January 5, 2015

Will the AKP-Gülen rift save Turkey’s secularists

Mustafa Gürbüz*

In Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's “New Turkey,” anyone could be next. The "New Turkey" is ever more synonymous with the old military-backed regime as Erdoğan seeks allies in his war.

#EdenBulur, literally meaning “You reap what you sow,” was the hashtag of the Turkish Radio and Television Corporation (TRT) regarding the police raids on Zaman and STV, top media outlets associated with the Hizmet movement, led by Fethullah Gülen. It not only signified the feelings of revenge among the Justice and Development Party (AKP) elite but also the government's strict control over the state media. One full year after police raids revealed the AKP's involvement in massive corruption, President Erdoğan ordered the raid against the Gülen movement media, targeting the top two chief executives.

Two weeks after the raids, the reactions have been mixed in the Turkish press. Erdoğan's narrative is powerful among those who accuse the Gülen movement of complicity in the Ergenekon trials against Turkish military officers and police operations against the Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK).

The AKP government claims that they are not the primary agent behind these operations; instead, it is the Gülen movement's “parallel structure.”

Many secularists believe that the AKP-Gülen rift would be to their benefit. In a recent interview, Soner Yalçın, a well-known journalist who recently served two years in prison, applauded the arrests of the journalists. It was exactly what Erdoğan calculated: Turkey's secularists will be silent when it comes to the Gülen movement.

That deafening silence was partly the result of Erdoğan's long-time plan to forge an alliance with an ever more desperate secular elite, who have their own scores to settle with the Gülen movement, in order to contain serious corruption allegations. Erdoğan blamed Pennsylvania, the word he prefers to use when referring to Gülen in order to emphasize his links with the United States, for what he called "unfair" arrest of many ex-military officers on trumped-up charges in the Ergenekon coup trials and vowed to take legal measures that will help the suspects see the light of day.

In March 2014, all the Ergenekon suspects were released, including Turkey's former army chief, İlker Başbuğ. Erdoğan was quick to declare that “the new Ergenekon is the parallel structure,” pointing at the Gülen movement. As anticipated, upon his release, ex-chief Gen. Başbuğ said it was the parallel structure that had devised dirty plots against them.

What the 'parallel structure' narrative overshadows

Erdoğan's narrative of a “parallel structure” has overshadowed some serious debates about the Turkish military's internal dynamics. In 2007, Erdoğan's private meeting with then-Chief of General Staff Yaşar Büyükanıt at Dolmabahçe Palace was the subject of much debate in Turkey, but it was not discussed in the global media. Büyükanıt later publicly declared his active role in an e-memorandum against the Turkish government -- also known as the April 27 coup attempt -- and yet, he still remains untouchable.

During his term of duty, political assassinations of minority leaders were rampant, and all these cases, including the murder of Hrant Dink, remain a mystery.

Some members of Ergenekon have long feared that they will be sold out by powerful military officers. The producing of false evidence has saved them for now, making the trials of army officers illegitimate in the public eye. These internal dynamics of the Ergenekon complex have gradually faded away in public discourse. “It's all about Pennsylvania,” say Erdoğan and his cronies.

In his war against Gülen Erdoğan's “divide and rule” tactic gained him not only Turkey's old military regime, but also the Turkish military's fierce opponent, the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) movement. The very nature of politics is the reason why Erdoğan won't stop using Turkey's immature democracy. As author Elif Şafak astutely observed: “When Mr. Erdoğan speaks he addresses the nation's subconscious. He speaks to our primordial fears and xenophobia.”

Steven Cook, a senior fellow at the Council of Foreign Relations in Washington, D.C., comes to a similar conclusion in his comment on the recent media crackdown. “[Egyptian President Abdel Fattah] Sisi and Erdoğan are overseeing remarkably similar politics, built on cults of personalities, manipulation, intimidation, fear and violence,” argues Cook, continuing: “In both Sisi's Egypt and Erdoğan's Turkey, anyone could be next. That's what happens in dictatorships.”

In fact, the populist march against secularists has already begun. For their participation in the Gezi protests of 2013, soccer fans of the Çarşı group are on trial for plotting a “coup” against the AKP government. In his recent defense at court, one of the fans pointed out the obvious: “If we had such a capability [to remove a government from office], we would make our team, Beşiktaş, the champion!”

These attacks mark the beginning of the 2015 election season for Erdoğan, in which Turks will be pitted against Kurds, Sunnis against Alevis and conservatives against leftists. By targeting the chief voices of dissent, Erdoğan is sending a message to all potential opposition, including pro-Kurdish parties.

For the Islamic constituency, the recent media crush shows Erdoğan's ability to remain in charge despite growing voices of corruption criticism among AKP circles. Erdoğan believes that a united AKP front that powerfully repressed Gülen can easily beat the leftist and pro-Kurdish voices of dissent since they are not threatening the AKP's own constituency. If the chief journalists in the main media can be arrested as such, the so-called “marginal” leftist media remains under severe threat.

Will Turkey's secularists and pro-Kurdish opposition see imminent danger at their door? In the words of The New York Times editors, Erdoğan's “paranoid bullying” about the “parallel structure” indicate how he is now “an authoritarian leader living in a parallel universe, one where being a democracy, a NATO ally and a candidate for membership in the European Union are somehow compatible with upending the rule of law and stifling freedom of expression.”

*Mustafa Gürbüz is a policy fellow at the Center for Global Policy at George Mason University and a research fellow at the Rethink Institute in Washington, D.C. He is the author of "Transforming Ethnic Conflict: Rival Kurdish Movements in Turkey" (forthcoming, Amsterdam University Press).

Published on Today's Zaman, 05 January 2015, Monday