Turkey's Military Tries Political Moves To Squelch Premier's Islamic Ambition

Erbakan commits to generals' 20-point plan but throws them a curve

The rise of a staunchly Islamic prime minister in Turkey has repeatedly forced the nation's powerful and shadowy generals into a wrenching choice. On the one hand, they want to defend long-secular Turkey against the Islamic fundamentalism that is growing so quickly in this region. On the other, any overtly militaristic moves - including a coup - would alienate Turkey, a key NATO ally, from the democratic, Western nations the generals seek to grow closer to.

This week, the generals scampered out of the jaws of this dilemma by playing politics. They pressured Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan into agreeing to a 20-point agenda for suppressing Islamic activism.

But in a shrewd countermove, the premier says the 20-point plan will have to be approved by parliament, thus pitting the military against the legislature. "This is a dangerous game," says one observer.

It is particularly dangerous because of Turkey's desperate attempt to join the European Union's trade bloc, which could help solve the country's economic woes.

A crucial condition for EU membership, however, is a fully functioning democracy - something that doesn't exist if the military is meddling in the affairs of state.

But in the short term, the generals got what they wanted. The 20-point plan includes tightening the ban on religious sects, stopping recruitment of fundamentalists for government posts, and preventing members of Mr. Erbakan's pro-Islamic Welfare Party from buying more rifles - which they apparently have been doing with impunity during Erbakan's eight months in power.

The plan also includes keeping tight restrictions on religious dress. The founder of modern Turkey, Kemal Ataturk, went so far as to put fez-wearing Turks to death for sporting the brimless, Islamic-oriented hat. So the generals aren't about to approve of Erbakan allowing women to wear Muslim headscarves in government offices and state-sponsored schools.

Despite accepting the plan, Erbakan and his party have been, as ever, defiant throughout the showdown with the military.

It began when the generals called an extraordinary meeting of the joint political-military National Security Council (NSC), which Erbakan sits on as premier. In a nine-hour meeting Feb. 28, the generals laid out the 20-point plan. After the meeting, a chastened Erbakan said he was "in full harmony" with the commanders.

But two days later he challenged them, invoking democracy in his defense. "The NSC cannot issue orders," he said. "The government has the say and power over them. The government takes that power from parliament. The nation is the source of that power. That's what democracy is."

Welfare Party members were emboldened by his words. "Nobody can touch the mosque, the religious schools, and the headscarves," said an Erbakan aide, Hasan Husseyin Ceylan. "We are prepared to face prison, if necessary even to die."

The mayor of Istanbul made an veiled reference to Turkey becoming another Algeria. It's a scenario that terrifies many here, because some 70,000 people have died as Algeria's military-backed regime battles Muslim fundamentalists intent on overthrowing it.

"There are silent masses in this country, and some want to shut down their voices," Istanbul's mayor, Tayyip Erdogan, said. "If you act by this logic, you may see here the same kind of bloodshed that you see in other countries."

Despite the apocalyptic warnings, the military-civilian tussle in Turkey is most likely to remain a political one for now. To ensure democracy, the military is reluctant to use guns, tanks, or troops (although they have done so three times in the past to oust governments that displeased them).

And if the battle is purely political, the shrewd Erbakan knows he stands a chance of trumping the generals.

During the most recent showdown, Erbakan hoped to rally the support of smaller opposition parties by pitting himself against the military as the defender of democracy.

But even his secular partner, Deputy Prime Minister Tansu Ciller, didn't sign on. After consulting the generals, she threatened to bring down the coalition: "We will not hesitate to resign, if this becomes necessary," she said.

This was the temporary end of Erbakan's crusade against the military's power, and he agreed to sign the 20-point plan.

But the question now - even if parliament approves the plan - is whether he will implement the 20 points. The NSC has reportedly set a two-month probation period.

"There is no question of backing down on the demands [of the 20-point plan]," says a senior officer on condition of anonymity. "We will pursue this matter until the end." But what if Erbakan fails to implement the plan? "A political way out will certainly be found," he says.

Indeed, if politics is the game, "Erbakan may have lost this round," says one analyst. "But the match continues, and he is already preparing for the next round."

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