Power Struggle in Turkey Is Erdogan Strong Enough to Take on the Generals?

Last week's arrest of military brass amid allegations of a plot against the Turkish government have dealt a serious blow to the country's secular elite. But some are asking if Prime Minister Erdogan has bitten off more than he can chew.

AFP

Four-star General Cetin Dogan, 69, has a fondness for luxury. Shortly before his retirement, the army veteran, who until five years ago was the commander of the First Army of the Turkish armed forces and a feared hawk, bought a three-story beach villa in the resort town of Bodrum on the Aegean Sea, where he intended to spend his golden years.

But that vision is not likely to materialize, at least not for the foreseeable future. Last Monday, police officers with Turkey's counter-terrorism force TEM searched Dogan's dream house. The general himself was arrested in Istanbul, where he was taken away in handcuffs. No one had ever treated him like that before.

Ibrahim Firtina, 67, was also taken by surprise. The heavyset four-star general, with his bushy, Leonid Brezhnev-style eyebrows, was the commander of the 60,000-member Turkish Air Force, the pride of Anatolia, for four years. Like Dogan, he too was considered a member of the country's top military brass, an untouchable "pasha."

That was until last Monday, when police rang the doorbell at his villa in Ankara. When the pasha opened the door in his robe, his wife called out: "What do they want from you?" "You are under arrest," one of the officers said. "You have half an hour to say goodbye. Please take only a few essentials with you."

Arresting 'Golden Boy'

At about the same time, a special task force paid a visit to Özden Örnek, 67. The retired commander-in-chief of the Turkish navy, a man who was considered highly talented from an early age, a high flyer his wife affectionately referred to as "Golden Boy," was worshipped like a demigod while in office. Even after going into retirement, Örnek was fond of wearing sparkling, white uniforms in public. The police officers took him into custody while he was having breakfast. "Excuse us, Admiral, but we must arrest you now," they said politely.

The charges against Firtina, Örnek, Dogan and 64 other retired and active senior officers who had been arrested throughout the country by last Friday are monstrous: Prosecutors in Istanbul claim that the suspects planned to blow up a popular mosque in the city and shoot down a Turkish fighter jet to provoke a military crisis with NATO partner Greece. Under Turkish criminal law the suspects, if found guilty of establishment of and membership in a terrorist organization, could face at least 15 years in prison.

Turkey has almost become accustomed to news like that. Images of raids and arrests of presumed conspirators against the government have been flickering across television screens for more than two years now. But in the most recent police operations on Monday and Friday, the targets were not, as in the past, obscure figures from the right-wing nationalist scene. This time investigators are taking on some of the highest-ranking generals of recent years, the self-proclaimed "guardians" of the legacy of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the modern Turkish state.

There have been four military coups in Turkey since 1960, and since the arrests many Turks have been wondering if the army would strike back. Had Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan gone too far?

Erdogan's Huge Self-Confidence

At the moment, however, it doesn't seem as if the government is the least bit intimidated by the army. Erdogan continues to rule the country unchallenged. In fact, it is more the army that seems nervous. When he heard of the arrests, the Turkish army's chief of staff, General Ilker Basbug, immediately canceled a trip to Egypt. Meanwhile, the prime minister, who was on a trip to Spain, remained cool. "The judiciary is doing its work," he commented.

In fact, so far Feb. 22 marks the culmination of a power struggle between the conservative Islamic Erdogan government and the secular military in Turkey, possibly even a preliminary victory for Erdogan. "The untouchables have been touched!" the pro-government daily newspaper Zaman wrote in jubilation. "An operation without precedent in the history of the republic," the newspaper Sabah commented. Erdogan has so far managed to survive all attempts by the military and the courts to drive him out of office and is now in his strongest position in a long time.

The generals have been subdued. The fact that Basbug apologized to the prime minister two years ago when Erdogan's wife was denied entry to a military hospital because she was wearing a headscarf attests to a huge cultural turning point.

"Good news for Turkey, good news for democracy," says Istanbul journalist Mustafa Akyol, who points out that there is nothing more erroneous than the belief that the Turkish army was the guardian of democracy for decades. "The opposite is the case," says Akyol. "They deprived us of democracy."

The European Union, too, ought to be pleased. Hasn't it called upon the Turkish government for years to finally curtail the power of the military?

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