Watching former Egyptian president Mohamed Mursi’s trial on television the other day, I caught myself thinking of other leaders who fell victim to the turns of the political wheel of fortune. How did they cope with their fate? Did they thirst for revenge? Or, pinning hopes on history’s judgement, did they try to move beyond the diktat of the here and now?
Often, the way they behaved played a crucial role in shaping the course of their nation’s politics—for better or for worse.
Dismissed by the Shah in August 1953, Iran’s prime minister, Mohammad Mossadeq, decided to cut himself off from the outside and spent years sulking, in line with well-established Iranian traditions. The “Great Sulk,” as his posture came to be known, deepened the division within the ruling establishment, paving the way for the seizure of power by mullahs more than a quarter of a century later.
In Afghanistan, Muhammad Daoud Khan developed an almost pathological hatred for his cousin, King Mohammed Zahir Shah, who had ordered his dismissal as prime minister. Having nurtured that hatred for years, Daoud worked with all sorts of plotters to topple his crowned cousin. His strategy cost him his life and led to the seizure of power by pro-Soviet communists.
Leafing through the photo album of memories, I was reminded of Mehmut Celâl Bayar, the third president of the Turkish Republic and one of the most undervalued statesmen of the modern “Muslim world.”
In 1960, Bayar became a victim of the first military coup in the history of the Turkish Republic. A kangaroo court sentenced him to death on a charge of high treason. The sentence was later commuted to life imprisonment. However, Bayar was released after four years in prison.
As founder and principal leader of the Democrat Party, the winner of the first free general election in Turkish history, Bayar was regarded by many as the symbol of the “Islamic trend” in modern Turkey.
Bayar had every reason to be bitter about the way he had been treated. The son of a Bulgarian immigrant Muslim family, Bayar had devoted his life to the Turkish Republic. He had been an associate of Mustafa Kamal Atatürk, the founder of new Turkey, and had served in top positions, including prime minister, before ascending to the presidency.
Bayar had one key feature in common with many other leaders around the globe: being toppled by the man he had promoted as head of the armed forces, in his case Gen. Cemal Gürsel.
Mossadeq was brought down by Gen. Fadhl-Allah Zahedi, the man who had served as his police chief. Daoud claimed that he had “propelled Zahir Shah” into kingship.
The adage that one is betrayed only by one’s friends has been proven correct in other cases as well. In Pakistan, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto was toppled and hanged by General Zia l-Haq, the man he had appointed as army chief. Later, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was also brought down by his handpicked army chief, Gen. Pervez Musharraf. And, let’s not forget that it was President Salvador Allende who put Gen. Augusto Pinochet at the head of the army in Chile. In Tunisia, Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali, a middling police officer, was put on the upper rungs of power by President Habib Bourguiba, whom he ended up stabbing in the back.
The Bayar case has always intrigued me.
What was the old man thinking, I wondered, when as a young diplomatic correspondent in 1970 I covered a visit to Ankara by the then Iranian foreign minister, Ardeshir Zahedi. During his presidency, Bayar had visited Iran and had a Tehran street named after him. After the 1960 coup, the generals urged Iran to change the name of the street but were met with a resolute “no” from the Iranians. Zahedi held Bayar in high regard for helping forge a military alliance encompassing Turkey, Iran and Iraq. Thanks to a good word put in for us by Ihsan Sabri Çağlayangil, Bayar agreed to meet me and a journalistic colleague. The meeting proved to be a disappointment as far as chasing “scoops” was concerned. Bayar was not prepared to talk of “the past that is past,” because that was the “task of historians.” Nor was he interested in sharing his personal sufferings in prison and internal exile. There was not a trace of bitterness about the fact that he was still deprived of civic rights and had his residence watched by the secret service.
‘But what about the future?’ we asked him. ‘That is all that really matters,’ Bayar insisted. ‘Our energies should be directed at giving Turkey a better future.’ At the time, subscribing to a more cynical view of politicians, we took that as a sign that Bayar was angling for another position in government and did not wish to annoy the generals who still held the strings of power.
How wrong we were. In 1974, the generals invited Bayar to become a life member of the Senate. He declined, arguing that one should accept a representative position only if one is actually elected by the people. Until his death in 1986, at the ripe old age of 103, Bayar served as a symbol of patience and forbearance by putting the nation’s interests above his own chagrin.
He didn’t call for the boycott of the new power, let alone declaring jihad on those who had done him wrong.
Bayar decided to swim against the tide of a Middle Eastern culture that values revenge, shuns compromise, and hero-worships those who start fires rather than those who try to extinguish them. Bayar’s statesmanlike posture forced the generals to reciprocate. An unwritten rule was gradually accepted in Turkey’s stormy politics under which no one would turn the knife in a wound simply to settle personal scores. In the past few years, many have spoken and written of the “Turkish Model.” For me, Bayar—that cool, composed and charming old man—was the living symbol of the “Turkish Model,” if such a thing ever existed.