ISTANBUL, Turkey — Turks may love their dizilar, the interminable serials that dominate television, but none are as compelling as the real-life drama playing out in courtrooms, army barracks and government offices nationwide.
Consecutive revelations of buried weapons caches and documents purporting to be blueprints for an anti-government coup have held this country spellbound since 2007.
Last week, the drama crested as several serving generals were arrested, then hauled in front of civilian courts to be charged with membership in Ergenekon, an organization so controversial that even its existence is disputed: It is alleged to have been formed by Turkey’s deep state to overthrow the Islamically-rooted government.
It was the first time that serving members of the military were detained by a civilian government in a country where the Army is seen as the guarantor of the secular Republic founded on the ashes of the Ottoman Empire.
“The events in Turkey are both terrifying and exciting all at once,” said Joshua Walker, a Turkey expert at the Transatlantic Academy in Washington DC. “The time for tanks in the street is over but this does not mean that the time for the military as a political actor is over. Rather, we’re witnessing a series of internal struggles being waged.”
Prosecutors in the ongoing Ergenekon case have arrested over 200 journalists, intellectuals, politicians and military officials in what they claim is a conspiracy by secularists to overthrow the ruling AK Party. Along the way, they have breached several taboos, such as trying serving generals in civilian courts.
“Now, no member of the military can rest assured that he will not be detained or arrested in the future if he attempts to overthrow the government,” wrote columnist Mumtazer Turkone in the pro-government Zaman daily. “With the latest attempts, the last nails are being hammered into the coffin of the tradition of overthrowing governments.”
Following the arrest of some 50 suspects last Wednesday, President Abdullah Gul brokered a crisis meeting between arch-rivals Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan and Army Chief of Staff Ilker Basbug.
Three top Army detainees were concurrently released in a move interpreted as a bid for de-escalation. But on Friday, fresh countrywide arrests netted another 18 officers, jacking up tensions and bringing the total of those arrested close to 40.
Basbug heads the army but is believed not to have been involved in the alleged plot, codenamed Sledgehammer, that was revealed last month. The detailed documents, published by the Taraf newspaper, described provocateurs linked to the army who would plant bombs in mosques and would precipitate a military incident with Greece in order to create the conditions for a coup. Army officers explained away the document as “contingency planning” by the military.
Addressing lawmakers in Ankara, Erdogan defended the arrests as “setting free the consciousness of the people” as Turkey adopts the kind of tough rule of law reforms that will allow it to enter the European Union.
But secularists believe that Ergenekon is not so much a military conspiracy as the government persecuting the army under the guise of a legal investigation.
“The root of our power as a nation always came from the army because it was an army of the people for the people,” said one engineer who asked that his name not be printed when criticising the government. “Now the Islamists are trying to destroy the same thing that made Turkey strong.”
One of the less visible power centers accused in the ongoing crisis are the supporters of an influential spiritual leader living in informal exile in New Jersey. Fethullah Gulen is a preacher who has been accused of seeking, since the 1970s, to re-establish an Ottoman-style religious caliphate. Several of his supporters are said to be powerful security services officials.
In February, a crisis was triggered in Turkey's judiciary when the prosecutor in Gulen’s home province of Erzurum had the prosecutor of another province arrested. Critics of Gulen claim that his supporters were responsible for the arrest and accuse them of operating as a “state within a state,” the same charge as that levied against the military.
“Turkey has replaced one “untouchable” organization for another, more dangerous one,” noted Soner Cagaptay, the director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “Criticizing the Gulen movement, which controls the national police and its powerful domestic intelligence branch, and which exerts increasing influence in the judiciary, has become as taboo as assailing the military once was.”
The pro-Gulen Turkish newspaper Zaman called Cagaptay’s comment in Foreign Policy magazine “highly biased, unscholarly” and part of a “smear campaign” against Gulen.
Nevertheless, some Turkish journalists are scared that they are more constrained than ever in reporting the more sensitive aspects of Ergenekon.
“Now we are publishing much less of the truth than we could in the past because of worries over fines levied by the government against the press,” said a Turkish journalist for a mass-circulation daily who requested he not be named. “For example, we are pretending that the prosecutor’s arrest was over his investigation into the Ismailaga fraternity (a small, hyper-conservative Muslim group) when in fact it was because of his longstanding investigation into the Gulenists.”