Mighty generals, police chiefs and who else?
The arrest of retired Gen. Çevik Bir in the early hours of Monday, following a long interrogation that began the day before, was not unexpected, looking back on the wave of probes and arrests that have taken place in the last couple of years. But it would have been something unthinkable up until, again, a couple of years ago.
Whether it is happenstance or coincidence, the Supreme Court of Appeals approved a jail sentence for Mehmet Ağar the same day. Ağar was a former intrepid police chief in the early 1990s, and later a shady politician in the late 1990s, serving first as justice minister and then interior minister. Ağar was the first to resign from the coalition government of Islamist Necmettin Erbakan and center right Tansu Çiller (known as the Refahyol) in 1996. He was interior minister at that time, and his resignation was due to the embarrassing humiliation of Prime Minister Erbakan in the tent of an arrogant Muammar Gadhafi on his trip to Libya.
The same year, right after a scandalous traffic accident in which a Kurdish politician from Tansu Çiller’s True Path Party (DYP), an Istanbul police chief, a right-wing Grey Wolf militant wanted by Interpol, and his girlfriend, were involved in crash while riding in a Mercedes with guns in the trunk (only the Kurdish politician survived), an incredible campaign against the government began. At first this was led by civil rights groups, but soon it was hijacked by the soldiers, who hated to see the “religious lot” in power.
Çevik Bir, as the then-deputy chief of General Staff, was the spearhead and symbol of the campaign. In his former capacity he had served as the head of the international force in Somalia, fit and handsome for his age, speaking of Atatürk with every second word, he stood for the antithesis of what Erbakan represented. With a full-court press by the military, the “the government must go for good” front started to gain ground with many, from judges to trade unions, from business associations to the media.
Perhaps the worst day for Erbakan was the National Security Board’s meeting on Feb. 28, 1997, which gave the whole slow motion coup its name. Chaired by President Süleyman Demirel, the meeting turned into a boxing ring where five four-star generals were punching a sweating prime minister. Nine hours later Erbakan left the room with a plan to fight “religious reactionism,” which to the military meant his own grassroots supporters.
Would Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, a rising disciple of Erbakan at that time, stay silent in a room being bashed by generals for all those hours, and then sign whatever they had asked him to sign as a government order? Many would say no. Of course, to compare the case of the military intervention to politics on April 27, 2007, and Erdoğan’s decisive dismissal of it the next day might not be the best example.
In 1997, neither Demirel, nor Erbakan, nor the generals were fully aware that the “zeitgeist” for coups d’etat in Turkey was over, together with the end of the Cold War, when Western allies needed Turkish military more than its politicians.
So the post-modern coup now on trial was successful thanks to some saber-rattling by soldiers. As an exhausted Erbakan stepped down, his supporters had begun to desert him. The pious ones did not want an open fight with soldiers, which they were afraid to lose, so they leaned on someone who promised a victory, not through fighting but through the vote. So began the times of Erdoğan.