Turkish Premier Recep Tayyip Erdogan was one of the most vociferous critics of
the overthrow of Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi. He and Morsi were cut from
the same Islamist cloth and both steadily began a phased anti-military purge.
Erdogan, however, enjoyed a long head start, whereas wary generals, who saw the
handwriting on the wall in Ankara, stopped latecomer Morsi in his
Not long after Morsi was deposed on July 3, the drawn-out Turkish
saga reached its climax when former chief of staff Gen. Ilker Basbug was
sentenced to life imprisonment for his role in an alleged conspiracy to topple
Basbug was not alone. Nearly 300 people were prosecuted,
including prominent politicians and journalists.
Three serving opposition
parliamentarians from the Republican People’s Party were sent up for between 12
and 35 years each.
Superficially, this can be presented as a victory for
democracy, just as the same superficiality portrays the Egyptian upheaval as a
blow against democracy.
US President Barack Obama toes this line. He gave
unstinting support to Erdogan over the years, despite his excesses, not only as
the people’s choice but as a prime example of the ostensible compatibility of
Islamic religiosity and democracy. For these same reasons Obama boosted Morsi.
Europe followed suit with unconcealed alacrity.
Too bad the leaders of
the Free World did not understand what President Shimon Peres said back in 1980,
after the Turkish generals’ last attempt to seize power and impose their will
(for the third time since 1960).
Peres pointed out then that Turkey
debunks the accepted wisdom that the military is anti-democratic. In Turkey’s
case, Peres argued, the military is democracy’s guardian.
decades since modern Turkey’s founding father, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, rescued
his country from Ottoman decay, it was Turkey’s military that defended his
progressive constitution and prevented the reemergence of Muslim clerical
This might not have created a liberal democracy in Western
terms, but it built a bulwark against reaction and hence became the lesser of
likely evils. The same happened in Egypt, where the army stood behind every
ruler from Gamal Abdel Nasser to Hosni Mubarak.
Obama didn’t get it in
Turkey. He misread Egypt so badly that he abandoned Mubarak and ushered in
Muslim Brotherhood hegemony.
But the big picture that eluded Obama was
not misunderstood in Cairo and Ankara. Egypt’s beleaguered generals did not fail
to draw operative conclusions from what was happening to their Turkish
counterparts, while Erdogan instantly comprehended what Morsi’s ouster
signified. Erdogan lashed out vehemently against Egypt’s military leaders, not
least because they preempted the prospect of them ending up like his
Erdogan managed a piecemeal transformation whose cumulative
effects are becoming increasingly intolerable to secular upwardly mobile Turks.
The return to Islamic garb for women, which Ataturk forbade, the compulsory
Koran classes in schools, restrictions on alcohol sales and even bans on bright
lipstick for Turkish airlines stewardesses, all add up.
has become a punishable crime in courts controlled by the government. Erdogan’s
party, which rose on a strident anti-corruption campaign, is perceived as more
corrupt than its predecessors. The Erdogan personality cult – exemplified in his
omnipresent portraits – exacerbates the antipathy, as do his vituperative
outbursts, of the sort he has frequently aimed at Israel, but which also
proliferate against domestic targets.
The pugnacious Erdogan now aims to
run for president, since he cannot continue for another term as prime minister.
Accordingly, he aims to change the rules of the game and make the presidency
Those urban Turks who are relatively Europeanized have cause
As Peres opined all those years ago, the Middle East
demolishes clichés. In this region liberal secularists put their trust in the
military, whereas the forces of Islam are its hardly democratic adversaries.
Chipping away at the military hierarchy – to say nothing of eliminating it –
bolsters the fundamentalists and brings theocracy ever closer.
alternative is democratic, but the West – Israel included – needs to decide with
whom it would rather do business, or with whom it can do business.
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