Even though it no longer lays down the law, Turkey's military has long been seen as beyond its reach. So a kind of history was made on Tuesday when two former top generals were taken into police custody. They are being questioned about their alleged involvement with a shady nationalist group, which is suspected of plotting to overthrow the Islamic-leaning government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
The detentions further raise the stakes in the epic confrontation between Erdogan's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and Turkey's secularist establishment, for which the armed forces are a central pillar. Just a few hours after the arrests, Turkey's top court another secularist stronghold convened to deliberate on the case for banning the AKP and its senior politicians for anti-secularist activities. "Turkey is in the middle of an historic struggle," says commentator Sahin Alpay.
The former generals, Sener Eruygur and Hursit Tolon, were among 23 people taken into custody in Ankara yesterday as part of an ongoing investigation into an ultra-nationalist network called Ergenekon. Since January, dozens of others have been arrested for involvement with the group on allegations of "provoking armed rebellion against the government."
According to newspaper reports, the plotters allegedly planned to assassinate public intellectuals, judges and Kurdish politicians as part of a campaign to destabilize Turkish society and force military intervention. Yet despite a year-long investigation, no formal indictments have yet been filed in the case, and some have been held for months without charge. Tuesday's round-up, like several before it, detained anti-government journalists as well as military figures.
Meanwhile, the country's chief prosecutor is seeking a ban on the AKP, and 71 of its members, including Erdogan, for allegedly trying to introduce Islamic rule to Turkey. The case was prompted by the government's controversial move early this year to lift a ban on headscarves at universities. "The AKP wants to establish a sharia-based regime," prosecutor Abdurrahman Yalcinkaya told the constitutional court Tuesday. The court's ruling, expected in the next month or two, could shatter the already fraught balance between officials elected by an increasingly powerful bloc of conservative religious voters and the elite establishment, which has long considered itself the guardian of Turkey's modern secularist state.
Observers say the timing of this latest development in the Ergenekon investigation, coming as the AKP is battling to survive, suggests it is at least partly politically motivated with an eye to undermining the secularist camp. "This investigation is tainted by a political stamp," writes Can Dundar, a journalist and author of a book about the Ergenekon network, in the mainstream daily Milliyet. "The genuine need to fully expose a deadly gang planning provocation towards a coup has been overshadowed by this political intent."
Yet some believe the Ergenekon investigation could offer a crucial opportunity to strengthen the rule of law in Turkey. "For the first time ever in Turkey, plotting a military coup is officially a crime for which you can be tried. This is very important," says Ismet Berkan, editor of the left-leaning Radikal newspaper. That much is perhaps cause for optimism. But the tussle between the two camps is ultimately about power. Both sides claim to be out to preserve democracy. But whose version of democracy will prevail remains an open and explosive question.