Erdogan Loses It

How the Islamists Forfeited Turkey

Erdogan walks in front of a military honor guard, February 8, 2011.
Erdogan walks in front of a military honor guard, February 8, 2011. (Courtesy Reuters)

The Turkish state changed hands a decade ago, when Islamic conservatives (supported by the liberals) prevailed in elections against the country’s old guard, the rightist nationalists known as Kemalists. It may be about to do so again. The conservative alliance of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the movement of Fethullah Gülen, a Muslim cleric who leads his congregation from self-imposed exile in the United States, has imploded. As it does, the military is gearing up to insert itself into politics once more. 

The trouble started in 2011, when Erdogan decided to purge most Gülen supporters from the AKP party list ahead of the general election in June. No longer willing to share power with anyone else, Erdogan also ousted most liberals and supporters of the moderate President Abdullah Gül. Then, a subsequent reform of the public administration served as an excuse to remove many Gülenists from key bureaucratic posts.

The Gülenists’ response came in February 2012, when a prosecutor believed to be affiliated with the movement tried to summon Hakan Fidan, the head of the National Intelligence Organization and a close confidant of Erdogan, for questioning over his role in then-secret negotiations between the Turkish government and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The Gülenists had made their opposition to talks with the Kurdish movement known and wanted to derail them by charging Erdogan’s envoy -- and by implication the prime minister himself -- with treason.

Last summer, the rift between the two groups widened as protesters occupied Gezi Park. Gülen-affiliated media criticized Erdogan, comparing him to a “pharaoh.” The government, with its reputation tarnished and Gülenists gaining the upper hand, announced in late 2013 that it would shut down Gülen-operated schools. That would have deprived the movement of its main source of revenue and recruits. Not ready to take the hit lying down, the Gülen movement retaliated by supporting a corruption probe, led by the prosecutor Celal Kara, against relatives of several cabinet ministers and businessmen with close ties to the government. Upping the ante, Erdogan launched a full-scale purge of any suspected Gülen sympathizers from sensitive positions in the bureaucracy, judiciary, and police. 

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