Turkey's 29 July Process

The Middle East is changing, though we don't yet know the final outlines of its transformations. The Palestinian march to the United Nations to ask for recognition as an independent state continues. Massive protests in Israel on housing prices and other socioeconomic conditions are weakening the government. Egypt continues to be roiled by demonstrations against business as usual. The Syrian regime has launched something like an all-out war on protestors across the country.

Lost in all this visible drama is what's been happening relatively quietly in Turkey, which is the seemingly inexorable concentration of power in the hands of the Islamists of the Justice and Development Party (the AKP in its Turkish acronym). On Friday, July 29, the entire top echelon of the Turkish Armed Forces resigned. There are some conflicting accounts of how this came about, but a close reading of developments over the last few years would suggest that it is part of a slow campaign by the AKP to strengthen itself at the expense of the military.

It would not be an exaggeration to say that this struggle is a continuation of the decades-old one between the Islamists and the Kemalists (the mostly pro-Western elements within the state and politics who want to keep Turkey secular) over how to define Turkey. Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey, called the military the "guardian" of the Turkish nation's ideals (by which he meant the consignment of religion to the private sphere). Article 35 of the 1960 Turkish Armed Forces Internal Service Law stated it was the army's duty to "safeguard and defend" not just "Turkish territory" but the very "Republic of Turkey."

When the AKP was first voted into power in 2002, observers disagreed over whether this was the beginning of an Islamist takeover of Turkish norms and laws. Those who argued that it wasn't pointed out that the party was formed from a split with the more hardline Islamists in the Felicity Party. Felicity received only 2.5 percent of the popular vote, not even enough to pass the 10-percent threshold for representation in the parliament. AKP obtained 34 percent of the popular vote, far from a majority but enough for analysts to argue that the moderate Islamists had triumphed over the more ideologically oriented Felicity Party.

They also pointed out that the AKP's leader, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, had publicly committed to keeping Islam out of the public arena, and had made efforts to work with the military, unlike his Islamist predecessor Necmettin Erbakan, who seemed to take every opportunity to fight with the armed forces.

In the 2011 general elections, the AKP won its third mandate -- and this time received about 50 percent of the vote. By this time, it had also eased out of power many Kemalists from positions in the civil service, including in the judicial and education areas. It also successfully implemented -- as a requirement for membership in the European Union -- a number of domestic laws designed to remove the military's power in political decision-making, including reducing its presence in the powerful National Security Council.

Observers have also noted that Erdoğan himself has become increasingly less conciliatory toward his rivals and those who disagree with him -- indeed, that he is becoming autocratic. All of this, it is being argued more frequently, is part of his efforts to bring Islam more into the public sphere and turn Turkey from a Muslim-majority country into an Islamist state.

We might refer to the resignation of the Turkish Chief of Staff, chief of the navy, of the army, and of the air force, as the beginning of the 29 July process. This is a contrast to the 28 February process, which the armed forces initiated against Islamists throughout government, politics and the military beginning on that date in 1997. Those suspected of Islamist sympathies were eased out of their positions, and the military kept up pressure on the Islamist prime minister until he, too, resigned about a month later. The process was seen as a victory for the military, in that it retained the power to "guide" Turkish politics and keep it "safe" from Islamists and Islam.

The resignations on July 29 are only the latest in a series of incidents that the government is believed to be inflicting on the military. A couple of high-profile accusations -- some of which are believable and accompanied by evidence, and some that are not -- highlight the increasing power of the civilian-Islamist government over the military.

The 28 February process was so named because on that day the military gave the Islamist Prime Minister Erbakan a list of demands designed to weaken Islamist influence in the country. Perhaps, when more information comes out about the decisions and actions that led to the resignations on July 29, we will learn that the Islamist government has turned the tables on the military. Their positions reversed, this might represent a victory for the Islamists over the military in the long battle for the soul of Turkey.