The Ergenekon Coup Trials' Verdict: A Message from Turkey for Egypt's Coup Generals?

09/13/2013 10:52 am ET | Updated Nov 13, 2013

On July 3, Egypt's one-year-old experiment with democracy was brought to an end by the military coup. The termination of Egypt's fledgling democracy was accompanied by the arbitrary arrests of democratically elected president and other officials, the witch hunt of the Muslim Brotherhood members, and a series of massacres. This coup has not only crashed Egypt's one year old democratic experiment, but it has also ushered in a period of pessimism for the forces that have envisioned a democratic future for the region, while it has lit the green light to the authoritarian regional regimes that they can continue to do the things the way they have been accustomed to, as long as they possess the means to forcefully suppress their people's aspirations.

While Egypt's military led coup leaders have been in a victorious and upbeat mood since the coup, there has been a completely opposite picture among Turkey's coup plotters and deep state elements on August 5, as Ergenekon case's verdicts were read out.

Initially launched in 2007 after the discovery of a cache of arms in Istanbul's Umraniye district, the Ergenekon case has since then expanded into a broader case comprising 23 different files and a total of 275 defendants. The defendants were made up of a group of staunchly secular - nationalist high ranking military officers including Ilker Başbuğ, a former Chief of General Staff, top bureaucrats, academics and journalists. Of the 275 defendants, 254 were convicted on that day for plotting extrajudicial killings and bombings, and inducing an atmosphere of fear in order to prepare the ground for a military coup to topple the Islamically-sensitive AK Party government. Of convicts, 17 people received life sentences; Ilker Basbug and 13 others were high ranking military officers. Therefore, when the day of judgment finally arrived, the mood of Turkey's coup plotters was in stark contrast to the mood of jubilant coup camps in Egypt.

Despite these differences in mood, these two incidents brought to public attention the ever present issue of civil-military relations in both countries. Both Egyptian and Turkish armies have wielded disproportionate influence on the political course of their respective countries. Their roles were not confined to security sectors, as expected from an army in a democratic political sphere. Instead, they have had a more expansive reading of their self-appointed roles. They have regarded it only natural to elaborate on the acceptable course of their respective countries' politics and maintain a great presence in their economies. Whenever they thought that elected civilian governments were straying away from the course acceptable to them, they did not shy away from intervening in politics or toppling the elected governments.

Yet, in recent years, Turkey has witnessed a dramatic change in civil-military relations. The civilian government seems to rein in once powerful generals. This picture begets some questions: What were the factors leading the Turkish army to be so coup prone previously? How has the civilian government reined in the military in recent years? Finally, Does Turkey's experience have any relevance for Egypt's coup plotters?

The roots of the coup culture

A cursory examination of Turkey's military's role in the political system reveals two paramount factors that motivate military to be so coup-prone in its interaction with civilian politics. First, the military was the first institution to undergo the process of modernization during the late period of Ottoman Empire. The military was not only the first institution to be modernized, it also undertook the job of modernizing the rest. Moreover, a significant portion of modern Turkey's founding fathers had a military career. They regarded themselves as being the bearers of Western modernity and progress. They believed that their role did not only entail creating a new state but also a new 'people', to be formed top-down through state-machinery.

To put it more explicitly, they believed that it is only through a social engineering that Turkish society could be saved from its "backward", "Middle Eastern" and "Islamic" mind-set and life-style to become a "western-oriented" and "secular" society. This mentality of 'knowing what is best for the society and doing it for them' formed the basis of military-led guardianship system in Turkey. The essence of this mindset was that people do not know what is good for them and it is 'us' that can tell them what is good for them. This 'us' were comprised of military and high ranking Kemalist civilian bureaucracy, and supported by the Westernized section, minority, of society.

Since people did not know what was good for them and society, their political representatives were viewed with contempt and suspicion. Because of that, all the major political issues were regarded as being too important to be left to civilian governments, rather they were seen as being exclusively within the prerogative of military-led guardianship system. Civilian governments role were reduced to the implementation of development projects and municipality tasks. As it is obvious, in this system, the military-led guardianship paid lip service to elections and democratic processes. And whenever a civilian government attempted to exercise control over these sensitive, major issues as a result of popular mandate and democratic legitimacy that it received from people, the military felt no qualms to intervene to halt this democratic political process, as demonstrated by four coups.

Second, this primacy in the political system accrued significant economic benefits for the military. To make the point clearer, the military initiated economic ventures in Turkey ranges from an ownership of insurance company to banking sector, and to many other sectors. Moreover, after the February 28, 1997 coup, many generals occupied seats in the boardrooms of major banks and other companies. On top of these, until recently, the civilian governments had no control or supervision over the army's budget. A similar story, on a larger scale, holds true for Egypt as well. Estimates put Egyptian army's presence in the economic life of the country to be somewhere between 15% and 40% of the overall economy. Therefore, protecting these economic privileges is another motivation for trigger-happy generals to intervene in politics both in Turkey as well as in Egypt.

Dismantling the coup system

Yet, while Egypt is dealing with the consequences of a brutal military coup, Turkey has been busy with dismantling the structure that facilitated the ground for plotting of coups in recent years. This dismantling of coup infrastructure involve three phases; two of these phases have largely been completed, while the third one is yet to commence.

The first phase involved the government showing determination to go after coup plotters. Upon the coming of the Islamically-sensitive AK Party to power in 2002, some segments within the Turkey's military, with help from bureaucratic and civilian elements, began to devise plans to topple the government. These plots received as diverse nicknames as Ergenekon, Sledgehammer, Sarikiz and etc. Upon the discovery of these attempts in 2007-2008, the civilian government decided to fight back by throwing its full support behind the judicial processes to investigate these cases and to hold coup plotters accountable. As a result, a large number of military officials, including a large number of generals, were prosecuted along with other bureaucratic and civilian elements. Prosecution of high ranking military officials responsible for coup plotting was a novelty in Turkey's political history.

The second was concerned with depurating of Turkey's judicial system of articles that legitimized or were used as pretext for plotting a coup d'état. Of all articles, article 35 of the army's internal service code, which stated that the military has a duty to preserve and protect the Republic of Turkey, was believed to provide legal justification for a coup d'état was amended by a parliamentary vote on July 13, 2013.

The third phase, which is yet to commence will deal with the democratization of military schools' curricula. One has to recognize that military schools' highly nationalistic, Kemalist, and civilian government suspicious education system provides fertile ground for a tutelary system to emerge which regards a coup a necessary instrument to correct the course of civilian politics. Unless and until, Turkey undertakes a major reform of military schools' curricula and democratize it, the anomaly that has defined civil-military relations in Turkey for so long will not come to a complete end.

A message for Egypt?

With these trials a significant message has been sent, not just to the ones who have committed a grave crime of plotting a coup, but also to the ones who might envision of committing such a crime. From this perspective, these trials carry a significant message for the coup camps in Egypt. Sooner or later, the day of judgment will also arrive for them. The coup coalition has already exhibited the sign of cracking. Baradei resigned from his post. Although some Egyptians welcomed the coup at first, it is getting more obvious now that more and more Egyptian people demonstrate signs of displeasure with the coup and ensuing bloodbath as demonstrated by a recent poll, in which 73% of Egyptians laid the responsibility for coup and ensuing massacres squarely on the shoulders of Gen. Al Sisi and his coup camp.

In this respect, the Turkish experience provides a valuable lesson. The strongmen are not strong enough to commit crimes against people's will with impunity indefinitely. Sooner or later, they will be held accountable for the crimes that they have committed. Thus far, so many people have gleaned incorrect lessons from the Turkish experience. Richard Haas of the Council on Foreign Relations erroneously claimed that Turkish army has nurtured the process of democratization and suggested a similar role can be played by the Egyptian army. This was a grave misconception. Middle Eastern Armies may have partly been modernizing armies, yet, they have never been democratizing forces.

It was Turkey's people, not generals that have nurtured the process of democratization. This process involved also holding once all too powerful generals accountable for the crimes they have committed against popular will, democratic legitimacy and democratization. This is not just a Turkish experience. It has also been repeated by many other countries who have experienced transition from tutelary regimes and military juntas to democracy. And it is unlikely that Egypt will prove to be an exception in the long run.