The Generals' Secret Plan 'Erdogan Is to Be Toppled'

The power struggle in Turkey is escalating with the headscarf ban, the move to prohibit the ruling AK Party and now the leaking of a secret plan by the military to overthrow Prime Minister Erdogan. SPIEGEL ONLINE spoke to Yasemin Congar, the editor at the newspaper Taraf who recently broke news of the putsch plans.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Last weekend the liberal Turkish newspaper Taraf hit the stands with quite an exclusive, a report on the Turkish army's secret propaganda strategy. The document leaked to the newspaper stated that all necessary measures must be taken to bring prominent lawyers, journalists, artists and professors back "in line," and to protect the country from the "religious-reactionary forces" within Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). The document also mentioned the defamation campaign against the Kurdish DTP party and the military activities along the border with northern Iraq.

The article emerged at a particularly tense time. A few weeks after the constitutional court overturned the Erdogan government's headscarf reforms, many in Turkey are now expecting that the AKP itself will be banned. The power struggle between the secularist Kemalist elite and the religious-conservative camp is coming to a head.

Yasemin Congar, 41, deputy editor-in-chief of Taraf, thinks the political events of recent months stand in direct connection to the military's secret plan. She argues that the secular establishment wants to see Prime Minister Erdogan and his party fall -- no matter what the cost, and even if it means undermining democracy.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Ms. Congar, the Turkish military has since vehemently denied your report that there has been a concerted manipulation of the media and a campaign of intimidation against pro-Islamist and pro-Kurdish circles. Chief of the General Staff Yasar Büyükanit says this is nothing more than "cheap propaganda."

Yasemin Congar: Actually, the General Staff has not really denied our report. The military's press release states: This document does not exist among those documents approved by the General Staff. That could also be understood as a confirmation.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: What exactly was in the document?

Congar: It was an 11-page, coded Excel document that was created in the office of the General Staff in September 2007. The language is very unambiguous. Essentially everything that has happened in Turkey in the last nine months is described in this document. For example, the regular contact between high-ranking officials in the military and the judiciary. In essence it was about bringing important figures "into line" and launching negative campaigns against writers and actors. Military operations in the southeast of Turkey and in northern Iraq were also sketched out.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Did it include the move to have the AKP banned?

Congar: Well, basically in September 2007 the military was already using the same arguments that the state prosecutor used in March 2008 when he filed a case seeking to ban the AKP. The wording is the same: That the AKP is a "focal point of anti-secular activities." The secret paper calls for cooperation between civil-society organizations that have to be persuaded to act against the new constitution the Erdogan government is striving for. When the government announced constitutional reform -- the current one dates back to the time of the military dictatorship -- the ultra-secular groups hit the streets and protested against the "erosion of secularism." At the same time TV series, books and films were used to fire up nationalism. The AKP also fell into this trap when it voted for the war against the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in northern Iraq.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: That doesn’t seem to have helped them much. It's looking like the ruling party will soon be shut down.

Congar: The Constitutional Court's ruling on the headscarf ban opened my eyes to the fact that this is really about a putsch. However, it is a judicial putsch, one that should look as much as possible like following the rule of law. The military has understood that Turkey today is not the Turkey of 1980. Tanks and show trials don’t fit the picture any more. But the goal is clear: Erdogan is to be toppled no matter what. These people don’t really care if that possibly seems undemocratic, or if the European Union freezes accession talks, or if the European Court of Justice protests about human rights.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: It would seem that the Kemalists have only a certain degree of enthusiasm for the EU.

Congar: Yes, but for quite some time now not all of the backers of this "soft putsch" have been anti-European. Many of the businessmen who have had a falling out with Erdogan also want to see him removed from power. Even the pro-European employers' association Tüsiad has a broken relationship with the AKP, but it would never support a "hard putsch." If possible, the changeover of power should be carried out calmly and smoothly.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: How did the rest of the Turkish media react to the Taraf report?

Congar: I believe it shocked the majority of us. Even my conservative colleagues, who do not usually question the powerful role of the military, now view the case against the AKP differently. They say that if the accusations turn out to be true, then the judiciary has discredited itself and the trial is merely a farce.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: How credible in your source about this?

Congar: This is not the first time that we have received leaked information. Just recently, our newspaper also reported on a secret meeting between Osman Paksüt, deputy chairman of the Constitutional Court, and Army General Ilker Basbug. The information comes from the mid- to top levels of the officer ranks, from people who apparently are not very happy about the line the general staff is taking. I just recently wrote a column in which I dealt with the film "The Lives of Others." Turkey also has people like that, who rebel against the authoritarian system. And if you only get thin denials out of the army leadership, I see no reason to doubt my sources.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: How would you respond to accusations that you are being exploited, and perhaps even from sponsors close to the AKP?

Congar: These accusations aren't new. Sometimes we're accused of being financed by the Muslim network surrounding Fethullah Gülen; other times, it's the EU or the West. It's always much easier to attack independent newspapers than the big media houses. The problem is that many of my colleagues come across interesting documents but they aren't able to -- or don't want to -- publish them. The financial pressure is enormous, and even papers with the highest circulations can struggle. Whoever wants to saddle himself with financial penalties on top of that has to be either really nuts or a zealot. At the moment, there are four lawsuits out there against me alone.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Taraf was founded at the end of 2007. Before that, you were the Washington correspondent for Milliyet. Are you disappointed that the EU has applied pressure on Turkey, with the US primarily refraining from leveling any criticism about what's happening in the country?

Congar: The Americans really did nothing in 2007 when the Turkish General Staff published its legendary "midnight memorandum" on its Web site, a statement that was critical of the AKP and which, at the time, was understood as being a coup warning. Washington still doesn't want to take a position, which I think is a mistake. It's really not about pledging eternal loyalty to the Erdogan government but about pointing out the dangers threatening our country, should democracy be weakened.

Interview conducted by Daniel Steinvorth


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