Erdogan-Gulen-Gul rivalry: All the Sultan’s men

The outcome of the ongoing struggle will determine Turkey’s future for the next decade.

Turks are calling for the ruling AKP party to resign amid graft scandals [AFP]

What we are experiencing in Turkey since December 17 can only happen in Dan Brown novels. Nothing seems real anymore. The prime minister accuses a secretive religious order, which allegedly acts in coordination with the United States and Israel, of setting up “a state within a state” and plotting against his democratically-elected government through its agents within the police, judiciary, and the media. The PM seems to sincerely believe that there is an international conspiracy against him, and that the Gulen Movement has been subcontracted by his external and internal enemies to deliver the final blow to his decade-long rule.

In the past, Erdogan had a relatively shorter list of enemies. It primarily included the “Zionists”, and the secular establishment – consisting of mainly the military, judiciary and the bureaucracy. Nowadays, that list seems to include pretty much everyone from German airline Lufthansa to US Ambassador Francis Ricciardone. On the top of the list, he has President Barack Obama, who, according to Erdogan, has stabbed him in the back by backing away from military action against the Syrian government.

Of course, the list further includes Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Iran and Hezbollah – as well as General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who ousted the first democratically elected President of Egypt, and the so-called “interest-rate lobby”.

Fetullah Gulen’s name and his Hizmet movement have been just added to the ever-growing list in the last ten days. Gulenists were a long-time ally and supporter of the PM and his Justice and Development Party (AKP). From time to time the two had some disagreements and quarrels but, as acknowledged by both sides, this was a marriage of convenience, not love, hence both parties had tried their best to make this coalition work – as their vital political and economic interests depended on it – at least until the recent breakup. Why is there now a civil war between the two Islamist forces which have ruled Turkey together since the mid-2000s?   

In his pursuit to defeat the old Kemalist elite and take control of the state, Erdogan sought the movement’s help and openly collaborated with the Gulenist forces within the judiciary, law-enforcement agencies and the media.

Securalists’ defeat

Although Erdogan became the prime minister of the country in 2003, he was never the master of the Turkish state. The state was controlled and run by the old republican elite. Erdogan knew that he had to subdue the military to its authority and purge the secular republican elite from the judiciary and bureaucracy in order to establish his own regime. AKP was a relatively new player in Turkish politics, but the Gulenists had already penetrated deep into the state bureaucracy especially into the police and the lower echelons of the judiciary thanks to the movement’s close ties with the central right- and left-wing parties which ruled Turkey after 1983.

In his pursuit  to defeat the old Kemalist elite and take control of the state, Erdogan sought the movement’s help and openly collaborated with the Gulenist forces within the judiciary, law-enforcement agencies and the media. The new partnership, cemented in 2007-2008 between the two Islamist groups, worked perfectly and resulted in the complete pacification of the military and the demise of the secular Kemalist regime which had been established in 1923. By 2011, the entire state structure from the Constitutional Court to the National Security Council was up for grabs. The secular enemy had been finally defeated. But who was going to put his name and seal on the new regime: Erdogan or the self-exiled cleric, Gulen? 

Blind to Gulenists

In exchange for their support in defeating the ancien regime, Erdogan, turned a blind eye to the activities of the cleric’s followers within the police and judiciary, promoting them to key positions in the bureaucracy, and giving the movement room to further expand its social, educational, cultural and economic empire across the country.

Believing that he had already paid his dues and debts to the movement, Erdogan thought that he could now start putting his own seal on the new regime by installing his hand-picked candidate (without consultation with Gulenists) as the head of Turkey’s spy agency (MIT) in May 2010.

The Gulenists, however, believed that the PM would have never been able to defeat the old secular elite and solidify his rule, if the followers of Gulen in the police and judiciary had not helped him. They thought that they were not sufficiently compensated for their services; hence the government had to continue to share the power, and top government offices, with the movement. Against this backdrop, the appointment of Hakan Fidan, a potential successor to Erdogan, if he- Erdogan- becomes the new occupant of the presidential Cankaya Palace in 2014. This decision was viewed by the Gulenists as a treacherous move and a sign of Erdogan’s unwillingness to share power.  

Shaping the new regime

The quarrel that started with the appointment of Fidan, several years ago, has grown louder and deeper with the government announcing last month its plans to shut down university prep schools – a major source of revenue and a recruitment tool for the movement. Many Gulenists who now occupy key positions in the judiciary and bureaucracy are graduates of these prep schools. One may liken the symbolic significance of these prep schools for the Gulenist to that of Imam Hatip schools for AKP supporters. The plans to shut down the schools were reportedly first drafted in early 2000s as part of the national security strategy to fight against the Gulenist establishment. Why are these plans, which were shelved for nearly ten years, being re-tabled by the PM and why now?

The PM seems to strongly believe that during the Gezi demonstrations last summer – which heavily criticised his increasingly authoritarian and aggressive style of politics – the Gulenists sympathised with the protesters and joined them in efforts to undermine his rule.

Erdogan, knowing the Gulenists’ sympathies for Gul… would rather choose a person within AKP who will sheepishly follow his lead and function as his ‘Dmitry Medvedev’ in the years to come.

Erdogan took the Gezi protests personally. He viewed the protests as a rebellion, and an attempt to derail his plans to re-write the constitution and change the country’s parliamentary system into a US-style presidential system where Erdogan himself was to be the head of both government and state. When the parliamentary conciliation commission whose main task had been to draft a new constitution was suspended last month, it became only clear that the Gezi protesters have indeed achieved their goal of preventing Erdogan from turning Turkey into a presidential regime.

Accepting the bitter reality, Erdogan has recently begun rolling out his Plan B. According to the new plan, he would still be the president of the nation in 2014. However, under the current parliamentary system the president has mostly limited and symbolic powers. In order to project “real” power from Cankaya Palace in 2014 and beyond, Erdogan has to consolidate his control over state institutions by purging rival groups (ie, the Gulenists) from the bureaucracy, and staffing the judiciary and security forces with loyalists. Erdogan’s new move aims to not only limit the power of the self-exiled cleric but also the ability of the future prime minister to make policy and exert any political power over state institutions.

Love-hate triangle?

Against this backdrop, the Gulenists, well aware of Erdogan’s authoritarian intentions and future plans, have launched the recent corruption investigation in order to discredit the PM and force him to resign before he gets a chance to fully implement his plan.

In this war, President Abdullah Gul, an old friend of Erdogan’s, also has a very important role to play. Gul’s desire to continue to remain in active politics as the PM, after his term as president ends in August 2014, is well-known. Gul is also believed to be a close ally of the Gulen Movement which wants him to succeed Erdogan as the head of government and the leader of AKP next year. Of course, Erdogan, knowing the Gulenists’ sympathies for Gul, would not favour such a  strong-willed and charismatic personality to succeed him and would rather choose a person within AKP  who will sheepishly follow his lead and function as his “Dmitry Medvedev” in the years to come.

Both the president and PM are well aware of one another’s desires and plans. This causes a visible rift and tension between the two men. For instance, Gul has not been shy about voicing his criticism of Erdogan’s handling of the Gezi crisis or his disagreements over Erdogan’s plans to introduce a presidential system. The relationship between the two men hit a new low when Gul reportedly vetoed 7 out of 10 ministers proposed by Erdogan during his recent cabinet reshuffle.

The power struggle in the Gul-Erdogan-Gulen triangle will become more visible in the coming months, as the president’s term nears the end. The result of this power struggle will determine Turkey’s future in the next 5-10 years.

Yuksel Sezgin is a Professor of Political Science, Maxwell School of Public Affairs, Syracuse University.