Turks use the expression Toz Duman (dust and smoke) to refer to the reverberations of crises and major disasters like the ones that have gripped the country this week following tensions between the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and Fethullah Gülen’s Islamic movement.
The draft law prepared by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government to reorganize the activities of Gülen’s schools was the last straw that led to the collapse of more than ten years of coordination and rapprochement between the two sides.
However, the roots of the tension date back to more than four years ago with the Gaza Freedom Flotilla and the Mavi Marmara incident when Gülen’s group criticised Erdoğan’s adventure that had only served to provoke Israel. The rift between the two has since widened given their contradictory stances towards the Taksim Gezi Park protests, the summons of Turkish Intelligence chief Hakan Fidan for questioning over the Kurdish file, and the different stances adopted by each side towards the events in Syria and more recently Egypt.
The power struggle began earlier this month when police in Istanbul arrested dozens on charges of bribery, corruption, and illicit gain. Among those arrested were the sons of ministers, businessmen and senior government officials. However, the AKP rapidly responded by sacking senior police officers who reportedly had close ties to the Gülen Movement. The struggle soon engulfed all aspects of the government, from the judiciary, which is resisting silently, to the security apparatus and other authorities that are awaiting orders before they take action.
Erdoğan is incensed. As he views it, the security operation was not an issue of monitoring individuals suspected of corruption and bribery; rather, it was an attempt to re-organize the political system in Turkey. Erdoğan is of the view that what is happening is the result of actions carried out by groups that have links inside and outside Turkey. “We will not accept a state within a state or domestic and international powers conspiring against Turkey through dirty political alliances,” Erdoğan has been quoted as saying. However, this is not a sufficient and convincing response to allegations of bribery and corruption. Nor will it convince anybody to ignore these accusations in order to protect the AKP and help it remain in power.
Dozens of suspects are being interrogated and the charges are heavy, including multi-million-dollar money laundering and suspicious trade transactions with Iran. However, the Turkish interior minister, for its part, has said that suspects’ testimonies have been manipulated and prepared in advance, and police officers have refused to sign them.
The Gülen movement, which identifies itself as a civil organization dedicated to providing social services, and which denies political involvement, is facing its first public test to prove its capabilities without the backing of a political partner. Gülen himself has emerged on the political scene with all his weight, appearing to adopt the slogan “the best defence is a good offence.”
This will be the strategy of both sides in the future; however, the losses will be heavy. Erdoğan is preparing for three elections in the next two years and the Gülen Movement has an opening for a political partner.
As usual, some international media outlets are following and exploiting every last detail, never hesitating to take sides, as if it were their own battle. The reality is that these media outlets have their own scores to settle with Erdoğan.
The Erdoğan-Gülen relationship is in deep water, and efforts now are not aimed at patching these up, but rather that everybody is trying to save themselves from the sinking ship.
Erdoğan described what is happening as a “dirty war to smear the reputation of the party and the government.” For its part, the AKP leadership are committed to the theory that it is a conspiracy to remove Erdoğan and the AKP from power and take Turkey back to the days of weak coalition governments that were compelled to submit to foreign powers.
Erdoğan has also been angered by US ambassador to Turkey Francis J. Ricciardone, Jr. The ambassador is reported to have made remarks likening the current crisis to the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.
However it appears that the Turkish prime minister has been most angered by the use of state-owned surveillance equipment in the security campaign without the permission or knowledge of Turkey’s security and intelligence establishment.
Perhaps the AKP was surprised by the shift from Gülen’s usual peaceful tone and rhetoric. From his forced exile in Pennsylvania in the United States, he called on his supporters to protest, something he didn’t do after either the Israeli attack on the Gaza Freedom Flotilla or its targeting of Gaza and south Lebanon.
Erdoğan threatened Gülen with these words: “We will come down to your caverns and tear you to shreds.” In light of this escalation and open confrontation, nothing can surprise us, particularly following unconfirmed reports of a foiled assassination attempt on Erdoğan’s life.