Internal Islamist feud in Turkey threatens stability of Erdogan’s government

Rift between Turkish PM and US-based cleric weakens Erdogan, as security forces now target his allies.

Tayyip Erdogan, Fethullah Gulen split screen 370 (photo credit: Reuters)
Tayyip Erdogan, Fethullah Gulen split screen 370
(photo credit: Reuters)
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is facing the greatest challenge to his rule since the protests that erupted in the summer in Gezi Park.
Tensions from within his Islamist base have escalated and come out into the open.
On Thursday, Istanbul’s powerful police chief Huseyin Capkin was dismissed by the government, in what seems to be a response to an anti-corruption investigation striking at the heart of Turkey’s ruling elite and threatening the authority of Erdogan at home and abroad.
Capkin was the most senior commander so far to be sacked following the dismissal of dozens of senior officers on Wednesday over what Erdogan has termed a “dirty operation” to tarnish the government.
The police staged raids on Tuesday morning and detained over 80 people.
Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) leader Devlet Bahceli spoke out against the dismissal of members of the police by the government, saying it demonstrated “panic” because of “feelings of guilt” by the government, as quoted by Turkey’s Hurriyet Daily News.
The judiciary and lawyers were also upset with the government’s attempt to obstruct and interfere in the investigation, Turkey’s Today’s Zaman newspaper reported.
Erdogan’s government also appointed two more prosecutors to take part in the investigation.
Scores of people including sons of three ministers and some prominent businessmen close to Erdogan have been detained in an action seen widely as a symptom of a power struggle with a US-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, who has set up a network of private schools stretching to Europe, Asia and America and who wields influence in the police, judiciary, media, and within Erdogan’s Islamist AK Party itself.
Gulen’s Hizmet movement, long a close ally of Erdogan, has in recent months publicly fallen out with the prime minister over government plans to shut down private schools in Turkey, including those run by Hizmet.
AKP member of parliament Hakan Sukur, a well-known follower of Gulen, quit the Party on Monday in protest over the prep school plans.
Erdogan, still by far the most popular Turkish leader of modern times, said he would not tolerate corruption, but saw in the raids a conspiracy to “create a state within the state.”
Prof. Efraim Inbar, director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies (BESA) at Bar- Ilan University, told The Jerusalem Post, “The Gulen movement has been critical of Erdogan for some time on issues such as growing authoritarianism, anti-Western orientation, and relations with Israel.”
“The opening rift between them weakens Erdogan and the AKP. A big test is the upcoming municipal election in the spring,” said Inbar.
If the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), along with other opposition parties, do well, they would be able to block AKP party initiatives.
Erdogan will be ending his third term in 2015 and unless he has the numbers in parliament to extend the country’s term limits – beyond the current three terms – he may have to settle for running for president, a less powerful position.
Erdogan’s party has been seeking to make constitutional changes that would keep him in charge of the country, but Gulen may throw a wrench into these plans.
A coalition between Gulen’s more pragmatic supporters and the opposition, could force Erdogan to focus his energies and political capital on domestic politics, leaving less room for his aggressive neo-Ottoman foreign policy.
“The events in Turkey suggest that what goes around comes around,” Michael Rubin, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a former Pentagon official told the Post.
“Erdogan used the Gulen-dominated security forces to go after his enemies, but now that they’re targeting his allies, he’s whining like a toddler,” said Rubin.
Rubin does not believe that the AKP will be toppled any time soon because they still have too many assets.
“But the AKP-Gulenist rivalry might exacerbate splits in the party and lead Erdogan to face more internal challenges,” he said, adding that “we already are seeing that with Bulent Arinc, his deputy, who is close to the Gulenist movement and is increasingly challenging Erdogan.”
Rubin sees a chance that Erdogan could end up in prison or in exile in Saudi Arabia.
“After all, Erdogan still has more than a dozen corruption cases against him pending, delayed only by his parliamentary immunity,” he said concluding, “What’s clear is that the illusion of invincibility that once surrounded Erdogan is crumbling.”
Reuters contributed to this report.