800 for wounds caused by tear gas cartridges (Turkish Medical Association, June 16). During clashes with protestors in Ankara and Istanbul, Turkish police disguised their ID numbers (Hurriyet Daily News, June 4; Vatan, July 7). Some 4,900 protesters were detained, (Hurriyet Daily News, June 23), many of them only because of their tweets or their Facebook posts (CNNTurk, June 8). More than 60 lawyers protesting against the unprecedented detentions at the Caglayan Court House were likewise arrested on June 11 (Hurriyet Daily News, June 12).
On June 15, Turkey’s Gendarmerie, a semi-military body existing in a gray zone between the General Staff and the Ministry of the Interior, for the first time joined the riot police to suppress demonstrations in Istanbul and Ankara (Yurt, June 15). The same day, Istanbul Governor Huseyin Avni Mutlu appeared on TV alongside the city’s Gendarmerie commander. And when a union strike fed contention in major Turkish cities a few days later, Deputy PM Bulent Arinc raised the possibility of calling on the regular military, to guarantee order (Hurriyet Daily News, June 17).
On June 27, the AKP government submitted a draft law to the parliament that includes two important but contradictory amendments relating to civilian control of the armed forces (Cumhuriyet, Hurriyet Daily News, June 27). The first change concerns the controversial Article 35 of TAF’s internal service law, often interpreted as a legal justification for military coup d’états. The article previously defined “to protect and preserve the Turkish homeland and the Turkish Republic as defined in the constitution” as TAF’s duty. The new amendment limits the armed forces to the protection of the homeland against external threats.
A second change is based on a protocol signed on April 18, 2013. The new protocol empowers governors to call on military units in the event of social unrest in their provinces and strengthens the authority of the Cabinet over the coordination and command of military forces after their deployment in such instances. While limiting the military to defending against external threats encourages democratic control of the armed forces, the use of military force in internal security, particularly to suppress social upheaval, risks the re-politicization of the armed forces.
This is not the first time in recent history that such steps have been taken in Turkey. On February 4, 2010, the Protocol on Cooperation for Security and Public Order, known as EMASYA, was annulled with the full consent of the military. Under EMASYA, the authority to coordinate military forces in instances of social unrest lay with the chief of the General Staff. The head of the military at the time, Ilker Basbug, in fact underlined the protocol’s problematic nature, as it failed to distinguish between the fight against terrorism and forms of social protests such as mass meetings, demonstrations and marches (Hurriyet Daily News, February 4, 2010).
Fifty years earlier, the armed forces had shown similar sensitivity and restraint. In 1960, the commander of the Land Forces, Cemal Gursel, also refused to follow orders when the Democrat Party (DP) government at the time called on the military to repress student demonstrations. His noncompliance cost Gursel his position, but two days after his dismissal, junior officers intervened and elected him as the head of the coup government.
The TAF, which has been steadily sidelined under Erdogan’s AKP government, has so far remained silent on the recent turmoil, and is not expected to assume a more direct role akin to that of its Egyptian counterpart. The TAF’s failure to shape the outcome of the presidential elections in 2007 and investigations into a series of coup conspiracies, known as the Ergenekon and Sledgehammer trials, have played an important role in the military’s decline of political activism. Since 2008, close to 400 officers, including Basbug, have been detained on charges of a coup conspiracy. In protest against these unprecedented detentions, Isik Kosaner, who had replaced Basbug as the head of the Turkish General Staff, resigned in June 2011, as did the commanders of the military’s land, air and naval forces.
Many analysts have portrayed Kosaner’s resignation and his subsequent replacement by Necdet Ozel, previously the commander of the Turkish Gendarmerie, as an indication that domestic power has shifted decisively to the AKP. General Ozel, who first garnered governmental support for not participating in the military intervention of February 28, 1997, received further praise when he complied with Erdogan’s order to remove local Gendarmerie commanders in Artvin in 2011. At the time, Gendarmerie forces had been photographed passively watching as demonstrators clashed with police during the prime minister’s visit to the Artvin’s Hopa District on May 31, 2011. The Gendarmerie’s failure to intervene in the protests despite the governor’s orders had led to fierce criticism from pro-governmental quarters (Today’s Zaman, July 31, 2011).
Some observers suggest that the armed forces are now completely under the authority of the AKP and will thus comply with orders from civilian executives to repress peaceful protestors in Istanbul and elsewhere. Yet a historical overview of the TAF’s organizational behavior seems rather to indicate that Turkish military officers would find it very difficult to confront the public, despite their commanders’ apparent acceptance of civilian supremacy over the armed forces.