Simmering tension between Turkey's secular establishment and popular religious-minded government is reaching the boiling point. Some experts are expressing concern that Turkish society has become so polarized that events could take a dangerous turn.
Just hours before the court heard the prosecutor's arguments, authorities made a spectacular security sweep, arresting more than 20 individuals, including two former generals, accusing them of plotting a coup. The most notable aspect of the sweep was not the number involved, but the fact that the suspects were taken into custody without a formal indictment being issued. This has fueled speculation that the arrests were politically motivated, and not entirely based on evidence.
Details of the arrests remain sketchy. But police were acting on the orders of a prosecutor who has already charged dozens of other people -- including another retired general and a prominent ultra-nationalist lawyer -- with "provoking armed rebellion against the government."
The alleged conspirators belonged to a group that the Turkish media has dubbed Ergenekon. The plotters supposedly planned to assassinate public intellectuals, Kurdish politicians, and even military personnel -- all in an effort to foment instability that would necessitate military intervention. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
According to leaks in the Turkish media, one of their targets was Orhan Pamuk, the novelist who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 2006.
Editor of the liberal daily Radikal, Ismet Berkan, compares the scheme to the civil unrest in 1960 that preceded the first of Turkey's three full-on coups. "It's a classic model, a classic case of social engineering," he says. "The difference is that for the first time in Turkey's history, four-star generals -- the big fish -- have been hauled in by a civilian prosecutor."
In a country so polarized over secularism and Islam that many have given up talking about politics altogether, not everybody shares his view. There were protests on July 1 outside Cumhuriyet, a staunchly secular daily that has passed over the year-long Ergenekon investigations in almost complete silence. Many secularists deny the existence of Ergenekon completely.
"It's not one coup d'etat Turkey is facing, it's two", said Cuneyt Ulsever, a columnist for the mass market daily Hurriyet critical of the way AKP has abandoned liberal reforms for increasingly confrontational rhetoric. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Other commentators suggested the action against Ergenekon was an instance of political retribution taken by AKP Islamists. "The AKP has taking revenge for the closure case. And it does not hesitate to throw the country into a very difficult period," wrote Yalcin Kucuk in Hurriyet.
Ilhan Selcuk, writing in Cumhuriyet, assailed AKP loyalists for not following proper legal procedures, specifically in carrying out the Ergenekon arrests without an indictment. Selcuk warned that arbitrary action could come back to haunt Turkey. "We have every single detail, including the indictment, the defenses, prosecutors, the judgments etc, in the [AKP] closure case, while the Ergenekon case remains a mystery," Selcuk wrote. "A big question mark dominates everything in the country. Everybody is afraid and concerned. Everybody keeps asking the same question: What will happen? Where is this country heading?"
Investigative journalist Belma Akcura found the timing of the arrests unnerving. "It's been over a year and we still don't know for sure what these people are being accused of," she says. "I get the feeling the government is using Ergenekon as a card in its own fight for life -- 'take me down, and I'll take you down too.'"
Yet as the author of a recent book on what Turks call the "Deep State," -- a network of covert paramilitary groups she compares to 'Gladio,' the violent operatives set up to combat communism in post-war Italy -- Akcura indicated that she was neither surprised by the accusations nor the identities of the people arrested.
One of 28 men taken in custody since an initial police swoop this February, retired general Veli Kucuk, is believed to have had a hand in "Deep State" activities for at least 20 years.
He rose to notoriety in 1997 when he turned out to be the last person to talk to a convicted nationalist multi-murderer who died when a car carrying him, a police chief and an MP crashed at high speed. The ensuing scandal shed a grim light on the Turkish state's dabbling in organized crime.
Promoted by the army after investigations petered out, Kucuk is believed by many analysts to have helped found a military police intelligence unit suspected of the murders of dozens of Kurdish activists in the 1990s.
The generals arrested on July 1 have an equally questionable record. It was revealed in 2007 that one of them, Sener Eruygur, a well-known secularist hard-liner, played a central role in two aborted attempts to unseat the AKP government in 2004. The trigger for both coup plans was the Cyprus issue, not the AKP's alleged efforts to Islamize the country. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. http://www.eurasianet.org/departments/insight/articles/eav063008.shtml Many in Turkey's state apparatus saw the government's willingness to talk about a UN-sponsored plan to reunite the divided Mediterranean island as a betrayal of Turkey's strategic interests.
Code-named "Yellow Girl," a popular Turkish name for cows, the first scheme purportedly involved direct military intervention. It foundered on the opposition of the then military chief-of-staff. The second alleged plot, dubbed "Moonshine," sought to use the media to mould public opinion. "They came to talk to all the big media bosses in 2004 to ask for their support," remembers Radikal's Ismet Berkan. "This time, they didn't get it."
Eruygur appears not to have forgotten the slight. When the staunchly secularist lobbying group he has led since his retirement organized 500,000-strong protests last spring, a favorite slogan was "buy one Tayyip, get two Dogans free."
"Tayyip" was a reference to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Aydin Dogan heads the country's biggest media group.
Judging by revelations made on June 21 by Taraf, a hard-hitting new daily that has had dozens of scoops since it started publishing in late 2007, some in the army still find it difficult to drop their taste for social engineering.
Taraf published a 2007-dated internal army memo proposing an "Information Support Activity Action Plan." The plan's main aim was supposedly to coerce the media and judiciary into cooperating in the fight against the AKP.
The tone of the Turkish General Staff's denial left even staunch secularists unconvinced. "There is no such official document approved by the commanding ranks in General Staff records," read the statement released on the army's website on June 27.
For Alper Gormus, left-leaning editor of the investigative magazine that revealed the 2004 coup plans and was shut down for its pains, today's arrest of Eruygur, along with former army number two Hursit Tolon, is evidence of a fundamental change in the balance of power between the elected government and the state.
"People say Turkey is in a crisis and they are right, but what revolution comes to pass without a political crisis", he asks. "What we are living through today are the birth pangs of a new regime -- the death of 60 years of controlled democracy, the birth of the full democracy Turkey deserves."
It remains to be seen which version of reality is accurate -- whether Turkey's democratic system is decaying or maturing. It is also too soon to say what the social costs of change may be.
Nicolas Birch specializes in Turkey, Iran and the Middle East.