General Basbug’s Arrest Underscores Growing Civilian Power in Turkey

A general’s arrest shows Erdogan’s shift from curbing military power to adopting its authoritarian tactics.

Adem Altan, AFP / Getty Images

Turkish prosecutors arrested the former head of Turkey’s military early Friday morning in a dramatic escalation of an ongoing feud between the country’s civilian government and its once-powerful military. Gen. Ilker Basbug, who stood down as chief of Turkey’s General Staff in August 2010, was arrested after seven hours of questioning on charges of “heading a terrorist organization” and allegedly plotting against the civilian government of the Islamist-rooted AK Party.

Turkish president and AK Party cofounder Abdullah Gul said that “all are equal under the law” after Basbug’s arrest, and the government insists that the prosecutors are not acting on political orders. But overlapping investigations over the last three years into several alleged plots against the government have resulted in the arrests of hundreds of Army officers and journalists, all of them opponents of the AK Party. Many Turks see the investigations as payback for years of persecution of political Islamists by the ultrasecularist Turkish military. “This is a politically motivated trial that is devoid of justice and law,” Ahmet Sik, one of several journalists imprisoned 10 months ago on similar charges to Basbug’s, told an Istanbul court Friday. “With the help of the police and the judiciary, dissidents are unlawfully clapped into jails on trumped-up charges.”

But journalists and midranking officers are one thing; arresting a former chief of the General Staff shows just how far the balance of power has shifted between Turkey’s military and civilian authorities in the last 10 years. The Turkish military has removed four governments in as many decades, the last as recently as 1997, when the generals ousted a mildly Islamist government from power. In 1999 Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the AK Party’s guiding force, was jailed for nine months for Islamic sedition. Now Erdogan is Turkey’s prime minister, and the boot is very much on the other foot: since 2008 nearly 300 Army officers, including eight generals, have been arrested and put on trial for a variety of antigovernment offenses.

Basbug’s arrest was undoubtedly dramatic, but the substance of the charges against him appears slim. Other members of the shadowy conspiracies known as “Ergenekon” and “Balyoz” have been charged with plotting and executing murders, bombings, and assassinations in order to destabilize the government. But Basbug stands accused of sponsoring a clutch of websites designed to spread accusations of official corruption and link the AK Party to extremist and Islamist groups abroad.

“If I am being accused of bringing down the government with a couple of press statements and one or two Internet stories, this is very hard to swallow,” Basbug told reporters. “If I had such evil intentions, as the commander of a 700,000-strong force I could have found other ways of doing it.”

There will doubtless be dismay in military circles at Basbug’s detention, but it’s not clear what they can do about it. Though Turkey’s largely conscript Army remains the country’s most widely respected institution, putting tanks on the streets is no longer an option. Last July the entire Turkish General Staff resigned in protest at a previous round of arrests. But Gul and Erdogan quickly found willing replacements for the top officers, and the resignations failed to dent the AK Party’s popularity in last summer’s general election, where it won 50 percent of the vote.

Initially, Erdogan’s moves to limit the political powers of the overly mighty Army drew praise from the European Union and were hailed as a pro-democracy initiative. But as the numbers of detained have grown—the arrestees include more than 100 journalists, a greater number than is being held in Chinese jails—Brussels has become increasingly uneasy. The European Commission expressed concern Friday “about judicial proceedings that might put at risk the rights of the defendant” and warned that the political nature of the cases “might raise questions in the public about their legitimacy.” A decade ago, the military used Turkey’s courts to jail people it believed were dangerous to its secular ideology, including Erdogan himself. “History proves us that any power that tears down its predecessor keeps the bad seeds of the overthrown inside itself,” Sik told judges at a court hearing Friday. Erdogan, for all his claims to have made Turkey more democratic, now appears to be simply using his old enemies’ authoritarian tactics against them.