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The Ergenekon coup trial verdict sent a message to Egypt's coup leaders

On July 3, Egypt’s one-year-old experiment with democracy was brought to an end by the military coup. The termination of Egypt’s fledgling democracy was accompanied by the arbitrary arrests of the democratically-elected president and other officials, a witch hunt of Muslim Brotherhood members and a series of massacres. The coup has also ushered in a period of pessimism for those who envisioned a democratic future for the region, while giving a green light to authoritarian regimes that they can continue to do the things the way they have been accustomed to, as long as they possess the means to suppress their people’s aspirations by force.

While Egypt’s “interim” leaders have been upbeat since the coup, there has been a completely opposite feeling among Turkey’s coup plotters and deep-state elements following the verdicts in the Ergenekon case.

Launched initially in 2007 after the discovery of a cache of arms in Istanbul’s Umraniye district, the Ergenekon case has since expanded into a broader issue made up of 23 different files and a total of 275 defendants. The latter include staunchly secular-nationalist high ranking military officers like Ilker Başbuğ, a former Chief of General Staff, top bureaucrats, academics and journalists. Of the 275, 254 were convicted for plotting extrajudicial killings and bombings, and inducing an atmosphere of fear in order to prepare the ground for a military coup to topple the Islamically-sensitive AK Party government. Seventeen people received life sentences; Ilker Basbug and 13 others were senior military officers. As such, when their particular day of judgment finally arrived, the coup plotters’ mood in Turkey was very unlike those in Egypt.

The tale of the two coups brought to public attention the ever-present issue of civil-military relations in both countries. The Egyptian and Turkish armies have both wielded disproportionate influence on politics. Their roles were not confined to state security, as expected from an army in a democracy. Instead, they have had a more expansive reading of their self-appointed roles. They have regarded it as only natural to elaborate on the acceptable course of their respective countries’ politics and maintain a strong influence over the state economies. Whenever the military thought that elected civilian governments were straying from an acceptable course, they did not hesitate to intervene or topple the government of the day.

In recent years, though, Turkey has witnessed a dramatic change in civil-military relations. The civilian government appears to have reined in once all-powerful generals. This begs a number of questions: what were the factors which made the Turkish army so prone to coups in the past? How has the civilian government changed that? Does Turkey’s experience have any relevance for Egypt’s coup leaders?

The roots of the coup culture

A cursory examination of the Turkish military’s role in the political system reveals two paramount factors that motivate officers to carry out coups. For a start, the military was the first institution to undergo a modernisation process during the latter days of the Ottoman Empire. It also undertook the job of modernising the other state institutions. Moreover, a significant proportion of modern Turkey’s founding fathers had a military career. They regarded themselves as being the bearers of Western modernity and progress. They believed that their role not only entailed creating a new state but also a new people, to be formed top-down through the state machinery. Only through social engineering, they believed, could Turkey be saved from its “backward”, “Middle Eastern” and “Islamic” mind-set and life-style to become a “western-oriented” and “secular” society. This mentality of “knowing what is best for the society and doing it for society” formed the basis of the military-led guardianship system in Turkey. The essence of this mindset was that the people do not know what is good for them and it is “us”, the military, who can tell them what is good for them. This “us” included high-ranking Kemalist civilian bureaucrats supported by the Westernised minority of Turkish society.

Since the people apparently did not know what was good for them and society, their political representatives were viewed with contempt and suspicion. Because of that, all the major political issues were regarded as being too important to be left to civilian governments; rather they were seen as being exclusively within the prerogative of the military-led guardianship system. Civilian governments’ role was reduced to the implementation of development projects and running local municipalities. The military system paid lip service to elections and democratic processes. Whenever a civilian government attempted to exercise control over sensitive, major issues with a popular mandate and democratic legitimacy from the people, the military had no qualms about intervening to halt the democratic political process, as demonstrated in four coups.

Their primacy in the political system accrued significant economic benefits to the military. Military-initiated economic ventures in Turkey range from ownership of an insurance company to the banking sector along with many others. Moreover, after the February 28, 1997 coup, many generals occupied seats in the boardrooms of major banks and other companies. On top of this, until recently Turkey’s civilian governments had no control or supervision over the army’s budget. A similar story, on a larger scale, holds true for Egypt. Estimates put the Egyptian army’s share in the economic life of the country to be somewhere between 15 and 40 per cent of the overall economy. Protecting their economic privileges is another motivation for trigger-happy generals to intervene in politics both in Turkey as well as in Egypt.

Dismantling the coup system

Yet, while Egypt is dealing with the consequences of a brutal military coup, Turkey has been busy dismantling the structure that prepared the ground for plotting coups in recent years. This dismantling of the coup infrastructure involves three phases, two of which have largely been completed, while the third is yet to commence.

The first phase involved the government showing determination to go after coup plotters. Upon the coming to power in 2002 of the Islamically-sensitive AK Party, some segments within Turkey’s military, with help from bureaucrats and civilian elements, began to devise plans to topple the government. These plots received such diverse nicknames as Ergenekon, Sledgehammer and Sarikiz. Upon the discovery of these attempts in 2007-2008, the civilian government decided to fight back by throwing its full weight behind the judicial processes to investigate the plots and hold the coup leaders accountable. As a result, a large number of military officials, including many generals, were prosecuted along with the bureaucrats and civilians who backed them. The prosecution of high ranking military officials responsible for coups was a novelty in Turkey.

The second phase was concerned with cleansing Turkey’s judicial system of articles that legitimised or were used as pretexts for plotting the coups d’état. Article 35 of the army’s internal service code, which stated that the military has a duty to preserve and protect the Republic of Turkey, was believed to provide legal justification for a coup d’état; it was amended by a parliamentary vote on July 13, 2013.

The third phase, which is yet to commence, will deal with the democratisation of military schools’ curricula. One has to recognise that military schools’ highly nationalistic, Kemalist and civilian government-suspicious education system provides fertile ground for a system to emerge which regards a coup as a legal and necessary instrument to correct the course of civilian politics. Unless and until Turkey undertakes a major reform of such curricula and democratises them, the anomaly that has defined civil-military relations in Turkey for so long will not end completely.

A message for Egypt?

With these trials a significant message has been sent, not just to those who have committed the grave crime of plotting a coup, but also to anyone who might consider committing such a crime in the future. From this perspective, these trials carry a significant message for the coup camp in Egypt. Sooner or later, its day of judgement will also arrive. The coup coalition has already exhibited signs that its united front is cracking following the resignation of Mohamed ElBaradei. Although some Egyptians welcomed the coup at first, it is now becoming obvious that more and more people demonstrate signs of displeasure with the coup and the ensuing bloodbath, as demonstrated by a recent poll, in which 73 per cent of Egyptians laid the responsibility for the coup and massacres squarely on the shoulders of General Al-Sisi and his co-conspirators.

In this respect, the Turkish experience provides a valuable lesson. The strongmen are not always strong enough to commit crimes against the will of the people with impunity indefinitely. Sooner or later, they will be held accountable for the crimes that they have committed. Thus far, many people have gleaned incorrect lessons from the Turkish experience. Richard Haas of the Council on Foreign Relations claimed erroneously that the Turkish army has nurtured the process of democratisation and suggested that a similar role can be played by the Egyptian army. This was a grave misconception. Middle Eastern armies may well have been partly modernising but they have never been democratising forces.

It was Turkey’s people, not the generals, who nurtured the process of democratisation in the country. This involved holding once all-too-powerful generals accountable for the crimes they have committed against the popular will, democratic legitimacy and democratisation. This is not just a Turkish experience; it has also been repeated by many other countries which have experienced a transition from tutelary regimes and military juntas to democracy. What’s more, it is unlikely that Egypt will prove to be an exception to this rule.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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