ISTANBUL // Around noon one day last week, an armed guard in front of a Turkish high-security prison in Kandira, a town about 100km east of Istanbul, stood to attention as the prison gates opened. A grey civilian car with darkened windows left the compound and sped away.
The car in the scene, which was captured on camera and repeated over and over on Turkish television, carried Gen Galip Mendi, commander of an army garrison in Kocaeli, a nearby provincial capital. Gen Mendi was filmed as he left the prison after visiting two former generals who are held there under charges of belonging to "Ergenekon", a suspected right-wing militant organisation bent on bringing down the government of Prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
In a statement posted on the website of the general staff, the military declared that Gen Mendi had acted "in the name of the Turkish armed forces". The visit was part of a series of high-profile actions and announcements by the new leadership of Turkey's strictly secular military that sent a clear message to the religiously conservative government of Mr Erdogan: the armed forces, which have pushed four governments out of office since 1960, are not about to give up their political role. And they are not shy about showing their clout. Mr Erdogan tried to play down the significance of the prison visit by Gen Mendi, saying it had been intended as a humanitarian gesture. But many observers say the visit to Hursit Tolon and Sener Eruygur, the retired generals, was a clear affront by the new chief of general staff, Gen Ilker Basbug, directed against Mr Erdogan. The statement by the military about the visit was posted on the general staff website only a few hours before Gen Basbug was scheduled to meet the prime minister.
"It is a scandal. The headquarters of the general staff has become a party in the Ergenekon trial," wrote Ali Bayramoglu, a commentator for Yeni Safak, a pro-government daily newspaper. The prison visit was not the only message Gen Basbug has sent to Mr Erdogan since the general started his term on Aug 29. In his first speech as chief of general staff, Gen Basbug warned against what he sees as a trend towards Islamisation in Turkey.
"Today, a part of society is very much concerned about ideas and developments that give great importance to religious thoughts in the formation of a new cultural identity and lifestyle," Gen Basbug said. "This concern has to be taken seriously." He was referring to the rise of a new middle class of observant Turks that mostly vote for Mr Erdogan and challenge the leadership role of the traditional Kemalist elites that see themselves as heirs to the secular values of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, Turkey's founder, and include the army as well as the judiciary and the bureaucracy.
Gen Basbug also made it clear that the military would be sticking to its self-styled role as guardian of secularism. He called secularism the "cornerstone" of all other principles of the republic and gave a warning to Mr Erdogan's government, which won an unprecedented 47 per cent of the votes in last year's general elections: to address concerns about Islamisation was "imperative for social peace in a democracy with majority rule."
Polls show that the military remains the most trusted institution in Turkey. Mr Erdogan's political opponents also regard the armed forces as a kind of antidote against political Islam, ready to step in if a government, like that of Mr Erdogan, tries to weaken secularism. But political support for the armed forces sometimes carries the risk of appearing to be support for a military coup against an elected government. Deniz Baykal, the Kemalist opposition leader, welcomed Gen Basbug's speech but added that "the period in which words were effective is over". Several media interpreted Mr Baykal's statement as a call on the military to depose Mr Erdogan, something Mr Baykal rejects.
While Gen Basbug was painting "red lines" that the government must not cross, as one newspaper called it, the second most powerful man in the military launched a verbal attack on Mr Erdogan's democratic reforms in the past years that were designed to bring Turkey closer to membership in the European Union. Some of those reforms limited the powers of security forces. "The Turkish armed forces have no need for a control [mechanism] from outside the nation," said Gen Isik Kosaner, the new land forces commander and next in line for the post of chief of general staff after Gen Basbug's term ends in 2010.
The general said the fight against the Kurdish rebel group PKK, which Ankara regards as a militant organisation, had been hindered by reforms widening the rights of citizens. "Laws were adopted as if there was no terror in our country," Gen Kosaner said. The PKK and its followers "take strength from these developments". Gen Kosaner also took aim at media and civil society groups in Turkey, which have become more open in their criticism of the army and other institutions of the state in the course of the reform process. Some of these groups were involved in "efforts directed against national unity, national values and aimed at weakening and dissolving security parameters", the general said.
Under Gen Basbug's predecessor, Gen Yasar Buyukanit, the military kept a low profile in political matters after a veiled threat to stage a coup against Mr Erdogan last year backfired badly as Mr Erdogan won a landslide victory at parliamentary elections. Signs are that the generals will take a more outspoken line under Gen Basbug. "We can say a new era has begun in Turkey," Rusen Cakir, a political commentator, wrote in the daily Vatan.