The Ergenekon verdicts in Turkey coincided with the current events in Egypt where some prefer to call it a revolution and others a coup. Whether it was a revolution or a coup, the one sure thing is, there’s a military dictatorship, a deep schism in society, and a defense minister that’s highly praised by millions of Egyptians. We expected Turkey PM Erdogan to surely condemn the latest events, but some didn’t get why his stance was so convulsive, almost causing a temporal end with Egypt’s new relations with Turkey. So in order to get the full idea of the official Turkish reaction, we shall go 89 years back in time.
New Turkey, quivering Turkey
In 1924, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk (Father of Turks) established the Turkish Republic, which is one of the Ottoman Empire’s leftovers after the great first war that also shaped the current map/borders of the Arab world (Sykes-Picot agreement). And since the Ottoman Empire was a multi-cultured empire, with large numbers of religious and racial minorities, a serious problem burst out after the establishment of the republic of who is worthy of being a Turk. Anatolia (Current Turkey) had several minorities of Kurds, Alevis, and non-Muslim minorities of Jews, and Christians (Armenians, and Greeks). But Ataturk already made up his mind, and despite his extreme secular outlook, he decided that only a Sunni Secular citizen is the state’s rightful owner. Mustafa Kemal decided to start quickly the modernization process of the new Turkey when he and his associates established the Republican People’s Party (Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi, CHP). In March, 1924, the Grand National Assembly abolished the Caliphate, the highest of the Sunni institutions in the Muslim world, leaving non-Turkish Muslims in a shock all over the Muslim countries. Declared Ankara the new capital of the republic instead of Istanbul, which was the metropolitan city of the Ottoman Empire, and the Byzantine one before it (Constantinople). One may understand the motives behind these reforms since Mustafa Kemal was establishing a modern state on a Western nationalist standards, but the upcoming reforms were indeed outlandish that caused a deep unrest in the Turkish society for decades to come. In 1925, religious orders, and Sufi brotherhoods were closed down. Most of them went udnerground and practiced in secret their religious practices until they emerged later in the 1940s in a more liberal form. Changed the Islamic holiday on Friday and replaced it with the Christian day of Sunday. In 1928, Mustafa Kemal changed the alphabets from Arabic to Latin, and the Arabic script was prohibited after Ataturk’s visit to central Anatolia to introduce the people to the new Turkish language. In 1932, the Diyanet changed the call to prayers (Azan) from Arabic to Turkish, making it the one and only country where the call to prayers was performed in Turkish. All of these arbitary actions caused unrest among the Turkish society, especially the conservative ones where they perceived it as an assault on Islam’s constants and principles. Any act of remonstrance was terminated by force.
Obliteration of minorities
After deciding who is worthy of being a Turk in the new republic (Sunni Secular Muslim), Ataturk launched a ferocious campaign on both Kurds and Alevis. When the Caliphate fell, Kurds felt that nothing more bonds them with the new government, since it was established on nationalism. In 1925, the Kurdish leader Sheikh Said Piran made an army of 15,000 Kurds and took over the city of Diyarbakir. The uprising was contained easily by the military forces through massive air bombardment, and Sheikh Said was hanged along with his followers. The Kurdish uprisings continued all through the 20s and the 30s, and the military intervention was always the only choice by Turkish authorities, and since then, Kurds never really felt they belonged to Turkey except for a very few times in it’s modern history.
In 1935, a genocide took place in the Alevi province of Dersim. A society of 70,000 Alevis was eradicated through full military operation in the summer for two consecutive years. The military attacked all whether they were supportive of the government or not. Men, women, and children were executed, assimilated, and transported to new areas. It was a process called by the government “Civilizing the others”, similar to the Nazi slogans during WWII.
As a result of modernization processes, as it was described by Ataturk, a powerful layer of society adapted Ataturk’s methods during the late 30s, and the whole 40s period. It was simply called Kemalism, and this powerful layer of society was formed of Military officers, wealthy businessmen, and Judges, they later formed the guardian state that orchestrated the coups of 1960, 1971, 1980, and 1997. In 1950, Turkey entered a new period in its modern history when they held the first democratic elections since the republic.
In 1950, Turks had their first democratic elections, where Adnan Mendres and his Democratic Party won the elections from the famous Kemalist CHP. And since the very first day, it was clear that a battle was on the run between the elected institution and the Kemalist guardian state when Adnan Mendres and his DP restored Azan in Arabic all over Turkey for 5 times a day which was a relief to a large majority of Muslims, but this decision was regarded by the army , and the CHP as a counter-revolution against the Kemalist republic. And across the ruling years of Adnan Mendres and his DP, the CHP and the Socialist Left would look for the military for a revolution from above.
The years of Adnan Mendres witnessed a notable improvement in the economic front and the educational sector. Four universities were established (The Middle East Technical University, The Blacksea Technical university, The Ataturk university, and The Aegean university). But the army wanted to interfere, and since it was facing a democratically elected institution, it had to find a good reason for its interference. In 1955, a series of pogroms took place which was called the 6/7 September pogroms when an organization called “Cyprus is Turkish” started looting lists of shops and properties of Non-Muslims(as a reply to an assault on the house where Mustafa Kemal was born). The attacks were carried out simultaneously in Istanbul, Izmir, and Iskenderun. Lots of churches were vandalized, dozens of Greeks and Armenians were murdered, and about 400 women been raped. The Leftist Turkish author Kerem Oktem wrote “In fact these events had been planned well in advance by the clandestine ‘Council for Mobilization Research’, better known under its later epithet, ‘Special War Office’. Officer Sabri Yirmibesoglu, an undercover agent of the office and later director of the National Security Council, confirmed that the ‘6/7 September was a job of the Special War Office.’ It was a marvellous organization. And it attained its goals’. Not only had the attack on Mustafa Kemal’s house been carried out by an operative of the Turkish Intelligence services, even the hundreds of thousands of copies of the Istanbul Ekspres newspaper, which galvanized parts of the mob into action, had been prepared well in advance. The pogroms served at least two goals. Even though the government had verifiably only limited responsibility for the events, they served as one of the main charges in the indictment against Mendres and the Democratic Party after the coup of 1961.”
In 1960, the guardian state moved into action when the military officer Alparsalan declared on the radio that the armed forces had taken over the administration of the state, that the national assembly had been closed, and the constitution has been suspended. Adnan Mendres was tried for the 6/7 September pogroms, and the threat to the Secular/Kemalist nature of the state. And despite the CHP’s intervention, the army executed Adnan Mendres, his finance minister, and his foreign minister. And with this intervention, it was the first visible appearance of the guardian state (Army-Judiciary-Bureaucracy) in politics where they acted out as the rightful owners of the state.
Years following the 1960 coup
Unfortunately the coup had the blessings of both the Kemalist CHP and the Socialist Left that it was described in history as the Leftist coup. But as any other Military coup, the 60s marked the decade of Leftist persecution where thousands of Leftists been jailed and executed. And through a decade of weak vulnerable Turkey, with street chaos between Islamists and Leftists, and with the coup of 1971, Kerem Oktem says “The left would realize that the guardian state did not feel any moral obligation towards its one time collaborators.”
Ironically, the constitution post the 1960 coup was very liberal in term of individual freedoms, but indeed it gave a more powerful role for the military to interfere in political life. In 1965, the elections brought the heirs of the DP back to the political scene, it was the time of the Justice Party and Suleyman Demirel. We have to mention that despite the incessant interferance of the guardian state in political life, Turks seemed to know what they want since they always voted for Conservative Democrats under different party names. But things weren’t as rosey as Turks thought its going to be. The 60s marked the active decade of the leftists. Streets were filled with anti-imperialist protests with “Yankees go home” slogans. The Turkish left was led by a law student named Deniz Gezmis who organized the 1968 boyott in Istanbul University and led negotiations with Demirel’s government. A new rightist group was formed, it was Islamist, it called itself “Assocations for the struggle against Communism”. Am sure the reader will conclude from the name that constant clashes took place in the streets between Islamists and Leftists. And since the guardian state saw no actual threat from Islamists, it used them to beat down the Turkish left. With every single clash between the protesters, Police just watched with pleasure as chaos spread by time. On February 16th, 1969, bloody Sunday has arrived when 70,000 members of the Revolutionary Worker’s Unions protested against the government despite the latest elections in the same year. Four protesters and One Policeman were killed. Kerem Oktem writes “As the country was shaken down by bomb explosions for which no one claimed responsibility, bank robberies by radicalized socialists and battles between rival student groups, the Chief of the General Staff and the commanding officers met regulary to agree on the modalities of the looming intervention”.
Two years later, in 1971, the leftist People’s liberation front led by Deniz Gezmis, kidnapped four US soldiers. It seemed like it was the golden chance for Army Generals to strike. Army Units launched full attack on students, killing more than two and injuring hundreds, horrified by the events, Deniz Gezmis released the US soldiers to prevent further bloodshed, but it was too late. The next day, armed forces declared on the radio that they have taken over the country and issued a momerandum that accused both the parliament and the government of leading the state into anarchy and chaos. We can’t bear responsbility of the unfortunate events of the 60s alone to the guardian state that made sure the battle between students unions to be always on fire. But we also have to bear responsbility to both the leftist Marxists and the rightsit Islamists, who participated by their naivety in creating the suitable nature for the 1971 coup. But again, I personally believe that none of these events could’ve been unfolded with such brutality if it wasn’t fo the 1960 coup that ousted the very first elected government and president in Turkish modern history. When random killings, protestes, bombings, and bank robberies continued even after the coup, the junta government declared that the 1960 constitution is too luxurious for us, therefore they quickly changed more than fourty articles in the constitution, restricting human rights, individual freedoms, and gave a bigger role for the military. Ten-Thousands political activists were jailed, and Deniz Gezmis was executed at the prime age of 24 when he was accused of being the prime enemy of the state.
Years following the 1971 coup
The guardian state took over the political shere despite the Parliament’s survival. Eleven governments came and went along the decade following the coup. None of them were able to address the people, face the protests, strikes, and the economical collapse. The longest lasted three years, while the shortest was voted down after a month. The first pro-coup elections took place in 1973 which resulted in an odd coalition of Leftists led by Ecevit, and Islamists led by Erbakan. A new crisis was on the horizone when the Turkish army occupied Greek Cyprus, killing more than 5000 Greek Cypriots. After several years of government somehow in control over few bank robberies, in 1978, an Islamist/Nationalist mob targeted an Alevi community in the city of Maras. The army refused the governor’s reuqest to interfere and maintain order, they simply looked the other way. A week later, a hundred Alevi were killed and their properties were looted. But as usual, bringing back harsh memories of the 6/7 pogroms in 1955, Kerem Oktem testifies “It is now an established fact that the events were planned by groups within the army and executed by extreme nationalist followers of Alparsalan Turkes[Yes the same one behind the 6/7 pogroms].” And due to such massacre, chaos rose again with random bombings, bank robberies, political fractions shootings, political assassiantions, and the rise of organized Turkish mafia that was used by different politicians to assassinate each other. This organized crime was indeed the right hand of the guardian state through out the 70s. And amidst this social and political chaos, the guardian sate strikes again with the 1980 coup led by General Evren [who was lately convicted for the 1980 coup in the Ergenekon trial in 2013] where lots of Turks consider it to be the most viscious and bloody coup in their history. Kerem Oktem summarzies “Turkey in the summer of 1980 was a country at war with itself. Political assassinations, communitarian violence, random killings, and militant activism had brought daily life to a standstill. On the surface, the military stepped in to save the nation. In fact, Evren and his co-conspirators assumed power, after they realized that the behind-the-scenes politics of the last three decades had not produced the desired results, i.e. a country and society that operated within the narrow confines set by the military elites and guardians of the state.”
That will be the end of part 1 since I found it almost impossible not to mention lots of events and since I tried to be very brief about the Turkish political scene under the constant military coups. The years following the 1980 coup till the rise of Erdogan’s AKP and it’s on-going struggle with the guardian state needs a separate article where many details can not be simply ignored.