[Originally published in Hurriyet Daily News, with readers' comments]
It is too bad that Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s iron-handed dictator, refused to step down, despite the demands of millions. Yet still some form of “transition” to democracy has begun in that pivotal Arab country. My prayers go for the future of that change and its heroic leaders.
A less heroic yet quite powerful actor which allowed this change to begin, even in its limited extent, has been the Egyptian military, which refused to turn its guns against its own people. Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, the defense minister, expressed this stance in clear terms, as Roger Cohen reported in the New York Times. “The army exists to defend the nation,” the man said, “not a regime.”
As I have written before, it is crucial that the Egyptian army leads the nation to free and fair elections and not establish a dictatorship of its own. That doomed option must be monitored closely and opposed forcefully. Yet it is still a refreshing thing to hear about a military which protects “the nation … not a regime.”
I am saying this especially as a Turk, for our own military has repeated a zillion times that its foremost goal is to protect “the Republic” and its principles laid out by “the Supreme Leader,” Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. We also know well that the Turkish military long considered certain segments of the nation — such as conservative Muslims, Kurds or liberals — as enemies within. Instead of reforming the regime to comply with the aspirations of such social groups, our generals rather preferred to intimidate those groups and force them to surrender to their authoritarian “red lines.”
Things have been changing, though. Since the Justice and Development Party, or AKP, came to power in 2002, there has been an erratic yet still gradual decline in the military’s grip on political power. And while this “de-militarization” process made the conservative Muslims, Kurds and the liberals happy, it made others quite disillusioned.
Last week, Süheyl Batum of the main opposition Republican People’s Party, or CHP, expressed this disillusionment in a somewhat scandalous fashion. At a talk at a local branch of the Kemalist Thought Association, he said: “It turns out [the military] was a paper tiger, and we thought it was an army. Turns out, the U.S. simply carved a hole in it. They were able to fell that gigantic tree within seconds.”
In other words, the military failed to do its rightful job (stage a coup against the AKP), because the United States did not allow that happen.
Seriously, that is what most secularists in Turkey believe. I would beg to differ a bit by redefining what they call “the United States” as ”globalization” — something that they don’t understand much. But I do admit that they are basically right: The Turkish military failed to do what orthodox Kemalism dictates to it: overthrowing a non-Kemalist government.
There is another thing that Dr. Batum said, and it was interesting as well. He argued that while “America” was able to tame the Turkish military, the same operation did not work on his party. The CHP, he proudly concluded, stands heroically in defense of the Kemalist regime.
And this was nothing but a confirmation of what I have been saying all along: The Turkish military and the CHP stand basically for the same thing. In fact, we can roughly classify them as the “armed wing” and the “political wing” of the Kemalist ideology. No wonder there is more need for the political wing at times when the armed wing retreats. (Hence the CHP’s recent efforts to branch out and gain more votes.)
Looking at all this, we can say that Turkey, a bit like Egypt, is still in a “transformation” period. It has been absolutely helpful that the military turned into a “paper tiger” rather than a roaring one — roaring against its own people. But this is not enough.
The military also needs to be totally de-ideologized. In other words, it should not uphold the Kemalist ideology, and represent the Kemalist class, but reflect the diversity of the nation. We should be able to see generals who proudly speak Kurdish, or who go to the mosque regularly, or who are a laissez-faire liberal or an Armenian or a Jewish citizen. That is what I would call “an army of the nation.”
As for Batum, we should perhaps be thankful for him for being so bold and explanatory. I also think he should never, ever, be put on trial for “insulting the military,” as Prime Minister Erdoğan wrongly, and unbelievably, called for. What Batum said was certainly a reflection of a non-democratic mindset. But it cannot be a crime.
If it is, then I should be put on trial as well. For I, too, could join Batum in defining the current Turkish military as a “paper tiger” — when it comes to its stance vis-a-vis its own nation. But unlike Batum, I would regard this as very, very good news.