Commentary: Aftershocks in Ankara

Recep Erdogan’s crackdown on the Gulen movement could change the face of Turkey

Demonstration in Turkey (photo credit: REUTERS)
Demonstration in Turkey
(photo credit: REUTERS)
TURKEY’S FAILED July 15 coup never stood a chance. It was very poorly managed, but even if it had been better organized, it would not have succeeded in toppling the regime.
What a better organized attempt could have succeeded in doing is bringing upon Turkey a disaster along the lines of the Syrian, Yemeni or Libyan conflicts, laying waste to the country for years.
Thankfully for the Middle East, that didn’t happen.
But it wasn’t just organizational incompetence that led the coup to fail. It was an almost incomprehensible strategic misunderstanding.
The coup’s leaders acted as if they were still in the 1980s. They didn’t take into account that the Turkish army is no longer what it used to be. The assumption as well that the public would stay at home, obey orders, and let the rebels do as they pleased also belongs to the Turkey of September 1980, when General Kenan Evran’s troops surrounded the Presidential Palace and toppled the government without resistance.
Harshly condemned by world leaders – and rightly so – the attempted coup was over in less than 12 hours. It led to the deaths of close to 300 people, and significant damage to property.
But the changes taking place in Turkey right now are not the result of the attempted coup, but rather a pushback by Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The shock waves of the failed coup are leading to dramatic changes that could change the face of Turkey. Erdoğan has ruled the country almost solely for the past 14 years. In that time, Erdoğan has managed to successfully neutralize the secular challenge to his rule, but in recent years he has struggled with what he sees as a new challenge – the threat of the exiled cleric Fethullah Gulen and his followers.
Gulen, 75, heads a religious movement known as Hizmet (service in Turkish) that runs a network of schools, charities and businesses in Turkey and Central Asia. He fled Turkey in 1999 – three years before Erdoğan was first elected president – and since then has lived in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania. For the past three years, long before the coup, Erdoğan has tried to weaken Gulen’s influence and popularity in Turkey.
The big clash between the two occurred when Gulen sympathizers accused Erdoğan of being corrupt and harming Turkish democracy. Erdoğan responded over the past two years by purging thousands of Gulenists, mostly in the police force and Justice Ministry. Now, in the wake of the failed coup, Erdoğan is deepening his purge, also targeting popular support for Gulen.
At the heart of the purge is the Gulenist network of some 1,000 schools in Turkey (the organization runs a similar number of schools outside of the country), and its NGOs and welfare institutions. This drastic action, if continued over time, might, once again, change the face of Turkey.
Erdoğan is conducting a revolution within a revolution and straying from the principles of his original “Demo-Islamic” (an amalgam of democratic and Islamic) revolution, which was originally supported by the Gulenists.
The changes under way have at the moment two main focal points: education and the human infrastructure of the public service.
Critical damage to these two fields will have a long-term effect on Turkey’s economy and image.
The uniqueness of the education system set up by Gulen is that its young religious students were required to study core topics.
The Gulen school network put an emphasis on chemistry, physics, biology, math and English, and over the past decade also on computer studies. The schools were renowned for their modern facilities and high level of education.
The Gulen network played an important role in the modernization of Turkey and the growth of its economy. Tens of thousands of its graduates entered the private sector and the public service. This at the same time as the Imam Hatip state-religious schools failed to provide the same type of education, and Erdoğan had little interest in recruiting the graduates of secular state schools. The Gulen school network has been shut down for the meantime, and reports from Turkey indicate that thousands of teachers removed from their jobs belong to the network.
The public service too is likely to suffer from the mass purges. When Erdoğan came to power, the Gulen network graduates, seen as being both skilled and loyal, suited his purposes and were placed in professional positions in the public service. Erdoğan rewarded Gulen and his followers for the support they gave him in his first 10 years in power by placing them in important government offices such as education, justice and security. Thousands of these employees have lost their jobs in the purge that followed the coup, severely weakening the professional aspect of the public sector.
Two weeks on from the coup attempt, economic damage has so far been minimal; but should the situation continue in the long term, the overall effects will likely be severe, strengthening Turkey’s gradual Islamization, and weakening of democracy and human rights – a process of “Iranization.”
On the international front, there also will likely be severe repercussions, first on Turkey’s image and second on its international relations. The purge against the Gulenists and against other regime opponents is no less damaging to Turkey’s image in the West than the failed coup itself.
The key question in the short term relates to Turkey’s desire to extradite Gulen from the United States. If Gulen is not extradited – a request has yet to be filed, but statements coming out of Ankara suggest that is imminent – significant tensions can be expected to surface between Ankara and Washington.
If the US is convinced that the coup orders came out of Pennsylvania then Gulen will be extradited. But the question then will center on how Turkey will judge him, and will Gulen be executed (even though at present the country does not have a death sentence).
One has to remember in this context that Gulen has for a long time been far more than a Turkish public figure. In the past 20 years, he has become an international player with much of his educational and social work taking place outside of Turkey.
Given the radicalization taking place in the Muslim world and the deterioration of ties with the West, Gulen was considered – at least until now – the more moderate face of Islam.
If it turns out that Gulen was behind the attempted coup – something he denies categorically, including in a July 25 op-ed in The New York Times – it will have been his greatest error, an error that endangers a life’s work.
In any case, the elimination of the Gulenist education and social network is not a positive development for the Islamic world, including for Turkey itself.
What implications will developments in Turkey have here in the Middle East, where the importance of stability is increasing and the importance of democracy is declining? The attempted coup followed a few successful months for Erdoğan on the diplomatic front. Turkey, which had become increasingly isolated in the Middle East, signed a normalization agreement with Israel just over two weeks before the coup, and at the same time Turkey launched talks with Egypt over stabilization of the tense relations between the two countries.
Relations with Russia are also on the mend, after months of crisis that followed the shooting down of a Russian fighter jet over the Turkish-Syrian border.
Are those gains now in danger? It does not appear so. Erdoğan is broadcasting confidence and stability, and the Turkish masses are continuing to go out on the streets to demonstrate against the rebellion.
The internal repression is not likely to have a negative impact on relations with Russia, or with Israel. The Israeli Foreign Ministry has just issued an internal tender for the vacant ambassadorship to Ankara, and we should know shortly who has been picked for this complex posting.
A more complicated question is that of the relations between Erdoğan and Egyptian president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, given Cairo’s blocking of a resolution condemning the coup attempt at the UN Security Council.
Beyond all this, Erdoğan has another unsolved issue to deal with: when he returns to his regular agenda, the Kurdish problem – his most vexing challenge – will still remain.
Negative developments in that conflict will continue to cast a shadow on his standing in the Middle East and elsewhere on the globe, particularly in Europe and the US.