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Case Analysis 20 January, 2014

How will the Conflict between Erdogan and Gulen Affect the Turkish Political Scene?

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The Unit for Political Studies

The Unit for Political Studies is the Center’s department dedicated to the study of the region’s most pressing current affairs. An integral and vital part of the ACRPS’ activities, it offers academically rigorous analysis on issues that are relevant and useful to the public, academics and policy-makers of the Arab region and beyond. The Unit for Policy Studies draws on the collaborative efforts of a number of scholars based within and outside the ACRPS. It produces three of the Center’s publication series: Situation Assessment, Policy Analysis, and Case Analysis reports. 


Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan replaced nearly half his cabinet in a major reshuffle following a corruption scandal that forced the resignation of four ministers. Some of the allegations are related to the state-owned Halk Bankasi bank. The bank is accused of making payments for Turkey’s purchases of Iranian oil and gas, an action the US administration deems a violation of the sanctions against Iran. Fethullah Gulen, a US resident known for his vast connections in the country, has been accused of engineering this conspiracy in order to bring down Erdogan’s government and of conspiring with foreign powers that are dissatisfied with Turkey’s foreign policy. Gulen is the head of the Hizmet movement, a movement boasting more than a million Turkish followers, including senior officials in the police and the judiciary.

Until recently, the Gulen movement was a close ally to the ruling Justice and Development Party, which it had supported in all elections since 2002. Why, then, did the movement change its position toward the government, propelling Turkey into one of its most dangerous political crises since the coup overthrew Necmettine Erbakan’s government in 1997? How will this confrontation affect Turkish politics in the approaching municipal elections scheduled for March 30, 2014, especially since Gulen’s network possesses influential media outlets and has followers and supporters in both Turkey’s business world and its bureaucracy?


From Alliance to Enmity

The secular regime’s persecution of Islamic parties and movements, particularly during the first decades of the Republic, led most of these movements to operate under the charity law or as Sufi movements. These laws were enacted during Adnan Menderes’s government following his 1950 elections victory that ended the rule of the Republican People’s Party, an ultra-secular party founded by Ataturk. Over time, the activities of the charitable and religious associations transcended the services and education sector, and started to seek a political role by creating alliances with political parties and factions. Particularly during election times, these associations would typically urge their members and sympathizers to vote for specific parties in return for benefits they would get once that party reaches power.

Among the most notable of these alliances was the one struck between the Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the Gulen movement. After overthrowing Erbakan, Erdogan and his comrades founded the AKP with a political program that respected the secular constitution and avoided clashing with the military establishment. Fethullah Gulen and his followers welcomed this move, especially after opinion polls indicated that the AKP was going to win the elections as a result of the secular party’s ineptitude and corruption.

The Gulen movement thus experienced what one could call a golden age under the Erdogan government as it was given access to all sectors of the state, including those that were previously barred to its members, such as the ministries of education, interior, foreign affairs, and justice, as well as the directorates of security and intelligence. Erdogan even promoted the movement abroad by asking foreign leaders to allow the movement to establish schools and other projects in their countries. In exchange, the movement supported the party during elections.

The AKP’s domestic and foreign achievements helped in cementing this alliance between 2002 and 2010. However, in light of Turkey’s growing challenges, whether in terms of foreign policy and the overwhelming changes taking place in the region, or in terms of the domestic issues including the Kurdish question, this led to some of the AKP’s allies to become adversaries, including Gulen’s movement.


Domestic and International Conflicts

The fall out between the two allies started over what constitutes Turkey’s foreign interests. Since the Mavi Marmara incident in May 2010, Gulen has become highly critical of the Turkish government, claiming that it allowed the ship to sail without receiving authorization from the Israeli government. Gulen shocked many when he stated that Prime Minister Erdogan was responsible for the Israeli attack against the Turkish ship, which led to the death of nine Turkish citizens. Differences over the Mavi Marmara event, which was not even backed by the Erdogan government, highlighted Gulen’s opposition to Erdogan’s pro-Arab policies and his criticism of Israel. Unlike Erdogan, Gulen insists on building good relations not only with the US, but also with Israel. In effect, he began to oppose the AKP’s foreign policies before splitting over domestic issues.

The first domestic conflict between Gulen and Erdogan occurred when the AKP government established special tribunals to deal with the Ergenekon case, when the government accused dozens of officers for attempting a military coup in 2007.[1] As the trials continued, more military officers have been detained, some of which were close allies of Erdogan. In response, the Prime Minster condemned the slow pace of the judicial procedures and the detention of military leaders close to him. At this point Erdogan started to deem the police and judiciary institutions, controlled by the Gulen movement, as a significant challenge to him.

The second domestic dispute took place when a voice recording of secret talks between Turkey’s intelligence chief and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), was leaked to the media. The Gulen movement, which wields influence in Kurdish regions, had a different view on how to solve the Kurdish problem. Henceforth, public prosecutor Sadriddine Sarikaya, affiliated with Gulen, recalled the head of the intelligence Hakan Fidan for questioning. Fidan was accused of talking to the enemies of the state and overstepping his authority. Prime Minister Erdogan, who viewed the matter as a personal attack on him, intervened on Fidan’s behalf before the interrogation took place. The government suspected that the Gulen movement was behind the leaking of the voice recordings. Some newspapers have even hinted that members of the Gulen movement within the police were behind the security lax that led to the Reyhanli bombings in May 2013, causing much embarrassment for the government both domestically and internationally.[2]

The dispute between the government and the movement reached its apex when Gulen implicitly supported the protests that took place in Taksim Square in June 2013.[3] Pro-Gulen media harshly criticized Erdogan and the manner in which his government dealt with the event while the English-language Today’s Zaman assumed the role of tarnishing the AKP’s image on the international arena.

The detention of the sons of cabinet ministers, under corruption charges and without informing the higher authorities, by police forces loyal to Gulen, escalated the conflict between the two parties. The objective was to embarrass the government by pressing charges of corruption against key cabinet members three months prior to the municipal elections, forcing Erdogan to fire the minister of interior, the minister of economy, and the minister of environment.

The government responded with punitive measures. It ordered the closure of private preparatory schools nationwide, 25 percent of which were owned by the Gulen movement, in response to the group’s stance on the Taksim Square event. Some analysts claim that the latest anti-corruption campaign was Gulen’s response to the government’s actions. Once again, the government responded by firing dozens of police officers and bureaucrats affiliated with the group, including Istanbul’s police chief.[4]


Opposition from within the Islamic Current

The conflict between the AKP and the Gulen movement led to a situation in which the government’s main opposition came from within a network of interests that joins Sufism with political pragmatism. Right or wrong, this network was considered part of the Islamic current and not the secular opposition, which is composed of liberal and nationalist factions. This is a fundamental shift in the arena of Turkish political Islam. In fact, Gulen began to seek alliances with secular parties that oppose the AKP, in a replay of his steps against Necmettin Erbakan. Gulen became a sworn enemy of Erbakan and his movement, Melli Gorus (the Voice of the Nation), from within the current of Turkish political Islam. These actions indicate that Gulen opposes the AKP per se, not merely its stances on domestic and foreign issues. Gulen’s move toward the military establishment, stating his readiness to forfeit the movement’s assets to the Turkish military, may indicate that he seeks to overthrow Erdogan’s government without presenting himself as an alternative.

Gulen’s drastic change in stance toward his previous allies raises numerous questions. Does it signify that his movement has become so powerful that it no longer needs the alliance with the AKP, which opened the door for the Gulen movement? Or, rather, is Gulen feeling that Erdogan’s fortunes have started to wane, and that his chances to remain in power are diminishing due to the domestic and foreign difficulties he has been facing in the past two years? Has this pushed Gulen to start building bridges with those who will succeed the AKP? Gulen is well known for his ability to interpret international changes and exploit domestic political shifts. Is he thus attempting to repeat his experience with the AKP with other political factions?

The coming municipal elections will be an important test for the AKP, and will show if the conflict with the Gulen’s movement has affected Erdogan’s popularity among Turkish voters. It appears so far that the party is reassured by the absence of a strong, cohesive political opposition, and the fact that the secular parties have failed and proven themselves unable to exploit Erdogan’s troubles, as the Taksim events have shown.

Moreover, it appears that the AKP is reassured that the people will vote for a services-related agenda, rather than a political one. In this regard, the ruling party realizes that the other parties will not be able to compete. Since arriving to power in 2002, no political party has been capable of competing with the AKP in local or parliamentary elections. Nevertheless, a social movement and charitable organization with a broad network of relations, including in the US, such as the Gulen movement, may cause more damage to the ruling party than the combined forces of the secular opposition. It is indeed unlikely that the secular opposition will ever be able to be an alternative to the AKP, which has become very experienced in all kinds of elections.

**This Assessment was translated by the ACRPS Translation and English Editing Department. The original Arabic version published on December 30th, 2013 can be found here.

 


[1] Ergenekon is the name of a mythical valley in Central Asia that represents the ethnic origin of Turkic peoples, it is also the name of a Turkish secret organization, founded in 1999, with a stated objective to preserve secularism in Turkey. The organization is accused of carrying out assassinations and bombings in a number of Turkish cities, and of plotting to overthrow the government. The case began in 2007 with the discovery of a weapons’ cache in Istanbul; subsequently, dozens of suspects were arrested including army generals, journalists, and heads of criminal gangs who have been under trial since October 2008. The case has become a symbol of the struggle between the conservative Islamic government and the secular institutions in the country. It is also the most dangerous and extensive case regarding a plot by Turkish generals in the history of the Turkish Republic; the court has accepted to review the Balyoz case, which is the name of the plot allegedly hatched by the Turkish generals in order to overthrow the government. The accused include the Turkish Army’s former chief of staff General Ilker Basbug, who led the army from 2008 to 2010. The total number of suspects in the trial has reached more than 300 suspects.

[2] “Erdogan: Those who executed the Reyhanli bombing have assisted the delegation of the Turkish opposition in meeting Assad,” al-Hayat, May 34, 2013, http://alhayat.com/Details/516950.

[3] “Taksim Square … the uprooting of a tree causes protests,” al-Jazeera.net, June 3, 2013, http://www.aljazeera.net/news/pages/c8c233f8-6991-48f4-881c-ff8ef342d1fe.

[4] “New purging campaign in the ranks of the Turkish police due to a corruption scandal,” al-Hayat, December 23, 2013, http://alhayat.com/Details/585101.