Turkey's Lesson for Egypt: Don't Prosecute Your Military Rulers (Yet)

By Steven A. Cook

What Egyptians can learn from the story of General Kenan Evren, who led a Turkish coup in 1980.

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Protesters in Pakistan burn a model drone. Reuters

Last Wednesday was a big day in Turkey. General Kenan Evren, the leader of the September 12, 1980 coup d'etat, was charged in an Ankara courtroom with "acts against the forces of the state" during the military's three year intervention that ended in 1983.  This development may not be as earth-shattering as the fall of Middle Eastern dictators or Syria's collapse into civil war, but most Turks and observers of Turkey never thought they would see the likes of Evren in the dock.   True, the Turkish government has spent the better part of the last two years prosecuting a bevy of army officers for crimes--both real and imagined--against the state, but Evren seemed untouchable.

Evren is held in high-esteem in some quarters in Turkey.  It is important to remember that the coup rescued the country from further bloodshed and instability  after a  long spiral of left-right political violence during the 1970s.  Yet 30 years later Turks tend to equate the coup with a constitution--written at the behest of the junta that Evren led--that protects Turkey's republican system at the expense of rights and freedoms for its citizens.  Also, within the document, which was approved by 92 percent of Turks in a November 1982 referendum, the General and his collaborators made sure there was a series of clauses and articles that granted them immunity from prosecution for any crimes during the period they held power, until now.  The most important of these was Provisional Article 15 (abolished in 2010), which stated that, "No allegation of criminal, financial or legal responsibility shall be made, nor shall an application be filed with a court for this purpose in respect of any decisions or measures whatsoever taken by the Council of National Security" [i.e., the officers who undertook the coup].

There are many Turks who must be happy to see Evren get his due given what is now known--or what people think they know-about the military's intervention, but the immunity built into the 1982 constitution was extraordinarily farsighted.  The Egyptians should follow-suit.  This isn't an effort to be provocative just to be provocative, though I have been known to do that.  As much as Turks may (quite rightly) desire a new constitution, the articles and provisions that gave Evren a free pass all these years contributed to Turkey's democratic development.  I wouldn't call Turkey a democracy just yet and there are a variety of worrying signs about the AKP's backsliding that I have documented here and here. Still, were it not for the escape hatch that the generals essentially gave themselves, Turkey's political trajectory may have been quite different. That's not to suggest that all was well in Turkey between 1983 and the present.  There were, of course, the matters of the "28th of February Process" (aka the post-modern coup) and a series of unstable coalition governments, but one can imagine a messier, more unstable, and less democratic Turkey had Evren not been able to enjoy the safety of retirement in Armutalan.

It is a tough sell to Egyptians, but they need to let Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi and other members of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces slink off to retirement without fear of retribution.  If they don't, what you see in Egypt is likely to be what you are going to get.  Yes, the SCAF's ability to impose its authority has weakened considerably over the last fifteen months, but the officers are intent on ensuring their corporate and parochial interests.  This may be the rationale for a deal between the military and the Muslim Brotherhood that has led to the nomination of the Brothers' number two, Khairat al- Shater, for the presidency.  Admittedly, I am an outlier on this issue, but if the officers are looking to make a deal, the Muslim Brotherhood is the obvious place to go.  Regardless, the underlying logic of immunity should be clear; it can help smooth out a transition by removing the incentive for the officers either to hold onto power or fight to re-engineer institutions in a way that precludes democratic change.  Once more, as we have seen in Turkey and Chile as well as other countries where the military once dominated , the legacies of authoritarian rule tend to wither over time.  It is true that justice delayed is justice denied, but it is hard to see how Egyptians move beyond their current impasse if they don't follow the Turkish example here.  Let Tantawi et al. go and live out their days. The stakes are too high this time to stand on principle.  And who knows, perhaps if Egypt makes some gains--hard to imagine at this moment--Field Marshal Tantawi will follow in the footsteps of Kenan Evren.  That's a Turkish model I can get behind.

This article originally appeared at CFR.org, an Atlantic partner site.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2012/04/turkeys-lesson-for-egypt-dont-prosecute-your-military-rulers-yet/255666/