Turkish army surrenders right to rule the street

The move is a big step for a country that has seen frequent coups and covets a spot in the European Union.

ISTANBUL // Sometimes, revolutions can be low-key affairs. With the signatures of a general and an official of the Turkish interior ministry, the armed forces of this EU candidate country have been stripped of one of the most important legal pillars of their political might. The so-called Emasya Protocol, much criticised by the EU, had given the generals the right to intervene domestically without the permission of civilian authorities if they thought it necessary to do so. Now the protocol has been cancelled with the army's agreement.

There were no cameras and no news conferences, just a short statement by the interior ministry informing the public last week that a key document saying the military had the right to deploy troops on the country's streets without civilian oversight had been scrapped. Other laws giving the military the task of defending Turkey's republic against "inner threats" remain in force. But in a country that has seen four governments toppled by the military since 1960, the cancellation of the Emasya Protocol is a big step. The protocol came into effect in 1997, just days after the Islamist-led government of Necmettin Erbakan, the prime minister of the time, collapsed under pressure from the military, which regards itself as the guardian of the republic's secular values.

"We agreed there is no need for something new, for a new protocol, in this regard," Besir Atalay, the interior minister, said after the cancellation of the protocol on February 4. In the days before the cancellation, both Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister, and Gen Ilker Basbug, the chief of general staff, had said in interviews that the protocol was no longer necessary. Observers say the reform improves civilian oversight over the military and answers a top demand of the European Union, which Turkey wants to join. Four months ago, a major EU report on Turkey's progress as an accession candidate criticised Ankara because the protocol was still in place.

"The cancellation of the protocol is a step that strengthens democracy in Turkey," Sezgin Tanrikulu, a prominent human rights lawyer from the country's Kurdish area, told the Zaman newspaper. Ali Bayramoglu, a columnist for the Yeni Safak daily, called the decision a "democratic victory". The protocol was a symbol of the power of Turkey's generals to set their own political agenda, sometimes in open defiance of the government or even in an effort to unseat it. Media reports said the protocol was used to justify a deadly bomb attack by agents of a military intelligence service in the Kurdish town of Semdinli in south-eastern Turkey in 2005. Two years earlier, soldiers were sent on to the streets of Istanbul after bomb attacks by extremists killed more than 60 people. Politicians at the time said they had not asked for the assistance.

In recent weeks, the Emasya Protocol was mentioned in media reports about a war game used in military training courses and named "Sledgehammer". According to the reports, the war game listed steps leading up to a coup against Mr Erdogan's government. "Sledgehammer" was the latest in a series of revelations about coup plots said to have been hatched by military officers. High-ranking officers have also been standing trial as suspected members of a nationalist organisation called Ergenekon that planned to bring down Mr Erdogan by force, according to prosecutors.

The accusations have hurt the military's image. A recent poll said respect for the military among Turkish voters, which has ranged about 90 per cent traditionally, has fallen to 63 per cent. Gen Basbug underlined the military's commitment to democracy. "Of course there have been some events in Turkey since the 1960s," he told reporters in Ankara last month, referring to the military coups, "but those events are in the past." Gen Basbug added that as far as the armed forces were concerned, "power has to change hands by elections in democracies".

Last week, the general took a further step when he came close to publicly apologising to Mr Erdogan, a politician regarded as an Islamist by many officers. Gen Basbug was reacting to a complaint by the prime minister, who had said his wife, Emine, was unable to visit an actor who was treated in a military hospital in Ankara two years ago because of her headscarf. Although the Turkish military is strict in implementing a ban of the Islamic headgear in state institutions, Gen Basbug said he was sorry about the incident. "I wish that had not happened," he told the Hurriyet newspaper last week.

Some observers say Gen Basbug's latest messages as well as the coup revelations and the cancellation of the Emasya Protocol show that the military is looking for a new role in a country that has to strengthen its democratic system if it wants to have a chance of joining the EU. "If everything is changing, the Turkish armed forces will also change," Hilmi Ozkok, a former chief of general staff, told the Radikal newspaper. "One should not be afraid of that."