By Patrick Seale, Gulf News, 11 Nov 2006
The potential threat is said to come from the new Chief of Staff, General Yasar Büyükapit
Alarmist rumours are circulating in Ankara, Washington and some European capitals that Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, leader of the Justice and Development Party (AKP), may be in danger of being overthrown by a military coup.
The potential threat is said to come from the new Chief of Staff, General Yasar Büyükapit, who took up his post on August 30. He is thought to be less reformist than his predecessor, General Hilmi Ozkok, and less inclined to accept civilian authority over the armed services.
Born in Istanbul in 1940, General Büyükapit graduated from the military academy in 1961 and has climbed steadily up the military ladder ever since.
He is considered a fervent champion of secularism and of the country's territorial integrity – fundamental principles inherited from the founder of the Turkish republic, Kemal Atatürk.
General Büyükapit is said to fear that, under pressure from the European Union, the Erdogan government is contemplating concessions to Kurdish separatists, Greek Cypriots and above all to the Islamist current in Turkey, which could erode Atatürk's legacy, requiring corrective action by the army, which considers itself the ultimate custodian of Turkey's national legitimacy.
Erdogan has struggled hard to reform and democratise his country so as to advance its accession to the European Union.
Talks with the EU started a year ago but have since run into difficulty. An EU progress report, due to be published on November 8, is expected to be highly critical of Turkey's performance. Leaks from the document suggest it will urge Turkey to undertake more far-reaching reforms.
Brussels wants greater freedom of expression and association, more rights for women, trade unions and minorities, greater independence for the judiciary and greater respect for human rights. It also wants Turkey to allow Greek Cypriot boats and planes into its ports and airports.
Some observers believe that the report may be so offensive to Turkey's pride and prickly nationalism that it might even lead to the accession talks being suspended. The war of nerves with the EU is causing Erdogan a good deal of political embarrassment.
Another important factor is Erdogan's own Islamic background. His ruling AKP party has grown from Islamic roots.
Erdogan himself has tried, so far without success, to relax the ban on women wearing headscarves in universities and in government buildings. His wife, Emine Erdogan, wears a headscarf, which excludes her from official receptions and other state functions and has attracted criticism from militant secularists.
The contest between Islamists and secularists is, indeed, an endemic strand in Turkey's social and political life.
Rumours that General Büyükapit may seek to take power may be no more than bazaar gossip. Having reached the summit of the military hierarchy, he seems unlikely to risk throwing it all away by a military adventure which is bound to be condemned by the EU and the rest of the international community. But no one can be quite sure.
Turkey is no stranger to military coups. In May 1960, General Cemal Gürsel overthrew the government and executed prime minister Adnan Menderes.
In March 1971, an ultimatum by the armed forces caused the Demirel government to resign. In September 1980, the same Suleyman Demirel was driven from office by chief of staff, General Kenan Evren.
Rumours of a possible coup in Turkey in the coming months have been fed by reports that Washington's neocons are angry with Erdogan and would like to see the back of him. As General Büyüikapit is due in Washington early in the New Year, this has fuelled suspicions that a coup is in preparation.
The neocons do not like Erdogan because of his criticism of Israel – he once described Israel's brutal repression of the Palestinians as "state terrorism" – and because of the pro-Arab and pro-Muslim drift of his external policy.
Washington hardliners have been alarmed by the tide of anti-American sentiment now running strongly in Turkey, largely because of the war in Iraq, which has outraged opinion and severely disrupted trade between the two countries.
Worse still from Turkey's point of view, the war has led to an upsurge of nationalism among Iraqi Kurds, which Turkey fears will encourage separatist feelings among Turkey's own Kurds. General Büyükapit has said that defeating the guerrillas of the PKK – the Turkish Workers Party based in northern Iraq – will be his top priority.
Israel's war in Lebanon last summer – and American support for it – have also greatly strengthened anti-Israeli and anti-American feeling among the Turkish population.
In contrast, the Turkish army and security services have long had close ties with Israel. The Washington neocons may believe that an army coup could lead to a revival of the recently-cooled Israeli-Turkish alliance. Domestically, however, the key issue is likely to be civilian-military relations.
Erdogan's reforms have shifted the balance of power in the powerful National Security Council in favour of civilians.
They have given the civilian authorities supervisory power over military expenses, promotions and dismissals; and they have given civilians the right to take the lead over the military in defining and assessing the threats to the country.
More than any other issue, this is what may cause General Büyükapit to rebel.
Patrick Seale is a commentator and author of several books on Middle East affairs.