Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, August/September 1997, pgs. 45, 53-54

Special Report

Is Turkish Military Repeating Algerian Army's Catastrophic Mistake?

by Richard H. Curtiss

In describing the crisis engulfing Turkey for the past year, the Western media point out that since the country underwent three military coups in 1960, 1971 and 1980, its army is anxious to avoid the appearance of overthrowing a fourth democratically elected government at gunpoint because that would jeopardize Turkey's chance of being accepted into the European Union.

In fact, however, Turkey underwent a fourth coup on June 18, when the army forced the resignation of Islamist Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan and the judiciary initiated proceedings to dissolve his Refah (Welfare) Party. And nothing the 62 million Turks themselves can do will affect Turkish acceptance in the European Union, which seemingly isn't going to happen anytime in the foreseeable future.

The true significance of Turkey's current grave crisis, therefore, is that with no visible American objection Turkey's generals have taken a giant step down the same dead-end street Algeria's military followed in 1992. Algeria's giant misstep has turned that gas- and oil-producing country, which should be one of the wealthiest in the Arab world, instead into "the sick man of the Arab world."

The roots of Turkey's present peril go back to the final days of Turkey's Ottoman Empire, when Turkey was universally known as the "sick man of Europe." Early in the 20th century the "Young Turks," a military-backed group of Muslim political reformers, assumed real power without dismantling the Sultanate. They recognized that because of its decay and corruption, all that held their disintegrating empire together was the Turkish Sultan's designation as Islam's "Caliph," the latest in a long line of successors to Mohammad, the last of the prophets, and therefore spiritual leader of the Islamic world.

The Young Turks soon made a disastrous decision, however, to bring Turkey into World War I on the side of Germany and the Central Powers. By the end of that war Allied forces had dismantled what remained of the Ottoman Empire, and in the peace conferences that followed they plotted not only the division of that Empire among themselves, but also to carve up Turkey's Anatolian heartland to reward Greece, Italy and others who had fought on the Allied side.

Mustafa Kemal, the military hero who masterminded Turkey's few World War I victories, united his defeated countrymen behind a true "people's war" to throw the Allied occupiers out of Anatolia. Under his restless, single-minded leadership an entirely new Turkey arose in 1923 from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire. Gone were all pretensions to empire. Although overwhelmingly Muslim, it was structured as a modern nation-state, granting equal rights under its secular laws to all of its citizens, regardless of ethnic or religious differences.

In the villages life remained relatively untouched.

Mustafa Kemal turned his back on the Ottoman Empire's former Arab subjects, whom he felt had betrayed the Turks in exchange for false British promises of independence. He decreed that henceforth the Turkish language would be written in Roman rather than Arabic characters, and that all Turkish citizens would take family surnames, European style. He chose Ataturk (father of the Turks) for his own surname, a line that died with him in 1938 since he had no children.

Most significant of all in the long run was Ataturk's transformation of Turkey to a secular state. Islamic law was replaced by laws adapted from various European codes which in turn had derived from Roman law. The new code gave men and women absolutely equal legal status. Plural marriage was banned, as was Islamic garb, and both men and women were jailed (and, in the case of a few Islamic leaders, hanged) if they did not conform with Ataturk-decreed Western-style dress codes. The result, over the intervening years, has been co-existence, side by side, of two Turkish lifestyles.

One, secular and "modern" (which became a synonym for "Western"), has been jealously guarded with almost religious zeal by Turkey's urban elites. The other, deeply Islamic and traditional, continued almost unchanged from the eras when the farmers of the Anatolian plateau provided the backbone of the armies that ruled the Middle East for 400 years, and were staunch defenders of Islam.

Extremists on Both Sides

There were extremists on both sides in Ataturk's new Turkey. Restaurants in Ankara and Istanbul remained open and crowded throughout the day during Ramadan. Nor did Turks who grew up in those cities have two wardrobes, one for use at home and one to wear in the West, as do the people of many Arab countries today. Like Ataturk, all urban Turks wore Western clothes. In the cities, nightclubs serving hard liquor thrived, and Turkish urban dwellers took pride in the country's extensive wineries and their products.

But in the small towns and villages life remained relatively untouched by either secularism or modernization and, compared to Turkey's immediate Arab neighbors, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, seemed actually to regress. Women continued to do much of the work, even in the fields, while underemployed men seemed to have a great deal of time to spend in tea houses, chatting and playing backgammon with friends. Plural marriage, though outlawed everywhere and not practiced in the cities, was practiced in the countryside.

As the urban-rural divide widened, however, the geographical boundaries separating Turkey's two contrasting cultures blurred. As in many Islamic countries, rural death rates dropped but the birthrate remained sky high. Rural unemployment and underemployment rose accordingly.

Semi-skilled Turks from the cities migrated by the thousands to prosperous European cities to find jobs, particularly in Germany, where the German indigenous birthrate has dropped well below replacement level. But, just as in other developing countries all over the globe, Turkey's rural poor flocked to Turkey's cities. While looking for economic opportunities and a better life, they created great belts of slums around Turkish cities,

Instead of taking on city ways and secular culture, however, the multitudes flocking from the countryside into Istanbul, Ankara, Izmir, Bursa, Adana, Mersin, Kayseri and Erzerum brought their Islamic traditionalism with them.

The political wake-up call for secular Turks was the triumph of Turkey's Islamist Refah (Welfare) party candidates in municipal elections. Previously the cities had elected members of secular parties to represent them in parliament, and many of the representatives of more traditional areas had been of the land-owning class, who also had secular educations and leanings.

With the Islamic revival sinking roots in most parts of the Muslim world, however, Islamist parties took on a new respectability in secular Turkey. The rural migrants to the cities, and their relatives who stayed at home, started by electing leaders who thought like they did, first to municipal buildings to run the cities and then, in WRMEA, December 1995, to the Turkish national assembly to run the country.

This made inevitable the clash of successful Islamists with the army general staff, Turkey's most zealous guardians of secularism, who rule the country through the five-member National Security Council and the overlapping 15-member Supreme Military Council. Turkey's officer corps, which controls a 950,000-member army, once was modeled along Prussian lines, going back to World War I. After World War II, which Turkey entered in its final months on the side of the Allies, Turkey restructured its armed forces in close cooperation with U.S. military officers, hundreds of whom have served as advisers with Turkish field units over the 50 years since U.S. military aid to Turkey (and rival Greece) was initiated under the Truman Doctrine, predecessor to the Marshall Plan. Turkey's huge standing army has played a key role in NATO since joining the alliance in 1951, and served with distinction in the Korean War on the side of U.S.-led United Nations forces there.

Turkey also was host during the Cold War to key U.S. missile bases and electronic listening posts, now largely shut down. Incirlik, near Adana, remains the site, however, of the largest U.S. Air Force base between Europe and the Far East.

With the end of the Cold War and Turkey's role as the southern anchor of NATO with one of the longest land borders with the former Soviet Union, the Turkish military has seen its influence threatened. Pressured by the Greek and Armenian lobbies in Congress, and concerned about Turkish human rights violations against its rebellious Kurds, the U.S. has initiated a de facto embargo on major weapons sales to Turkey.

To retain its close political relationship with the U.S., and keep its military aid pipeline from running dry, Turkey has continued military cooperation with the U.S. against Iraq, with which it has had historically closer relations than with any other Middle Eastern state, and from whom it had received billions of dollars worth of petroleum as pipeline transit fees for allowing Iraqi petroleum to reach the world through the Turkish Mediterranean port of Mersin. Since the Gulf war Turkey also has initiated a military relationship with Israel, a move that is immensely unpopular in Muslim Turkey, but one that Turkish officers believe increases their influence in Washington.

Other factors are breeding discontent as well. The panacea of the secular parties for Turkey's endemic economic weakness and recurring corruption scandals was economic integration with the West and, ultimately, political integration with the Europeans, whom Ataturk first had successfully expelled, and then hoped to deal with as equals by adopting their ways. But, increasingly, it has become clear that this was not going to happen.

Opposed for political reasons by rival Greece and largely for economic reasons by other European Mediterranean countries that produce the same products, the welcome mat always seemed to be withdrawn when Turkey sought to follow up its NATO membership with membership in the growing European Union. In 1997 public opposition broke into the open in northern Europe, as well.

First a prominent Dutch leader said Turkey would not be welcome because the EU was "a Christian Club." Then German Foreign Minister Klaus Kinkel devastated secular Turkish political leaders by stating flatly that Turkey will "never" be admitted to the EU.

Some European opposition is frankly based on the prejudices of Christian Europeans against Muslim Middle Easterners. Turkish secularists have long wanted to believe that as European secularism grew, religious bigotry would diminish.

The open German opposition, however, is more pragmatic, and thus harder to deal with. Explained London-based journalist Dilip Hero on a recent Pacifica Radio broadcast from New York: "With its own unemployment approaching 20 percent, there is no way Germany is ever going to allow Turks, with an unemployment rate approaching 60 percent, unlimited access to German jobs."

The Turkish public now recognizes this opposition to integration with Europe and, along with diminished U.S. military support, it further cuts the ground out from under those secular Turks who argue their country should face West, toward Europe, rather than East toward the Islamic world as advocated by Turkey's Islamists.

In Turkey's WRMEA, December 1995 elections, Erbakan's Islamist Refah Party won 158 seats in parliament, center-right Mesut Yilmaz"s Motherland Party won 129 seats, and Tansu Ciller's center-right True Path Party won 116 seats. Secularist President Suleyman Demirel tried various maneuvers, in vain, to induce bitter rivals Yilmaz and Ciller, whose secular parties are ideologically indistinguishable to non-Turks, to form a stable coalition government, to no avail.

Finally a surprise arrangement whereby Erbakan would serve as prime minister for two years followed by Ciller as prime minister for another two years created a governing Refah-True Path coalition, but not one the army could abide. After a number of confrontations with Erbakan, the army began its slow coup earlier this year by presenting Erbakan with humiliating demands with which he could not comply without losing his Islamist followers.

When the army prepared a long list of military personnel to be cashiered for suspected Islamist leanings and presented it to Erbakan to approve, he stalled. Erbakan reached an agreement with Ciller that he would resign June 18 with a call for October elections and that she would bring him back as a minister in a new True Path-Refah coalition in which she would serve as prime minister, The small, right-wing Grand Unity Party would join the coalition to give it a majority, even after recent army-encouraged defections among Erbakan's and Ciller's delegates, in the 550-seat parliament.

President Demirel's initial move has been to thwart this strategy by inviting Yilmaz to form a coalition instead. In itself this is neither unexpected nor unconstitutional. The moment of truth will arrive if Yilmaz fails. The logical move then would be to allow Ciller and Erbakan to form a provisional government and yield to Erbakan's call for early elections. It is not certain, however, that the military, acting through Demirel, will do this,

Erbakan is confident that in such elections Refah will significantly increase its margin as Turkey's largest political party. If the elections nevertheless do not provide Refah enough seats to form a Refah government, he can again form a coalition with Ciller and/or other religious-based parties.

Army officers know this too. They will therefore be tempted to encourage a legal ban on parties based upon religion and also to step in and halt the democratic process, just as Algerian officers did in 1992, when the Islamic Salvation Front followed its victories in municipal elections with victories in first-round parliamentary elections, making it clear that the Islamists would come to power if the election were completed.

The group within the Algerian military that has been running the country ever since it obtained independence justified its anti-democratic coup by alleging that if the Islamists won, they would never again allow a free election. In fact, however, since the Algerian military stepped in to thwart the democratic process, the country never again has enjoyed either a free or honest election, including the most recent vote on June 5. Instead Algeria has been ravaged by a vicious insurgency in which 60,000 persons have died, with each side blaming the other for death squad killings and literally dozens of savage massacres in which large numbers of women and children have been killed, many in horrible ways.

For Turkey's sake, its army officers should not make the same mistake. For America's sake, the administration of President Bill Clinton should warn Turkish officers that they will lose all U.S. support if they abort Turkish democracy again.

Unfortunately, however, with Israel-oriented political appointees at nearly all key foreign policymaking levels of the Clinton administration, the U.S. is not much more likely to make this essential preventative move than it is to force Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to put the peace process he has derailed back on track.

If, for Israel's sake, the U.S. defaults on its responsibility to Turkey as it has defaulted on the Middle East peace process, there will be many losers. They will include the European Union, which will lose a friendly and heretofore stable neighbor; NATO, which will lose its southern anchor and land bridge to the Middle East; the United States, which will lose a trusted and heretofore totally dependable ally; all of the Turkish people, who will lose the democracy Mustafa Kemal Ataturk launched with such travail 64 years ago; and the cause of democracy everywhere, which will lose its first and, until now, most successful showcase in the Islamic world. X

Only two days earlier House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-GA) had proposed that Congress cut off all funds to the Palestinian National Authority because of Israeli assertions that the PNA had issued the death penalty for any Palestinian who sells Arab land to Israelis. When we asked the archbishop what would be the effect of withholding the few million dollars Congress had grudgingly committed to the Palestinians as opposed to the more than $5 billion Congress provides Israel each year, he commented:

"I cannot comprehend how the speaker of the House can issue statements contrary to all moral principles. Either he doesn't know betterand this is not an excuseor perhaps he has sold his soul to the Devil. I say the same thing for all these totally pro-Israel policymakers in the U.S. government. They are not contributing to peace in the Middle East."

The Lebanon-born cleric's sense of humor returned as he sighed over the fate of PNA President Yasser Arafat. "Arafat lives like a prisoner. He can't even fly in his little helicopter from Gaza to Jericho without permission from the Israelis. It's as if he's living in a jail cell and the Israelis tell him when he can have the water or electricity turned on."

As for the immediate future, "Anything could happen. Netanyahu might take advantage of the problems Clinton is facing domesticallyand who created these scandals to divert the president?"

"Don't be depressed about the state of Palestinian affairs," the religious leader said in parting. "History is cyclical, the situation cannot remain the same."