The view from the ground.

Divorce Istanbul-Style

Why Turkey's nasty Gulen-Erdogan fight is making for some strange bedfellows.

Photo: ADEM ALTAN/AFP/Getty Images
Photo: ADEM ALTAN/AFP/Getty Images
Photo: ADEM ALTAN/AFP/Getty Images

ISTANBUL — How quickly Turkey has turned.

ISTANBUL — How quickly Turkey has turned.

Last August, after five years of hearings and indictments that ran into the thousands of pages, a Turkish court convicted more than 250 people of conspiring to topple the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The Ergenekon trial, as it was called — named after a shadowy group believed to be part of Turkey’s so-called deep state — was seen as an attempt by Erdogan to undermine his main opponent, the secular military. And it appeared to have served its purpose: The day after the convictions, Yalcin Akdogan, one of the prime minister’s leading advisors, praised the verdict as "the greatest legal settling of accounts in the history of the republic."

Nearly five months later, Akdogan reversed course. Many of the officers sentenced in the Ergenekon case had actually been framed, he wrote in a December column in the Star newspaper. The real culprit, he suggested, was the Gulen movement, a powerful Islamic order suspected of setting up a large fiefdom inside the Turkish police and judiciary. "Everybody knows that those who have plotted against their own country’s national army … could not have acted for the good of this country," Akdogan wrote.

Akdogan’s stunning U-turn has heralded a policy shift for the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) as a whole. In the weeks that have followed, the ruling party has made it abundantly clear that it is willing to give Ergenekon and a separate coup case, Sledgehammer, another look. A deputy chairman of the AKP’s parliamentary group has suggested that the government could make "new legal arrangements" to enable retrials. On Jan. 5, Erdogan himself announced he would be "favorably disposed" to such a solution.

While the prime minister’s messy divorce from the Gulen movement seems to have reached the point of no return, it had been a marriage of convenience from the very beginning. Until the AKP’s election victory in 2002 — the first of its three consecutive wins at the polls — the Gulenists had been wary of aligning themselves with a single political outfit. Their movement had previously focused on education, philanthropy, Islamic proselytization, and unquestioning loyalty to Fethullah Gulen, the man who founded the group.

In Erdogan’s conservative, mildly Islamist party, however, the Gulenists found a partner with whom they could do business. The movement supplied the AKP with the cadres needed to manage state institutions, as well as a supportive media, including the country’s biggest newspaper, Zaman. The government reciprocated by giving Gulenist companies, schools, and charities access to opportunities at home and abroad. Through the Ergenekon trials, the two worked side by side to bring the army — a once invincible secularist force and the author of four coups since 1960 — to heel.

Over the past two years, however, the glue binding Erdogan and the movement has started to weaken. Miffed by his choice of a close ally as intelligence chief, his increasingly authoritarian tilt, and his handling of last summer’s Gezi Park protests, the Gulenists have grown increasingly critical of the prime minister. Erdogan responded by threatening to shut down a network of prep schools that constitute one of the Gulenists’ main financial lifelines, further infuriating the movement.

Erdogan’s about-face on the coup trials marked his latest break with the Gulen movement, whose cadres spearheaded the prosecution. It is a stunning reversal: In 2008, the prime minister proclaimed himself "Ergenekon’s prosecutor," and he had previously backed almost all the police officials and prosecutors involved in the Ergenekon and Sledgehammer cases. The trials, he insisted, would help expose Turkey’s deep state — the nexus between the army, the intelligence community, and the secularist establishment.

The Turkish judiciary, Erdogan had argued, was entirely independent from political pressure. And he kept up that argument — right until that same judiciary came after him.

On Dec. 17, a massive corruption investigation shook Erdogan’s government to its core. Police arrested dozens of people with ties to the government, including several powerful businessmen, the sons of three ministers, and the chief executive of a state bank — who had reportedly stashed $4.5 million in shoeboxes inside his home. On Dec. 25, the three cabinet members implicated in the scandal stepped down, with one of them urging Erdogan to follow suit. The same day, news leaked of a separate graft probe targeting yet more officials and businessmen, including Erdogan’s own son, Bilal.

It didn’t take long for the prime minister, like many in Turkey, to see the hand of the Gulenists at work. He has responded with a snowballing purge of the police and bureaucracy. Over the past three weeks, the government has laid off or reassigned almost 2,000 police officials, including 350 in a sweeping overnight operation on Jan. 6. A law to give the government greater control over judicial appointments — sure to earn Turkey new reprimands from the European Union — is in the works.

The government has also done everything in its power to throw a wrench in the ongoing corruption investigation. One leading prosecutor, Muammer Akkas, has been removed from the case. Newly appointed police officials, Akkas alleged, refused to carry out arrest warrants issued for 41 suspects.

Erdogan and his ministers are now pulling no punches in their political war against the Gulenists, likening the movement to a "gang," a "dark force," and a "parallel state." But as the prime minister moves to wash his hands of the coup trials, he must contend with an awkward question: Why didn’t he react before the corruption probe threatened his grip on power?

Dani Rodrik — a professor at the Institute for Advanced Study, whose father-in-law, a former general, was imprisoned in the coup trials — has been a longtime critic of the Ergenekon and Sledgehammer cases. "It is obvious to all that the procedures in these trials make them stink to high hell," he says.

Rodrik notes that the trials gave Erdogan the cover he needed to weaken the military but have since outlived their purpose. "Erdogan was never the key actor in these trials," says Rodrik. "[But] he was happy to go along with them because they helped him break the back of the [army] and consolidate power."

Yasar Yakis, a former AKP foreign minister, agrees that the corruption probe has been "instrumental" in Erdogan’s decision to revisit the coup cases. "The Ergenekon and Sledgehammer trials were mostly opened on the basis of information provided by the Gulen movement people," Yakis argues. "Now that they found other things to disclose, there is a general feeling that they may have collected the evidence to incriminate the Sledgehammer people and the others for the wrong reasons."

This has made for some strange bedfellows. By distancing himself from the trials and the Gulenists, Erdogan has begun making common cause with the military. On Jan. 2, the Turkish General Staff seized on the prime minister’s comments to file a criminal complaint claiming that evidence in the Ergenekon and Sledgehammer investigations had been forged. The army’s move has made it clear just how much the Turkish chessboard has changed over the past several months. Suddenly, Erdogan is being aided by an increasingly pliant army to take on his political opponents.

But some political experts warn that this is a risky setup for Erdogan. His party is losing popularity at home — its support slipped to 42 percent in a recent poll, and five MPs have resigned in protest at the purge of the police and judiciary — and Erdogan has yet to contain the corruption crisis. His decision to revisit the coup trials may earn him the army’s support against the Gulenists, says Kadri Gursel, an Istanbul-based columnist for Al-Monitor and Milliyet, "but it will destroy his government’s moral authority."

The other risk is that Erdogan — desperate for allies and unable to rein in the corruption probe — may embolden the army to slink back into the political arena. "What the army will do if the situation worsens and the crisis deepens is a big question," Gursel says.

Erdogan, like a drowning man, "may clutch at a snake," he adds, citing a Turkish proverb. In the English version, of course, it’s not a "snake" but a "straw." That may be, says Gursel, except that straws do not bite.

Piotr Zalewski is an Istanbul-based freelance writer. Follow him on Twitter: @p_zalewski.

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