From Istanbul to God Knows Where

by Henry Farrell on May 3, 2007

Like a few other CTers, I’m swamped with end of semester duties at the moment, but wanted to point to this “very useful FT article”: on the background to the Turkey crisis, and make a few short arguments in lieu of a proper post. As Brad DeLong often says, the FT is the best newspaper in the world (albeit not entirely without flaws); certainly, I haven’t seen any detailed English language analysis anywhere of the lead-up that competes with this piece.

the story of the past few weeks is a tale of misunderstandings, sexism, snobbery, bruised egos and mutinous soldiers, from which nobody emerges with much credit. … Mr Erdogan seemed to be racked with indecision over whether to run for the presidency himself … But he knew that his would be a divisive candidacy … he and his closest advisers settled on two possible candidates from his party who would be acceptable to the army. … Getting the generals on side had proved unexpectedly easy. … The man he had to convince most of all was Bulent Arinc, the speaker of parliament. … Mr Arinc also wanted to be president. But his candidacy would have been even more divisive than Mr Erdogan’s. … After much deliberation, the three agreed that the candidate would have to be Mr Gul. …at general staff headquarters, … there was a sense of shock. What had happened to the two agreed candidates?

The immediate roots of the crisis are in internal divisions in Turkish society and personality politics. But it’s interesting how outside actors have influenced these domestic battles over the last several years, and have responded to what’s happened in the last few days. The European Union, over the longer term, has exacerbated internal tensions in Turkey badly over the last few years, or in the very kindest interpretation has done nothing to help relieve them. The prospect of EU membership helped stabilize relations between Islamists and the army, promising Islamists a greater degree of religious freedom and human rights, while reassuring the army that Turkey wouldn’t become an Iran-lite style Islamist republic. The underlying tensions that have now exploded can be traced back in part to the ever more explicit reluctance of powerful EU member states to countenance Turkey joining, even in the long run. Even so, during the current impasse, the EU’s enlargement commissioner, Olli Rehn has played a positive role by making it clear that a military coup, or anything like it, will stymie Turkey’s chances of membership more or less indefinitely. He’s also publicly warned member state governments that are skeptical of Turkish membership of the EU not to play politics. In contrast, the US, which should be held much less to blame over the longer term, has hinted that it isn’t entirely averse to the generals’ actions, saying that it considers the battle taking place to be an internal matter.

The current events in Turkey highlight starkly the contradictions in US policy. While the US has publicly committed to the spread of democracy etc, it hasn’t wanted to acknowledge that this spread is liable to go along with Islamists of one sort or another coming to power in regimes in the Middle East and elsewhere. Even the relatively mild variety of political Islam in Turkey (which seems likely, under the right conditions, to turn into a Muslim version of Christian Democracy) seems to make US policy makers break out in hives. If the US doesn’t take a more forthright stance on the implicit threat of the Turkish generals to overthrow the regime if they don’t get their way, it says rather a lot about their actual, as opposed to their nominal, commitment to the spread of democracy (but then, its mostly supine “attitude”: to the Egyptian ‘constitutional referendum’ in March has said quite a lot about that already).



Steve LaBonne 05.03.07 at 5:14 pm

Really, does anybody in the world still have even the tiniest atom of doubt about the Bush Administration’s “actual, as opposed to their nominal, commitment to the spread of democracy”?


Jim 05.03.07 at 7:01 pm

The FT piece isn’t bad, but to get the bigger picture, I think readers will find this BBC Q&A more helpful:


otto 05.03.07 at 7:29 pm

There’s lots that could be said here. I don’t think there’s much evidence for example that a fuller commitment to EU enlargement would make the Turkish generals happier with a headscarf-wearing President’s wife. I might put this sort of view down to your Schimmelfennig-mania, Henry, but that’s a subject for another day. Also, I can’t find on the web what Olli Rehn said in his ‘warning’ to member states opposed to Turkey joining, but it sounds suspiciously like the unelected commissioner telling the elected politicians to shut up: European politics at its worst.

But there is a timing issue here which I haven’t seen noted in the press. Sarko may well be elected President of France this weekend, and his position on Turkey’s EU entry is, as I understand it, summed up by the word ‘never’. That may make for some awkward moments, in both Paris and Ankara.


P O'Neill 05.03.07 at 8:35 pm

Among the many chickens trying to find space on the roost is that after the Orange and Cedar “Revolutions” of the last couple of years, the US could find itself this summer responding to crowds on the streets in Israel and Turkey demanding the downfall of democratically elected governments.


otto 05.03.07 at 8:36 pm

What’s wrong with crowds demanding the downfall of democratically elected governments?


Hidari 05.03.07 at 8:38 pm

If anyone cares, there’s quite a good article on the current situation in the New Left Review:

And I’m with Steve LaBonne about the American ‘commitment to democracy’. Surely no one except the few dwindling members of the International League of Decency still believe that George Bush has a ‘messianic mission’ to democratise the middle east?


Barry 05.04.07 at 2:21 am

“Among the many chickens trying to find space on the roost is that after the Orange and Cedar “Revolutions” of the last couple of years, the US could find itself this summer responding to crowds on the streets in Israel and Turkey demanding the downfall of democratically elected governments.”

Posted by P O’Neill ·

After the ‘Cedar Revolutionaries’ beloved by right-wingers turned in an instant to ‘bomb all of the sand-n*ggers and let God sort them out’ last summer, that most people outside of the GOP in the USA had gotten the message about democracy.


Quo Vadis 05.04.07 at 5:50 am

Henry writes:

US … it says rather a lot about their actual, as opposed to their nominal, commitment to the spread of democracy

With the US now forced to kiss up to every thug in the region, including the Syrians and Iranians, in order get our butts our of Iraq, any hope of cultivating a better class of friends there is lost. I fully expect that the Lebanese will be sold to the Syrians for Syrian cooperation.

I fear that we are right back where we were on September 10, 2001.


Doug 05.04.07 at 8:38 am

The AK does seem probably to become a CDU-like party. Though there are clerical and theocratic elements that do want to challenge the secular nature of the republic.

But what about countries where the Islamist version of democracy means, “One man, one vote, one time”? God’s party gets voted in and takes its mandate to mean it can never be voted out again. I’m thinking here of Algeria in the mid-90s, but surely there are other examples. What are US and EU interests in such cases?


Hidari 05.04.07 at 10:10 am

‘I’m thinking here of Algeria in the mid-90s, but surely there are other examples. ‘

Er..yeah and what exactly happened in Algeria?

‘On December 26, 1991, the FIS handily won the first round of parliamentary elections; with 48% of the overall popular vote, they won 188 of the 231 seats contested in that round, putting them far ahead of rivals. The army saw the seeming certainty of resulting FIS rule as unacceptable. On January 11, 1992, it cancelled the electoral process, forcing President Chadli Bendjedid to resign and bringing in the exiled independence fighter Mohammed Boudiaf to serve as a new president. Many FIS members were arrested, including FIS number three leader Abdelkader Hachani on January 22. A state of emergency was declared, and the government officially dissolved FIS on March 4. On July 12, Abbassi Madani and Ali Belhadj were sentenced to 12 years in prison.’

Now don’t get me wrong. Perhaps the Islamic Salvation Front would have been just as awful as some people thought (although would it really have been worse than our staunch ally in the region, Saudi Arabia?). But the fact is that

a: the party did NOT get an overall majority: it got 48% and

b: the party was not allowed to fairly take part in the ‘real’ elections that should have followed.

Instead the military (NOT the Islamists) abolished democracy and started slaughtering people, with, of course, Western help.

The power of Islamic parties is obviously not to be underestimated, but when it is put to the ballot box, it is rarely quite as strong as Westerners tend to assume. Even in Palestine, Hamas did not win an overall majority of the vote, getting only 42.9% (and of course, the President remains Abbas, a member of Fatah).

In fact, to the best of my knowledge NO radical Islamic Party has EVER come to power via free and fair elections and then gone onto abolish democracy (as ‘Westerners’ tend to assume will happen).

However, it is certainly true that FEAR of an ‘Islamic takeover’ is frequently used in the West as an excuse to cancel elections when it looks like Governments that are not friendly to ‘Western interests’ (a euphemism) might get elected.


H. 05.04.07 at 2:40 pm

The prospect of EU membership

Surely all talk of EU membership for Turkey is academic, since Sarkozy – profoundly opposed to Turkey joining – will most likely be elected to the French presidency on Sunday.


c.l. ball 05.04.07 at 4:07 pm

There’s a potential dicey dynamic with the prospect of EU membership:

– the less secularist of the AKP may feel that the fear of a certain EU rejection if the military coups or is too heavy handed short of a coup will coup-proof them, and so they press harder, going too far, and provoking a coup.

– European officials vehemently against Muslim immigration send signals supporting a military coup in hopes that a secularist dictatorship will staunch emigration to the mainland.

– the Turkish military calculates that the EU would prefer a post-coup secularist government over a non-coup less secularist gov’t and coups, despite what Rehn says.

The wild-card is what the Turkish military’s view of EU membership is: does anyone have a good source on this? I don’t know off-hand. I see no inherent reason to presume the military would be pro-EU simply because it is pro-secular.


Henry 05.04.07 at 5:10 pm

otto – on the broader point, my understanding is that even if the Turkish generals weren’t ever going to be happy about Islamists in power, they were less fearful of a soft takeover in the context of EU rules that would make that more difficult (the Copenhagen criteria, procedures for suspension etc). As C.L. Ball says, it would be nice to have a better source on this – mine is mostly based on reading the press and the quasi-academic literature. The Schimmelfennig stuff is entirely irrelevant – I once thought based on his arguments that the EU was likely to have to give Turkey membership – but I certainly don’t think so any more. As for the unelected officials bit – if Olli Rehn wants to raise the costs for EU politicians who would like to bollocks stuff up further, and perhaps deliberately increase the chances of a military coup, I’m all for it.

On the Sarkozy thing – it’s unclear whether he can actually _stop_ negotiations, though he can surely make them a hell of a lot more complicated. The negotiation process has been delegated to EU officials, and can’t really be taken back without unanimous agreement among the member states if my understanding of the procedures is correct. However, repeated “over my dead body” pronouncements from Sarkozy, assuming he wins, are obviously going to have an unsettling impact at best on the discussions.

The dynamic that C.L. Ball identifies is a plausible one. However, it still seems to me that the possible effects of AKP over-confidence are less likely to have deleterious consequences than the problems associated with EU cold feet (which effectively remove an outside guarantor from the table and mean that both sides have less incentive to trust each other than they would otherwise). That said, I’m surely not an area expert (I know the EU side pretty well, but have nothing approaching specific academic expertise in domestic Turkish politics)


yon 05.04.07 at 5:37 pm

does anyone have any reasonably brief backgrounder on why the turkish army is so resolutely secular, or pointers to interesting books for the layman?


franck 05.04.07 at 8:51 pm


Iran is a possible exception, where there was a broad movement to overthrow the shah. The communists and liberals were then repressed by the Islamists once they took power. Of course, the Islamists didn’t really take power at the ballot box.

For me, the problem is that much of the political elite in Turkey doesn’t accept democracy and human rights. As long as the secular elite is allowed to remain in power, they restrict themselves to killing and oppressing Kurds and radical leftists. But should a non-secular (in the French sense) power be poised to take power, well then the glove has to come off, and this whole “democracy” and “will of the people” thing has to come to an end. No one can be allowed to challenge the “principles” of Attatuk and the sacred right of the army and security services to torture and kill those Turkish citizens it deems to be subversives.


Randy McDonald 05.04.07 at 10:23 pm


“Instead the military (NOT the Islamists) abolished democracy and started slaughtering people, with, of course, Western help.”

Both may have; the Islamists of Algeria certainly were violently misogynistic.

“The FIS victory at the polls, while a clear expression of popular disenchantment with repressive and ineffectual FLN policies, is a matter of deep concern in certain Algerian circles. Human rights and women’s rights activists and multiparty advocates, who had been at the forefront of demands for reform, question the commitment of FIS to democratic rule. A number of verbal and physical attacks against women and the use of strong–arm tactics against members of rival political parties have underscored their concern. In both cases, Islamic militants have been identified as the culprits.1

The attacks against women have usually occurred during attempts by Islamic fundamentalists to force women to conform to their own strict interpretation of religious precepts, such as wearing particular clothing and limiting their participation in public life. In one incident in April in the town of Blida, several female college students were attacked by bearded men with whips, when they attempted to leave their campus to attend a rally sponsored by the communist Socialist Vanguard Party.2 In another incident in the city of Annaba, Islamic militants burned down the house of a member of a women’s rights association who was leading a campaign against FIS’ attempts to impose Shari’a religious law. Activists accuse the government of adopting a “hands–off” policy toward the perpetrators of such violence. (However, several Islamists received long prison sentences in January 1991 for setting fire in 1989 to the house of a women they accused of having “loose morals.” The sentences, handed down in a court in Ouargla, were reported to be the first time Islamists have received stiff punishments for such attacks.)”


goes into more detail.


Richard 05.05.07 at 4:34 am

I fear that we are right back where we were on September 10, 2001.

If only.


Aidan Kehoe 05.05.07 at 6:47 pm

Yon, I don’t have any actual pointers, but Atatürk (who essentially made the modern Turkish state) was an army guy from way back; he was the hero of Gallipoli and a generally successful soldier. The Army’s preservation of his agenda sounds like it’s motivated by chauvinism.


CG 05.05.07 at 8:12 pm

The AK Partisi is, let’s be clear, a *liberal* party. Increasing openness in Turkish society favors the AKP and similarly the AKP favors a general liberalization in economic and political attitudes, EU membership and so on. Note, however, that this represents movement on a separate plane from 1) relations with Syria and Iran, which the AKP has been working on improving, and 2) relations with the US, which the AK has been showing less and less interest in preserving.

Personally I see the AKP somewhat positively. Though they are not secularists, they are clearly modern, technocratic, and very very competent. The Christian Democrat (or US Republican) analogy is apt. The thuggishness of the Turkish “left”, as represented by the CHP and the army, has not really been changed by the changes in Turkish society over the last 10 years and consequently feels completely outdated. A rejuvenated secular left, free from Deniz Baykal, would be great, if it could pull the secularists out of the CHP and the military’s grip. Unfortunately non-CHP left rhetoric in Turkey is wrapped up with the Kurdish question — which, for better or worse, is non-negotiable for almost all non-Kurds in Turkey.

A larger problem than the AK/CHP feud is, I think, the rise of virulent Turkish nationalism on both the Islamic and secular side of the spectrum.


CG 05.05.07 at 8:14 pm

In the above post, I realize I implied that the Republicans were competent. My mistake.


Geoff R 05.08.07 at 11:20 am

Waving pictures of Ataturk and glancing to the army looks like US Democrats waving pictures of JFK and trusting in the Supreme Court to protect them against the Republicans. But it is curious that no commentator has examined the social basis of secularism in Turkey, who are these million protestors?

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