On a fine day in late April 2007, a group of us were gathered outside the Istanbul offices of Agos, an Armenian-language newspaper, the editor of which had been shot dead three months earlier on the pavement where we were standing. A young man had been arrested, but few doubted that he was merely an insignificant hitman for the shady forces of the deep state. Agos is located on one of the main thoroughfares of central Istanbul, halfway between Taksim and Şişli Squares. I can no longer remember what exactly we were demonstrating for, except that we were working very hard to force the government into pursuing the investigation beyond the hapless hitman.
As I stood there, I noticed the traffic behind me getting heavier and noisier, even for Istanbul. I paid attention, and saw that it was also changing in nature: instead of the usual mix of old and new, domestic and imported vehicles of every imaginable kind, it was turning into a procession of Mercedes and BMW four-wheel drives, SUVs and smaller but new and expensive cars. Most had men and women leaning out of their windows and sunroofs, waving large Turkish flags, honking and shouting. They were mostly well off, well dressed and young. Then I remembered. This was the day of the “Republic Rally”. The younger members and the children of the middle class were on their way to the demonstration.
One of the organisers, a professor of philosophy at Istanbul University called Necla Arat, had described the demonstration as:
For a secular, democratic, social, constitutional state; to say “stop” to reaction and to religious and racist fascism; for a fully independent Turkey against imperialism; for the indivisibility of our country and our nation; for a modern, secular, democratic, free, scientific education system; for dignity in our lives and at work; to defend the gains and institutions of the republican revolution…1
Almost every one of the words above (“secular”, used twice, “modern”, “reaction”, “religious fascism” and “the gains of the republican revolution”) was a euphemism heavily laden with political significance that would have been clear to the Turkish reader, and will hopefully become clear to the reader of this article.
The call issued by another of the committee members, Nur Serter, a professor of economics and Republican People’s Party (CHP) member of parliament, was even clearer:
While it has almost become a crime to say “How happy that I am a Turk”, we are asked to believe that it is a matter of human rights and democracy to be able to say “How happy that I am a Kurd” or “How happy that I am Armenian”. As a Turkish citizen, as a nationalist, I am grateful to the Turkish Armed Forces. I call on all who are proud to say “How happy that I am a Turk” to attend the rally.2
The demonstration was the second of a series of Republic Rallies. The first, in Ankara, had taken place two weeks previously, and was variously estimated to have been attended by between 300,000 and 1.4 million people. Many of those who had taken part had then marched to Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s mausoleum.3 The Istanbul demonstration was similarly huge, and it was followed by three more, in the Aegean cities of Çanakkale and Manisa on 5 May 2007, and in İzmir one week later. The last was the biggest, with the police estimating 600,000 and the organisers claiming 2.5 million. Some of the slogans shouted on this and the other demonstrations were “Turkey is and always will be secular”, “The road to Çankaya [the presidential palace in Ankara] is closed off to sharia”, “We do not want a headscarf in Çankaya” and “We are the soldiers of Mustafa Kemal.”
While not expressed explicitly, the aim of the demonstrations was to stop prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan from becoming president of the Republic. The incumbent Ahmet Necdet Sezer, a former chairman of the Constitutional Court and a staunch Kemalist who no one doubted was a soldier of Mustafa Kemal, was approaching the end of his seven-year term, with the presidential election on 27 April 2007. As the president was elected by parliament, and Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) enjoyed a comfortable majority, it was clear that he or whoever he chose to put forward would be the next president.4 In mid-April, two days before the meeting in Ankara, the head of the armed forces, General Yaşar Büyükanıt, declared, “I hope that a president will be elected who is attached, in substance and not just in words, to the fundamental values of the Republic, to the unitary structure of the state, and to the secular, democratic republic.” The message was clear: the armed forces did not want Erdoğan to be president. Equally clearly, the Republic Rallies were organised to provide the civilian backing and social base that would legitimise the military’s message.
The rallies, and further shenanigans by the military and their civilian backers, failed to achieve their purpose. The government’s presidential candidate turned out to be the foreign minister, Abdullah Gül. This may have been a conciliatory move by Erdoğan (or perhaps he was not prepared to give up the premiership for what was a largely ceremonial position), but it did not placate any of his adversaries. Two things happened when Gül won the votes of a majority of MPs in the election at the end of April.
First, a memorandum appeared on the website of the Joint Chiefs of Staff that very evening. The memorandum started: “We observe that certain milieus that have been attempting ceaselessly to erode the fundamental values of the state of the Turkish Republic, most importantly that of secularism, have recently intensified their efforts.” It then went on to list a number of recent events, all connected to the government, that it claimed reflected a “reactionary” outlook (the word used, irtica, refers specifically to religious reaction). The memorandum ended with an open threat to the government:
Recently, the issue that has come to the fore in the presidential election is the debate on secularism. The Turkish armed forces have been monitoring this state of affairs with grave concern. It must not be forgotten that the Turkish armed forces are party to this discussion and staunch defenders of secularism. Moreover, the Turkish armed forces are strongly opposed to such a debate and to unfavourable views on secularism, and will, when necessary, make their response clear and act in an unequivocal manner. No one should be in any doubt about this.
The government stood firm, and the memorandum disappeared from the website. We do not, to this day, know what went on behind the scenes.
The second thing that immediately followed the presidential vote in parliament was that the CHP, the main opposition party, challenged the election’s validity and took the matter to the constitutional court. Their objection centred on an obscurity of Turkish constitutional law. The constitution required a winning candidate for president to get the votes of two-thirds of the deputies (367 out of 550) in the first two rounds and, failing that, a simple majority (276) in the third. A few months previously, Sabih Kanadoğlu, a retired chairman of the supreme court and frequent speaker on Association of Atatürkist Thought platforms, had resurrected a claim first made some years previously that the figure 367 referred not only to the number of votes but was the required quorum. The government had 354 MPs, and Gül got 357 votes in the first round. But the other parties boycotted the election and only 361 MPs were in attendance. Clearly Gül would have been elected with a simple majority in the third round, unless the claim was accepted that a quorum of 367 was required.
As the Constitutional Court was deliberating, President Sezer made an impromptu speech about “religious reactionary movements” at a meeting of the National Security Council, while General Hurşit Tolon, commander of the 1st Army, said, “let them not forget, we are aware of the danger”5 at a meeting in Ankara, while the Republic Rallies were taking place in various cities. The Court finally ruled that a quorum of 367 was indeed required, and thus Gül could not now be elected.
The AKP then called an early general election, held on 22 July, and Erdoğan’s party won with 46.6 percent, increasing its vote by 12 points. The presidential election was repeated in August, and this time the fascist National Action Party (MHP) agreed to attend. Gül was elected president with a simple majority in the third round of voting. He was succeeded by Erdoğan himself in 2014, and the party went on to win five consecutive general elections (2002, 2007, 2011, 2015 and 2018).
The “middle class”, the military and the “secular state”
In July 2013, six years after the events described above, a story with considerable similarities ended very differently in Egypt. There, Mohamed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood government was overthrown by a military coup. Towards the end of June, General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, appointed as head of the armed forces by Morsi himself, issued a statement warning:
Those who think that we are oblivious to the dangers that threaten the Egyptian state are mistaken. We will not remain silent while the country slips into a conflict that will be hard to control.
On 30 June, two and a half years after the revolution, and the first anniversary of Morsi’s election as president, huge demonstrations took place in numerous cities, not unlike the Republic Rallies in Turkey. While the Egyptian military’s claim of 22 million demonstrators nationally seems excessive, there can be no doubt that over 500,000 were in or around Cairo’s Tahrir Square. The demonstrations laid the ground for and provided apparent legitimacy to Sisi’s coup d’etat three days later.
Sameh Naguib explains it as follows:
The old regime, particularly the military and security apparatuses, used the crisis and the paralysis of the Muslim Brotherhood in power to begin what turned out to be the real counter-revolution. They sought to mobilise large sections of the middle class in Egypt around the idea that both the revolution and the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood could only result in anarchy and instability, and thus that it is crucial to return to security and stability—after all, we don’t want to end up like Syria or Iraq or Libya.6
It seems clear that in both Turkey and Egypt (in spite of very considerable differences) there exists a large constituency that the state apparatus, primarily the military, is able to mobilise in defence of “the secular state”. A strange tableau emerges in these and other Middle Eastern countries, in which the military and a section of society, the aforementioned constituency, consider themselves to be secular, modern and democratic, and, therefore, “progressive”, while a larger part—the majority—of the population, including the working class and the poor, are imagined to be opposed to secularism, modernity, democracy and progress. It is in opposing and suppressing this majority that the military counts on and mobilises this “progressive” section of society, which it considers to be a natural ally, on the basis apparently of defending a particular lifestyle and, less apparently but not surprisingly, of class interest. I shall attempt, in what follows, first to describe this natural ally and, second, to detail how the military have gone about organising and mobilising this ally in Turkey when necessary.
Naguib refers in the above quote to this section of society as “large sections of the middle class”. This is a part of the population that the secular state, that is to say the bourgeois state, relies upon when it is seeking legitimacy, a social base and support for steps it takes or plans to take that are unlawful and illegitimate in constitutional, bourgeois democratic terms. Writing about certain moves made by the Democrat Party government (1950-60) in an attempt to court the Islamic vote in Turkey, Erik Zürcher refers to the same section of society as “the ruling elite” and “the educated elite”:
To the majority of the educated elite…who had internalised the Kemalist dogma and who themselves owned their position in the ruling elite to the fact that they represented the positivist, Western-oriented outlook, [these moves] threatened their cultural hegemony and their monopoly of the political scene and the state machinery. This explains why their reaction to expressions of even non-political Islamic feeling was little less than hysterical.7
“Middle class” and “elite” are both vague, wooly terms, largely impossible to define and delineate. It is true, none the less, that no one familiar with republican Turkish history and, in particular, political developments since the latter half of the 1990s (when Necmettin Erbakan, leader of the Islamist party from which the AKP split, became prime minister) can fail to understand exactly which class of people Naguib and Zürcher are referring to. It is interesting that what most clearly and visibly distinguishes this class of people from the mass of the population that they look down upon is a cultural difference, as Zürcher implies in his use of the term “cultural hegemony”, rather than more direct class differences. In discussing the concept of the “White Turk”, Mustafa Akyol has described this culture or lifestyle as follows:
“White Turks” refers to strata of people of a high educational-cultural level, generally educated abroad, with considerable economic power, who have largely broken their ties with their faith and traditions, attach no importance to their historical heritage, and generally hold positions of power as managers, industrialists and businessmen. The term mostly corresponds to an elite minority… The sociologist Nilüfer Göle uses the term to refer to the bureaucracy and the intelligentsia who consider themselves to be Turkey’s “progressives”. The younger generation of White Turks have mostly gone to foreign-language schools and then to university abroad…have good jobs and Western living standards. In the big cities, particularly Istanbul, the high plazas, big companies and luxury gated communities constitute their world. In other words, their living standards are well above the Turkish average, and it is almost as if they are living the life of New York, London or Paris in Asia Minor.8
A similar, though more impressionistic and, because he personally identifies with the White Turks, more pessimistic account is provided by the journalist Serdar Turgut:
Their “morals” were problematic. Their relationship with their faith was rather forced. They were completely alienated from the society within which they lived… They had imagined that they would live in their suburbs forever undisturbed. But no, it was not to be. All their thoughts and their lifestyle began to be challenged as a result of the changing balance of social forces… They were disturbed, they panicked and they began badly to fall apart [when AKP came to power]… Finally, CHP, the party they believed to be their own, also began to commit suicide… Truth be told, the White Turks, who behaved only recently as if they were the sole owners of the country, fell apart, with no one to look out for them, and began to fade out of the stage of history.9
In all of the quotations, a section of the population, the “middle class”, is described in an impressionistic manner rather than on a class basis. The descriptions rely to a large extent on this section’s cultural characteristics and lifestyle, and on how they see their place in Turkish society. None of these elements have a legitimate place in the proper definition of a social class, which is unsurprising since none of the authors quoted, except for Naguib, is concerned to provide a Marxist analysis. However, whether they know it or not, they are in fact referring to a social class. Consequently, many of the expressions they use make it clear which class they are referring to: “their monopoly of the political scene and the state machinery”, “generally hold positions of power as managers, industrialists and businessmen”, “the bureaucracy and the intelligentsia”, “who behaved only recently as if they were the sole owners of the country”.
It is clear that the colloquial expressions “middle class”, “elites” and “White Turks” in fact refer to the ruling class and those who manage the state and the economy on its behalf. To these two must be added another group of people: those who aspired to join the former two. Until recently it was a precondition of admission into the ruling class and the bureaucracy in Turkey to share, advocate and defend the westernised and secular culture and lifestyle described above. From the foundation of the republic in 1923 to the AKP’s rise to power in 2002, this group of people has always known that to gain a place for oneself at any level of the ruling class or the state (the armed forces, the bureaucracy, the judiciary or academia) one needed to adopt and internalise the official ideology of the Republic, to be secular, nationalist and “modern”, and to live in the style of a Westerner.10
A few words need also to be said about Turgut’s comment on the “CHP, the party they believed to be their own”. Turkey was a one-party state until 1946 and that party, founded by Atatürk himself, was the CHP. Party and state were one and the same, in terms of personnel and official ideology. Around 1970, the party repositioned itself on the centre-left, adopting somewhat progressive and somewhat anti-imperialist verbiage (in fact confusing secularist Westernisation with progress and nationalism with anti-imperialism) without jettisoning any of its basic tenets, and continuing to be a staunch upholder of the Kemalist state, Turkish nationalism and secularism. Naturally, since the rise of Erdoğan’s AKP and its predecessor, the Virtue Party, from the mid-1990s, CHP has attempted to act as a bulwark against “the rise of Islam” (and, in class terms, against the rise of the great Muslim unwashed, the urban and provincial poor, who vote for the AKP). Equally naturally, CHP’s politics have corresponded exactly to those of the “middle class” I have been describing. This correspondence has been strikingly clear in every election since 2002. In all of the big cities, the CHP has won where the middle and upper classes live, and the AKP has won in all the poor and working class districts. (The single exception is the recent rerun of the Istanbul mayoral election, which has perhaps, finally, sounded the AKP’s death knell.) Absurdly, and unfortunately, the CHP is widely considered to be something of a “left” party, not only by its own voters, but also by most working people and the poor.
Mobilising the “middle class”: how the armed forces do it
In Turkey, the military’s attempts to mobilise popular support for its view of the world and of how the country should be run became clear for all to see in the latter half of the 1990s. While the forerunner to the AKP did nothing concretely to threaten the ruling class’s “cultural hegemony and their monopoly of the political scene and the state machinery”, the very existence of such a party anywhere near the levers of state power seemed to question, dilute, cast doubt on and threaten that hegemony and monopoly.
The state’s response, in 1996-97, led most visibly by the deputy chief of the armed forces, General Çevik Bir, was immediate. Steps were taken to weaken and undermine the government, a memorandum was issued listing the things the military expected the government to do (with the words “or else” invisible but obvious), and in less than a year the government fell. This was a bloodless coup, and clearly understood as such. It taught the armed forces the important lesson that more than simple military measures and direct takeovers were required to combat the “threat” to the secular state. Alper Görmüş, a journalist who has long studied military interference in Turkish politics, explains this as follows:
With a sense of desperation, the army developed a new method [in 1997]. From now on, the armed forces would no longer intervene in the system in the classical manner and using only its own resources; it would enlist the “civilian” masses frightened into action by the presentation of such great problems as “religious reaction”, “the Kurdish problem” and others. The army would now act in accordance with a new concept, based on the “armed forces” working together with the “unarmed forces” enraged by the loss of social power they had suffered.
The Coup D’État Diaries have shown us that those plotting a coup in 2003-4 [the first two years of the AKP government] had reached even clearer conclusions than the plotters of 1997 on the necessity to “civilianise” the coup industry in Turkey. The plotters were now saying, quite clearly, that intervening in politics on their own had caused the armed forces to lose prestige and that in order for military tutelage to continue the “institutions” and “civil society”, primarily the judiciary, the universities and the trade unions, needed to assume responsibility…
We have to admit that this strategy has been applied successfully. There is now in Turkey a large “middle class”, which sees a large part of society and its political representatives as “enemies”, and is prepared to ally itself with all forces that have the power and potential to destroy this enemy.11
The diaries referred to by Görmüş were kept by Admiral Özden Örnek, chief of staff of the navy in 2003-05. They were leaked to the weekly news magazine Nokta, edited by Görmüş, in February 2007. Nokta published those sections of the diaries where plans made by the chiefs of the armed forces to overthrow the AKP government were described in detail. The magazine was immediately raided by the police, and its owner closed it down a few weeks later. The diaries were subsequently published in full on the internet, and Görmüş published an abridged version in book form.12
Rather than the detailed account the diaries provide of the generals’ discussions on whether or not to stage a coup, and the various plans they made for a coup, what concerns me in the context of this article is how keenly aware the chiefs of staff were of the need to mobilise what Görmüş calls “the middle class” and “civilian masses”. On 6 December 2003, Admiral Örnek wrote in his diary:
We [the chiefs of staff] decided to prepare an action plan. First, we would try to gain control of the media. To that end, I was to invite M.Ö. [Mustafa Özkan, a journalist often used by the military as a middleman in their attempts to direct the media] to come and see me. Then we would contact the university chancellors and ensure that students were out in the streets, demonstrating. We would do the same with the trade unions. We would ensure posters were put up in the streets. We would contact various clubs and associations and encourage them to take action against the government. And all of this would be done on a national level.
After attending a meeting on “The Anniversary of the Abolition of the Caliphate [in 1924]” at the Ankara Chamber of Industry, Örnek wrote:
All the chiefs of staff attended the meeting, together with our wives… We were the ones who had secretly encouraged the chamber to organise this meeting. It was a stirring and satisfactory meeting. As we entered the hall, all the audience applauded us and started shouting the slogan “Defenders of the Republic”.
A few days later, the entry in the diary was as follows:
The demonstration today by students against the Supreme Education Council provides evidence that people are gradually beginning to wake up. These movements will take the load off [the military’s] shoulders and enable us to stay within the legal requirements and the bounds of democracy. But he [General Şener Eruygur, chief of staff of the gendarmerie, who was arguing for an immediate military takeover] cannot understand this.
The diaries also tell us that on 2 September 2003, towards the end of the AKP government’s first year in power, Örnek took on a task that he himself had proposed to the other chiefs of staff:
This morning I paid a visit to the chief of the land forces. The chiefs of the air force and the gendarmerie joined me there. We had a general discussion about what we need to do now. I proposed to them that I prepare a special report on the current state of affairs, together with suggestions on what to do. They agreed to this. It looks like I will have to spend less time on naval matters now and concentrate on political developments.
The “special report” was completed within four days, and Örnek provides a summary of its main points in his diaries. Many of his suggestions for what the armed forces should do specifically concern the attempt to ensure that the “middle class” is mobilised and these “unarmed forces” act in unison with the army. It is worth quoting these suggestions at some length:
- Winning the support of the media. To that end, explaining the urgency of the situation to certain media bosses and ensuring through our friends that visual and print media support us.
- Training youth in armed forces camps and youth camps, and ensuring that the brighter and more successful primary and secondary school students are educated in Atatürkist thought at these summer camps.
- Raising public awareness of religious reaction and what the country loses as a result of such reaction. To that end, organising well-known men of science, culture and art to make public pronouncements and speak at conferences. Such conferences should also be organised at the offices of the chiefs of staff and at military academies, as we did in 1997.
- Distributing to the media all types of information and visual materials which depict religious reaction, to be obtained from the general command of the gendarmerie and elsewhere.
- Creating and strengthening the grounds for the higher organs of the judiciary, such as the constitutional court, the supreme court and the conseil d’etat, to be helpful to and supportive of us.
- Organising conferences, demonstrations and meetings to increase the pressure on the government party, and making sure that such activities are covered by the media.
- Initiating and supporting peaceful and legal students’ movements at the universities.
- Activating and using civilian associations for our purposes through reliable retired army officers.
- Ensuring that Atatürkist NGOs are united around the same end and that there is no competition between them.
- Informing women on what they will be losing when AKP’s ideology becomes dominant and is injected into society, and ensuring that they get organised.13
Having studied the diaries and published extracts from them, at about the time of the Republic Rallies, Görmüş wrote that it is “very difficult, after reading the diaries, to believe that the mass meetings taking place at the moment are ‘civilian’.” Given that the meetings were indeed almost certainly organised by the office of the chiefs of staff, not directly but through what Örnek calls “our friends”, Görmüş’s doubts about the extent to which they were “civilian” were well-founded.14 The fact remains, however, that the huge crowds at the meetings were not military personnel but were indeed “civilian”.
I have attempted in this article to describe this civilian crowd, this group of people who, when it is labelled “the middle class”, appears to be made up of “ordinary citizens” with no particular class characteristics. My argument is that, in fact, it is made up of the ruling class, those who manage the state on behalf of the ruling class and those who aspire to rise to membership of the former two. In Turkey it is important to understand this not only for reasons of sociological accuracy, but because failure to do so has direct political consequences.
Given that Stalinism and Kemalism are two of the major ingredients of the broth from which it emerged, much of the Turkish left has an inbuilt affinity with the idea that religion in general, and Islam in particular, means reaction, and is genetically inclined to blur the distinction between nationalism and anti-imperialism. It has, as a result, one hand tied behind its back in resisting and countering the propaganda of the military whenever the generals use secularism and nationalism in their attempt to mobilise the “middle class” against any government they wish to overthrow. For the same reasons, parts of the left find it impossible to break with the view that the CHP is somewhat better than whatever party it is opposing, particularly if that party has anything to do with Islam.15 There needs to be absolute clarity that the ideas of the military and the CHP are those of the ruling class and that the sections of society mobilised around these ideas are the ruling class and its functionaries, servants and aspirants. As such, both the ideas and the social group acting upon them need to be avoided like the plague.
Ron Margulies is a writer and journalist, now of course unemployed, and a member of the Revolutionary Socialist Workers Party (DSİP) in Turkey.
1 Milliyet, 2007. The organising committee consisted of nine women, included four university professors and two lawyers. Many had studied and worked in western Europe. Most were members of various Kemalist “modern” women’s organisations and one was a member of parliament for the Republic People’s Party (CHP), an ostensibly social democratic party. She was an early advocate of “persuasion rooms” in universities to attempt to persuade female students wearing headscarves to stop doing so. There are a large number of organisations in Turkey that feature the word “modern” in their names: the Association of Modern Women, the Association to Support Modern Living, the Foundation for Modern Education, etc. It is understood by everyone that “modern” is intended in these cases to mean “secular”.
2 Türker, 2008.
3 Atatürk was the founder and first president of the Turkish Republic, declared in 1923. His secular, nationalist doctrine is dubbed Kemalism.
4 The AKP is an Islamist party, which won a sweeping victory in the 2002 general election.
5 A reference to a campaign by the staunchly Kemalist daily newpaper Cumhuriyet (“The Republic”) under the headline “Are you aware of the danger?” The lettering of this headline was made to look like Arabic script—the “danger” was Islam.
6 Naguib, 2016.
7 Zürcher, 2003, p245.
8 Akyol, 2004.
9 Turgut, 2010.
10 An interesting example of this is provided by the headscarf. It is frequently argued by Kemalist women that young women are forced by their families and elders to cover their heads, and that they need to be liberated from this pressure. In fact, research has shown that quite the contrary was true until recently. In pre-AKP times, women were generally opposed to their daughters wearing the headscarf as they knew that wearing it would be a barrier to a career in the public sector with a good income and job security—see Göle, 2000.
11 Görmüş, 2011.
12 Görmüş, 2012.
13 Görmüş, 2012.
14 Örnek’s “friends” include the Associations of Atatürkist Thought, a variety of “modern” associations and institutions, chambers of industry and commerce, professional organisations, bar associations, university chancellors, professors and lecturers, journalists, CHP members of parliament, etc.
15 While the failed military coup of July 2016 was in progress, mass celebrations with dancing and singing in the streets were reported to be taking place in many CHP-voting districts. No organisation of the left took part in these, but it would surprise me if none of their members did.