BACKGROUND: A decade ago, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the Gülen fraternity formed a strategic alliance when they had to ward off the existential threat that the old state establishment posed against both. During the AKP’s first term in power, between 2002 and 2007, the General Staff demanded that action was taken against the entrenchment of the Gülenists in the state bureaucracy. In 2007-2008, the state establishment attempted to bring down the AKP. The putsch of the old guard against the AKP culminated with the 2008 closure case against the party.
The result was that the strategic alliance between the AKP and the Gülenists, which began with the 2002 elections, was deepened. They responded in kind, and eventually they prevailed. The Ergenekon and the Sledgehammer cases against the military and its supporters decapitated the old state establishment.
After constitutional amendments in 2010 – that was approved by 58 percent of voters in a referendum – the AKP-Gülenist alliance enjoyed full control over the judiciary. However, subsequently, a destructive turf war over the control of the state broke out between the erstwhile allies turned enemies.
By 2011, the Gülenists had every reason to be satisfied: of the two Islamic allies, they were the ones who had the strongest presence in civil society organizations while they staffed the bureaucracy, the judiciary and the police. After the general elections in 2011, the Gülenists sought to expand their political power, demanding a greater say over the conduct of policy as well. Ideological differences that had always existed asserted themselves.
The divergence in ideological outlook between AKP and the Gülenists manifested itself in particular in the way the two allies viewed Israel. From his exile in Pennsylvania, Fethullah Gülen made his displeasure with the AKP government’s militant stance against Israel – after the 2010 Gaza flotilla incident – known.(See June 7, 2020 Turkey Analyst) The Gülenists were also opposed to the Government’s Kurdish opening, advocating a more traditionally militant, Turkish nationalist stance against the Kurds.
IMPLICATIONS: It was not a coincidence that the first clash between the Gülenists and the AKP government broke out over the control of the National Intelligence Agency (MİT). The agency was notably responsible for conducting the Kurdish opening of the government, negotiating in secret with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Oslo. On February 7, 2012, a prosecutor who was assumed to be a Gülenist, attempted to arrest Hakan Fidan, the Undersecretary of MİT, together with other MİT bureaucrats, all of whom were charged with treason for having negotiated with the PKK.(See February 20, 2012 Turkey Analyst)
The Gülenists made their move when then Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was hospitalized, pending a surgery. The details of the events of February 7, 2012 and of the following days still remain unknown, but the Gülenist scheme was apparently foiled after Erdoğan personally intervened from his hospital bed. According to one account, gunfight allegedly nearly broke out between MİT security and police when the latter attempted to break into the MİT headquarters in order to apprehend Fidan.
The Gülenists had succeeded in becoming entrenched in the bureaucracy because they controlled the supply source: the education system that bred Islamic conservatives for government service. When the AKP government set out to staff the bureaucracy with loyalists, it had had nowhere else to turn to but to graduates from schools that were run by the Gülenists. The fraternity had acquired a hold over the education system, and it had done so largely as a result of the coup in 1997, which had removed Necmettin Erbakan, Turkey’s first Islamist prime minister, from power. The coup led to changes in the education system that circumscribed the İmam-Hatip (Imam-Preacher) schools that had traditionally provided the Islamists with their cadres. After the 1997 coup, the “secular” high schools and colleges that were run by the Gülenist fraternity became the main alternative for conservative families. In that sense, the Gülenists were the chief beneficiaries of the 1997 coup.
The number of students enrolled in the İmam-Hatip schools dropped to less than 100,000. Today, the AKP regime is engaged in a concerted effort to bolster the position of the İmam-Hatip schools. The effort is spearheaded by the “Foundation for Service and Educations for Turkey’s Youth” (TÜRGEV) that is presided over by the president’s son, Bilal Erdoğan. As of 2015, the number of students had risen to one million.
After the attempt to arrest Hakan Fidan, Erdoğan moved against the Gülenists. The first target of the AKP government was the Gülenist monopoly over the formation of Islamic cadres. With this in mind, the AKP government overhauled the education system, ensuring that the İmam-Hatip schools once again became an attractive alternative for conservative families, by reinstating them as schools that make their students eligible for higher education. And in 2013, the government announced its intention to shut down the preparatory classes that were another source of Gülenist power over the education system – as well as a major financial source for the fraternity.
The response of the Gülenists came on December 17 and 25, 2013, when Gülenist prosecutors launched what to all intents and purposes was an attempt to dislodge the AKP government, by bringing corruption charges against cabinet ministers and their family members. From their positions in the state apparatus and in the judiciary, the Gülenists had kept a close record of the government, using illegal wiretapping, an instrument that they had earlier deployed successfully against the common enemies of the fraternity and the AKP. Erdoğan’s family members were also scheduled to be implicated in the following stages of the operation. Erdoğan managed to stave off the threat, and a purge of Gülenists within the police and the judiciary that still continues was launched.
After President Erdoğan’s approval recently of the Law of Internal Security, 1,600 first class police commanders were retired. Graduates of Gülenist schools are no longer admitted to government service, and the tax authorities are conducting regular audits of businessmen who are associated with the civil society branches of the Gülenist fraternity, several of whom have been subjected to exorbitant fines.
The abolition of the special courts that were an instrument of the fraternity – and of the AKP government as long as the two were allies – in its quest to hunt down political opponents, led to another set of courts, baptized “Criminal Courts of Peace”, to be set up; several Gülenist police officers have been sentenced by these courts.
In what was possibly a Gülenist attempt to demonstrate that the fraternity still possess some power to annoy the AKP government, two judges at the 32nd Penal Court of First Instance in Istanbul and the 29th Penal Court of First Instance in Istanbul, respectively, recently ordered the release of the chairman of the Gülenist Samanyolu Media Group and seventy five police officers who had been arrested in December 2014 in a round-up of a part of the Gülenist network. The judges were first suspended on grounds of “damaging the reputation and influence of the judiciary” and were subsequently, on May 1, arrested on charges of “attempting to overthrow the Turkish government or hindering the government’s operation in part or full” and of being members “of an armed organization.”
CONCLUSIONS: Erdoğan and his AKP have succeeded to ward off the challenge of the Gülenist fraternity. In an ironic twist, Erdoğan has now come to rely on a former adversary – the military – in his quest to protect himself against a former ally – the Gülenists – with whom he formed a strategic alliance a decade ago in order to survive the attempt of the military – that is now his ally – to dislodge him.
At the gatherings of the National Security Council a decade ago, Erdoğan resisted when the generals tried to force the government to take action against the Gülenists; at the meeting of the National Security Council last month, the council reiterated its decision from 2014 designating the fraternity an illegal organization and a national security threat – at the suggestion of the AKP government.
In a speech at War Academy in March, Erdoğan stated that the Ergenekon and Sledgehammer cases had been fabrications and that he had been misled to defend those cases. At the time, Erdoğan had declared himself the “prosecutor” of the Ergenekon case.
Erdoğan has been able to count on the support of former foes in his campaign against the Gülenists. Critically for the AKP, other groups have rallied to it within the judiciary: right wing nationalists, supporters of the Nationalist Action Party (MHP) and social democrats in the judiciary have formed a coalition with the AKP, granting the government the majority in the Supreme Council of Judges and Prosecutors, as a result of which the power of the fraternity has been effectively curtailed within the judiciary.
The Gülenists’ strength is that they can count on dedicated members, but they have lost the battle over the control of the state. Most damningly for them, they have been exposed as ruthless power grabbers. Henceforth, everyone is going to be on the alert against them. Their presence in the state apparatus is hardly going to be tolerated. The lessons that Erdoğan and his government have had to learn the hard way are not going to be lost on those who succeed them. One can assume that they are going to be careful not to offer the Gülenists any leeway.
(Image attribution: Wikimedia Commons)