The Night of the Generals

September 22 1980

The Night of the Generals

September 22 1980

The Night of the Generals


The volatility of the Middle East was heavily underscored last week. First, two of the area's most militant Arab states, Libya and Syria, announced that they were to unite; then, a mere 36 hours later, Turkey 's generals seized power, as they put it, to fight against “anarchy, terrorism, divisiveness and communist, fascist and fanatical religious ideologies." Maclean’s interpretation of theLibya-Syria union is by Middle East analyst Claudia Wright (see box), who also contributed to its Turkish coverage provided by Marci McDonald (from Istanbul), Andrew Borowiec (based in the Turkish zone of Cyprus) and David Fouquet (HQ in Brussels).

it was a lazy September afternoon as the ferry boat Yazuz plied the Bosphorus, its cargo of tourists gawking at le tout Istanbul, reclining in bathing suits on the bank, sipping tea beside luxury yachts in the fading autumn sun. The headlines that had screamed of Turkey’s slow slide into chaos seemed light-years away. “Despite terrorism and martial law, the country still carries on,” assured the official guide. “Twice in the past the army has had to intervene, but I doubt very much that it will happen again. Democracy is too firmly implanted here.”

It was with a certain astonishment that the same sightseers awoke next morning under a sinister sky to find, instead of the bus waiting to take them to marvel at the Byzantine dome of the church of Santa Sophia, a squadron of armored cars and jeeps beneath their hotel windows in Taksim Square. At 3 a.m. local time Friday, the national radio had announced to the few who had been warned to listen that the army chief-of-staff, General Keman Evren, 62, had taken power, forming a National Security Council (NSL) with four other generals, closing airports, cutting off phone and Telex lines, abolishing the two houses of parliament, dissolving labor unions of the extreme right and left and detaining three of the leaders of Turkey’s major political parties, including Premier Suleyman Demirel and his opposition predecessor, Bulent Ecevit, reported held in a remote military base near Gallipoli, “for their own security.” As dawn broke, the normal chaos of Istanbul ground to a ghostly, curfewed calm, the streets deserted except for tanks and machine-gun-toting soldiers lurking at each intersection and in the

shadows of the fig trees in the parks. The normally jammed waters of the Golden Horn were empty except for Turkish navy patrols and the dark hulk of a Soviet submarine which had surfaced at this troubled linchpin between Asia and Europe with uncanny swiftness.

Tourists found themselves confined to their hotels by good-natured soldiers who went so far as to pose for Instamatic photos, bayonets in hand. Most shaken up were the 1,000 delegates, including a few Canadians, to the 7th World Conference of Earthquake Engineers currently being held in Istanbul, a city that has suffered centuries of seismic rumblings of a nonpolitical kind.

The Turkish high command’s decision to seize power followed no fewer than four formal warnings to feuding politicians this year. The last such, innocently labelled The Recommendations of the Military Commanders, was handed on July 25 to Demirel and Ecevit. It included demands for a drastic revision of the constitution, a change in the electoral system and far more leeway for the armed forces in fighting terrorism. At a subsequent dinner given

by Acting President Ihsan Sabri Caglayangil, Evren reportedly berated the two politicians for “putting party politics above the interests of the nation,” and presented an ultimatum: “Co-operate or face military take-over.”

The decision to act, postponed until the Polish crisis had calmed (the generals felt it would be inopportune to move while there was a chance of Soviet intervention there), was precipitated by several events. Among these was the seizure on a Marxist “Dev Sol” (revolutionary left) terrorist of a list of military and political figures slated for assassination (the list included Demirel and Evren); a claim by the Demirel government that Soviet agents had increased their infiltration of labor unions, coupled with reports of the landing of weapons on the poorly patrolled Black Sea coast; and, most important of all, a series of Islamic rallies during which supporters of the National Salvation Party (NSP) of Necmettin Erbakan, at week’s end in semi-exile

on the Aegean island of Uzunada, clamored for a “truly Islamic state.” (The Turkish military are deeply committed to the principle of secularism.)

But by the time the army moved, the real story of the coup had already taken place in Washington. At 7 a.m. last Wednesday, the Turkish air force commander, General Tuhsin Sahinkaya, was taking scrambled eggs at the Pentagon with General David Jones, the chairman of the U.S. joint chiefs of staff. The two talked about the Turkish air force, NATO plans for Greece and Turkey’s civil violence. At 8 a.m. Sahin-

kaya saluted and climbed aboard his helicopter to begin the long flight home. Less than 24 hours after his arrival, he and his fellow officers ordered in the troops.

The White House has said that President Jimmy Carter first learned of the coup after it was under way—he was at the theatre in Washington watching Fiddler on the Roof. Jones has said emphatically that he was not told at his breakfast meeting with Sahinkaya that a coup was imminent. But Sahinkaya did not need to tell him. It is almost certain the Pentagon already knew that preparations for the take-over were under way. They knew it because, under

the joint U.S.-Turkish defence pact, Turkish military communications use NATO channels which are relayed and monitored by American military personnel. All useful intelligence is referred to the National Security Agency and the Pentagon in Washington.

In addition, the NATO exercise “Anvil Express 80” had been scheduled to commence in western Turkey the day before the coup, and it would have been virtually impossible for the nationwide movement of Turkish forces, necessary to put the curfew into effect, to have

happened without NATO and American commanders knowing about it.

And so, when Sahinkaya called on Jones, he believed the Americans knew what was up. His purpose was thus not to say what by then needed no mention, but rather to find out whether Jones would volunteer any objections to the move. When Jones said nothing—Sahinkaya had met the day before with General Lew Allen, chief of the U.S. Air Force staff, who was equally silent— Sahinkaya was able to carry back the message to his fellow junta members:

the U.S. was flashing the green light.

There was thus little surprise, rather a degree of official relief, to go along with the pious hopes for restoration of democracy when the military at Foggy Bottom (the location of the Pentagon) and at NATO headquarters in Brussels learned the news from Ankara.

In fact, the most striking thing about last week’s upheaval—Turkey’s third coup in 20 years—was the swiftness and ease with which it was executed. As one local seismologist put it in Istanbul: “It’s not much of a change. We already

had martial law. They just took it a little farther.” Indeed, the Night of the Generals came as no surprise after nearly a year of political tremors since limited martial law was declared 22 months ago, with an average of a dozen political assassinations a week and three governments in 38 months.

And at week’s end—although arrests of suspected terrorists continued and three newspapers including Aydinlik, which had specialized in exposing rightwing extremism, were closed—life seemed to be returning to normal. Some of the arrested parliamentarians were reported being set at liberty; airports, ports and frontier posts were reopened and curfew restrictions eased.

Most important for the generals, in view of Turkey’s $17.5-billion debt (it is the world’s biggest bankrupt), Carter was quick to let it be known that the coup would not affect the $2.2 billion in economic aid (plus $250 million in military credits) already pledged by the U.S. But as the Turkish military has discovered before, repression in a country of Turkey’s size and diversity (43 million people) is unpopular and inefficient. In the 20 provinces where military rule has been enforced already this year, there has been no check to the deterioration of political conflict into civil war. More than 2,000 people have been killed since January. Repression

cannot make the trains run on time and it is unlikely to pay off the country’s will certainly do nothing to alleviate the poverty, unemployment, inflation and corruption that are the root causes of Turkish frustration. £>