Turkey's struggle: Erdoğan vs Gülen

A series of escalating crises in Turkey is reshaping political alliance and enmities. It also casts a shadow over the country's democratic future, says Bill Park.

Bill Park
27 January 2014

A new phase in Turkey's political crisis erupted on 17 December 2013 when Turkish police arrested fifty-two suspects on various corruption charges. The detainees included the sons of three government ministers and the general manager of the state-owned Halkbank. The operation followed three separate and secret investigations that had lasted for more than a year.

A second wave of detentions planned for 25 December, intended to include the son of prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, was thwarted by the government. But amid an intense and escalating political furore, more police swoops did take place: for example, in Izmir in early January, several businessmen and officials associated with the ruling AKP (Adelet ve Kalkinma Partisi / Justice and Development Party) were detained. 

It soon became evident that behind this spectacle was a deeper fight between two powerful forces: the AKP, or rather Erdogan and his supporters, and the cemaat (or network) of the charismatic Islamic scholar and preacher, Fethullah Gülen. This open breach has been coming for a long time. For if the cemaat cooperated with the government in the high-profile Ergenekon and Balyoz trials that have led to the imprisonment of hundreds of active and retired military officers (including former chief of the general staff, Ilker Basbug), some would say it also led the way; indeed, members of the Gülen network are widely believed to have penetrated the police, judiciary and other government bodies.  

The immediate spark for the outbreak of warfare between former comrades-in-arms was lit in November 2013: a leak of the government’s draft legislation aimed at closing the hundreds of private prep schools run by the Gülen network - schools that serve as a vital source of recruits, funds and indeed employment for the cemaat. In a slightly longer perspective, the latest drama reveals just how intractable this key conflict in Turkish political life has become.

The response

Erdoğan was stung into action by the December events. He removed from their cabinet posts the three government ministers whose sons had been arrested  - as well as a fourth minister, who promptly declared that Erdoğan had known of the alleged offences and should therefore resign. The prime minister publicly defended his own son, as well as Bilal Erdoğan’s friend and associate, Saudi businessman Yasin al-Qadi, who was also wanted for questioning (and who has long been suspected in the west of links to terrorist networks).

The government's response to the crisis went further. It removed and reassigned thousands of police officers and prosecutors, including Istanbul’s police chief. It then introduced new regulations that would oblige the police and prosecutors to inform their superiors - in effect the justice minister - of any ongoing investigations. In face of objections to these rules from the Supreme Court of Judges and Prosecutors (Hakimler ve Savcilar Yuksek Kurulu / HSYK), the government went further: it drafted legislation that would place the HSYK under tighter control. This measure, if passed, would overturn the government's own constitutional reform of 2010, which was approved in a referendum (and complied with European Union requirements).

The AKP government also proposed legislation that would further curtail internet access and privacy in Turkey. It justified this by a series of leaks to the media, including footage of banknotes (reportedly $4.5 million worth) in the possession of the detained Halkbank official. The allegations also covered sex tapes, and details of arms-caches being delivered to Syria by Turkey’s intelligence organisation, the National Intelligence Organisation (Milli Istihbarat Teskilati / MIT).

Erdoğan's vehement reaction to the latest turn of events in Turkey is characteristic, in that his usual practice when faced by tales of corruption - which have long surrounded his government and entourage - is to deflect them by accusing external forces of conspiring against Turkey. He has adopted the same tone when rebutting charges that Turkey, not least via the activities of Halkbank, has been instrumental in enabling Iran to circumvent some of the sanctions imposed on it as a consequence of its nuclear programme. So, for example, the prime minister has even hinted at removing the United States's ambassador in Ankara, Frank Ricciardone, after he supposedly said that the AKP government was due a comeuppance).

The conflict

If the leak of the schools legislation in November precipitated the crisis, the competition and mistrust between Erdoğan and Gülen goes back further: at least to February 2013, when investigating judges attempted to question the head of MIT, Hakan Fidan, about his secret talks with Turkey’s Kurdish leadership.

Erdoğan's answer, to introduce a legal amendment prohibiting any moves against the MIT’s head without the prime-minister’s approval, set a pattern for the more recent legal moves. More immediately it opened a murky and bitter struggle that would dominate 2013, in which it became clear that each group was assiduously tracking and seeking to expose the nefarious activities of the other.

So, Erdoğan sought to remove Gulenists from positions of influence within the government, amid a series of leaks to the media of government discussions and actions (for example, that the MIT had disclosed to Tehran the names of ten Iranians who worked for Israel’s Mossad intelligence organisation). The pace accelerated with noisy public spats (with the government accusing the Gülen network of fomenting the Gezi Park protests, and Fethullah Gülen himself claiming that he had evidence that a high-profile AKP figure had used the services of a call-girl). Once more, the government announced its intention to curb wiretapping and increase the penalties for leaking the contents.

The struggle appears to have extended to Turkey’s policy towards the Syrian conflict. Counter-terrorist police have stopped and searched a number of vehicles heading towards Syria, only to be prevented from completing their operations by the MIT officials accompanying the convoys and local state-appointed governors. Police officers leading the operations have been reassigned accordingly, while highly credible leaks have appeared in the media insisting that the vehicles were engaged in shipping arms to the Syrian opposition. 

An advisor to the prime minister has declared that many of the leading police and judicial figures now challenging the AKP government were the same people that had "rigged" the evidence in the Ergenekon and similar trials. Erdoğan then indicated his readiness to order retrials - although during the trials, the government had shown no doubts about their rightness. A government minister has also stated that probably no more than ten "coup plotters" ever existed - although hundreds were convicted and are now in prison.

The fact that the Ergenokon and other trials appeared to involve Turkey's "new", moderate Islamist AKP establishment targeting the country's "old" military and judicial establishment (the so-called "deep state") make such volte-faces all the more striking. In fact, some observers are drawing a remarkable - even for Turkey - conclusion from current events: that a tacit alliance against the alleged Gulenist "parallel state" is shaping up between Erdoğan’s government and the Turkish general staff.

The prospect

The conflict between the government and the cemaat seems at first glance to be contrary to the interests of both. After all, the Gülen network has provided funds, political support, media backing and personnel to the AKP, while the AKP has offered protection to the network and enabled it to grow. Indeed, the paramount sympathies with the cemaat of some AKP parliamentarians have led them to resign from the party, and others have been disciplined.

There are, of course, ideological differences between the two groups. The AKP leadership is rooted in Turkey’s political Islamism, and is the Turkish variant of the Muslim Brotherhood; the Gulenists believe in a bottom-up Islamification of Turkish society, and are perhaps softer, more accommodating and consensual in their values (if not in their methods). They are also uneasy with Turkey’s confrontational approach to regional issues, and would like to see more effort put into preserving Turkey’s western friendships. Now, perhaps because both networks are drunk on power and success, they appear to have embarked on the rawest of power-struggles.

It is hard to see who will emerge victorious, and what that victory might look like in the long term. Erdoğan is surely damaged, although he would equally surely win an election tomorrow. But he might now find it hard to convince even his own party to allow him the opportunity to inherit a more "presidential" presidency after Turkey’s first-ever direct elections to the post to be held in August 2014. The Gulenists too are wounded, but seem to be rich and entrenched enough to fight another day. It is much easier to see that Turkey’s reputation, democratisation and economic wellbeing will be the short-term loser.     

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