TSG IntelBrief: Erdogan & Gulen And Turkey's Deepening Political Crisis
• The rivalry between PM Recep Tayyip Erdogan and followers of his former spiritual muse, Fethullah Gulen, is marked by corruption charges, differences of pro and anti foreign involvement, and implications for foreign relations—in the region, with the US and NATO, and vis a vis Iran—and notable political brinkmanship
• Erdogan’s response has been swift and fierce, and seeing the impact among a significant part of his base, namely religious conservatives, he fired many pro-Gulen officials in the security and judiciary
• AKP’s image in Turkey and as a model of governance in the Post-Arab Spring Middle East has suffered, and relations will require re-setting with the West and in the region.
Background and Issues
The political scandal over corruption charges against some of the key advisers and cabinet members in the government of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has cast a long shadow over Erdogan’s political future and shaken the very foundations of his justice and development Party (AKP). But a closer look at the matter uncovers a multi-dimensional web of power rivalry between Erdogan and his allies on one side, and Fethullah Gulen and his followers on the other.
Fethullah Gulen is a Turkish Islamic scholar, writer and spiritual leader, who lives in self-imposed exile in Saylorsburg, Pennsylvania. He is the leader of the Gulen Movement that has millions of followers in Turkey and elsewhere and a vast network of financial support. In Turkey, the Gulen Movement is also known and referred to as Hizmet (service) and Cemaat (the Turkish form of the Arabic word for community). The Movement’s net worth is estimated to be over $25 billion, with direct and partial ownership of over 200 charitable foundations.
After Erdogan’s first win at the polls in November 2002, the AKP’s early years involved continuing efforts to enter the European Union (EU). The AKP enlisted the support of a wide range of the Turkish electorate including the liberals/Kemalists. The AKP’s demonstration of Turkish determination to enter the EU included implementation of progressive reforms in different aspects of the Turkish legal code, reforms widely welcomed by Turkish liberals.
From AKP’s post election success to the present, the underlying conflicts have grown increasingly complex and nuanced. Among contributing factors has been Erdogan’s stance with respect to the Muslim Brotherhood in the aftermath of “Arab Spring” events, from Egypt to Syria. Moreover, Gulen supporters see national interests in terms of promoting Islam, Turkish nationalism, and its brand of education among the Turkic peoples, from the Balkans to Central Asia. With the recent series of events, Erdogan alleges that police officials and prosecutors “belong to Gulen,” and his followers seek to establish a state within the state.
Formation of an Ideological Alliance
However, ideologically, AKP is the revitalized and rebranded adaptation of the Welfare Party (Refah Partisi) founded by Necmettin Erbakan and later removed from Turkish political life by the military for the Party’s openly religious ideology and principles.
With AKP’s rise to prominence in Turkish politics, Gulen saw an ideological ally in Erdogan. Domestic politics, with ideological support from Gulen, underwent a new wave of power consolidation marked by the purge of senior army officers and mass arrests of other officers for what AKP claimed were plans to overthrow the Erdogan government. Gulen and his followers, which included other high-ranking officers and judges in the security and judiciary establishments—some with decision-making powers—supported the move.
Gulen’s Political and Financial Powerbase
Fethullah Gulen’s power and influence in Turkish politics chiefly comes from a network of schools, charities, and academic services. Many of Turkey’s thousands of university entrance exam preparatory courses and classes (Hazirlik Siniflari) belong to Gulen’s Hizmet Movement. Every year these schools prepare hundreds of thousands of university student aspirants to pass the university entrance exam and obtain admission to schools of their choice. Upon admission, Hizmet provides to many students scholarships and sometimes free housing, and they in turn become indoctrinated with the movement’s political ideology. The background of the majority of Gulen adherents in positions of power in security, judiciary, and media can be traced to these schools. Since they hold decision-making positions in various government institutions, they are believed to be instrumental in disclosing the current corruption scandal.
An Ideological Alliance Unravels
Over the last five years Erdogan set Turkey on an entirely new and aggressive course that alarmed many in the West and within his own circles. Erdogan’s new assertiveness included an increasingly hawkish tone against Israel and the US, and a new foreign policy direction independent of NATO. Emboldened by Erdogan’s forceful and pro-Islamic foreign policy, many of his advisors and even members of his cabinet saw lucrative opportunities in the Middle East, to include helping Iran evade the sanctions imposed by the international community.
Gulen, though, began to warn Erdogan on what Gulen saw as brewing problems, mainly the rising corruption in real estate deals, helping Tehran’s cronies in getting around sanctions, and deteriorating ties between Turkey and Israel. In 2010, Gulen advised Erdogan not to carry out the planned Gaza humanitarian aid mission with the Turkish ship Mavi Marmara, without consulting the Israelis. Erdogan ignored the warnings and continued with his policies.
The continuation of these policies by AKP relied on a newly-energized sense of confidence after the military purges and the party’s second win at the polls in 2007. These plans included entering the previously private domain of Turks; for example, changing laws governing consumption of alcoholic beverages.
Alarmed by the rising corruption levels and Iran’s ability to manipulate Turkish officials at seemingly every level of the government, proponents of the Hizmet Movement decided to make public disclosures regarding AKP and corruption. A significant aspect of the scandal revolves around Reza Zarrab, an Iranian businessman based in Istanbul, who, despite the known difficulties of obtaining Turkish citizenship, the Erdogan government granted it. Zarrab is also a household name in Turkey due to his marriage to Ebru Gundes, one of Turkey’s biggest pop music stars.
As media outlets close to the Hizmet Movement disclosed more information about different aspects of the scandal, Zarrab was jailed. Investigations revealed he was operating on behalf of Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence, bribing high-ranking Turkish officials, laundering money and gold worth billions of dollars as part of his efforts to circumvent US-imposed sanctions on Iran.
Erdogan’s response to the scandal has been swift and fierce. Having seen the impact on his base among the religious conservatives, he decided to fire many pro-Gulen officials in the security and judiciary, some in high-ranking positions. Erdogan has also turned his attention to the university entrance preparatory schools, shutting them down in the hope of choking off one of Gulen’s key finance sources. To date, it’s unknown how many schools have been closed, or how many more are on the closure list.
• AKP’s image in Turkey as well as in the region as a model of governance in the Post-Arab Spring Middle East will continue to suffer setbacks
• Erdogan’s ability to rally support for AKP in the upcoming presidential elections will be curtailed as a result of the scandal
• Turkish President, Abdullah Gul, who has been a critic of Erdogan since the Gezi Park incidents, will have to break his silence and explain where he stands in the corruption scandal
• US-Turkish relations will have to wait for a new chapter to arrive as many Turks blame the US for its uncritical support of Erdogan and the AKP.
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