ISTANBUL (Guardian) — As the dust settled on an attempted coup in Turkey, a crackdown has ensued. Thousands of judges and soldiers have been detained and Turkish officials have vowed to “cleanse” a bureaucracy that they say has entrenched supporters of an exiled cleric, Fethullah Gülen, in positions of power.
It is a hunt that the government fully expects the opposition in parliament to stand behind — now that their warnings and enduring paranoia over a coup by Gülenists have, they say, become manifest.
But how did it come to this?
The Gülenists once found common cause with Recep Tayyip Erdogan , supporting his Justice and Development (AK) party when it was founded on a realist, pro-European and business-friendly platform in the wake of a 1997 coup. They remained allies as Erdogan initiated peace talks with the separatist insurgency of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), and through the liberalization of the economy and EU accession talks.
“There was an overlap [with] Erdogan’s political party,” said a journalist and sympathizer of the Gülenist movement, also called Hizmet, who said he opposed the coup attempt but requested anonymity amid the tense political situation in Turkey.
Gülen’s acolytes were allies of Erdogan, partners in purges of the military over the last decade that turned into witch hunts, and ironically lead to the promotion of officers who would later take part in Friday’s attempted coup. Gülen’s supporters were instrumental in prosecuting two wide-ranging investigations and trials, known Ergenekon and Sledgehammer affairs, targeting “deep state” structures that were accused of planning to remove the AK party from power.
“Let me put it this way,” said one Turkish government official. “Nobody, I mean nobody, was aware at the time that the Gülen movement had a secret agenda. Let’s keep in mind that [in 2007] it was a very different situation, with the armed forces openly threatening to overthrow the government.”
Since then, the relationship has steadily declined. Both sides accused each other of wanting to consolidate control. Drawing on grassroots support, the Gülenists continued to stack the judiciary and police forces with followers loyal to the movement. Erdogan also consolidated power, growing more powerful and populist as prime minister, and espousing a political view that saw a resurgent Turkey as a geopolitical leader in a troubled neighborhood.
Various skirmishes erupted between the two camps. The Gülenists led an ultimately unsuccessful smear campaign against Hakan Fidan, the head of the Turkish intelligence agency MIT, with various accusations ranging from him being sympathetic to Iran to espousing the ideology of Sayyid Qutb, the godfather of modern jihadist movements, to a nationalist-centered attack claiming he was promoting too many Kurds to positions of authority because of his own family heritage.
Government officials claim the Gülenists were probably behind the leaking of footage showing MIT trucks that were carrying arms to rebels in Syria under the guise of humanitarian aid, in an effort to embarrass the agency’s chief.
After the 2011 elections, Hizmet supporters grew increasingly frustrated with what they saw as a pivot towards a more assertive political Islamist agenda — they felt Erdogan had grown invulnerable, buoyed by landslide victories that meant he no longer needed his allies. In the autumn of 2013, Erdogan ordered the closure of preparatory schools around the country — a significant source of income for the Gulenists, who operated about a quarter of them.
But the serious break came in December 2013, when a wide-ranging investigation into corruption in Erdogan’s inner circle led to the resignations of several ministers and the arrest of many of their associates. The president declared the investigation was an outright attempt at a judicial “coup” by a parallel authority within the state. “That was the final nail in the coffin of the relations,” said the journalist who is sympathetic to Hizmet.
Erdogan’s supporters insist the corruption investigations were an attempt to bring down the government, but others sympathetic to the Gülenists said the investigators were simply doing their jobs, and could not have turned a deaf ear to increasingly flagrant corruption and nepotism in the bureaucracy.
“Hizmet doesn’t have the means to execute a coup d’etat,” said another journalist linked to the movement who was interviewed before the coup attempt. “The corruption investigation was an important turning point, the government thought it was done by prosecutors and officers linked to Hizmet, and what they claim is correct. The question is whether there is corruption or not.”
Whether or not the Gülenists hoped to bring down the government with the corruption allegations, there was no going back. They were accused of orchestrating various conspiracies and setting up terror networks. Thousands of police officers were fired. TV stations and newspapers belonging to the movement were either shut down or prevented from distribution, including one of the country’s largest newspapers, Zaman, which was taken over by the government.
But despite repeated accusations against Gülen of masterminding terror operations from his exile in Pennsylvania, no formal extradition request was submitted to the US. But then the coup attempt was launched.
Turkish officials allege the putsch was lead by a Gülenist core supported by other military officers. They say it was accelerated when members of the military faction that backed the coup became aware that authorities were investigating them as part of a broader effort against Gülen sympathizers in the military.
Since the coup, thousands of people have been fired from their positions in the bureaucracy. A senior counter-terrorism official said it had previously been difficult to root out alleged Gülenist cells because they operated across various government organizations. Now the challenge was to find what the official described as “sleeper cells” that hadn’t taken part in the coup.
“Moving forward, no tolerance or compassion will be shown to supporters of Fethullah Gülen’s terrorist group or any other terrorist organization,” Erdogan said in a statement on Monday. “Without compromising democratic principles and the rule of law, we shall combat all terrorist organizations that place the future of our nation and the state at risk.”
The president’s crackdown on Gülen’s supporters will raise numerous concerns about the government’s efforts to consolidate its power. But his supporters say that their warnings have been fulfilled, even though the evidence of Gülenist orchestration has not yet been made public beyond the statements of officials, and the widespread detentions and arrests have meant that Hizmet is at least temporarily crippled in Turkey.
“They have lost their operational ability, their headquarters and their organizing minds,” said one official close to the prime minister. “We will have to clear all the bureaucracy, whether those who supported the intervention or who are leaning towards intervention.”
Gülen himself has rejected all accusations against Hizmet, and suggested that the coup may have been staged, while some of his supporters say the putsch was likely orchestrated by secularist military officers who were unhappy with the flare-up of tensions with the Kurds and the instability on the border with Syria and they question the extent of the purges.
“Shaaban Disli, an AKP member whose brother gave the order to begin the coup, has a right to distance himself from the coup,” said the journalist who is sympathetic to Hizmet. “But now you are dismissing thousands of civil servants and teachers and bureaucrats for a coup they have no relation to.”