Nicholas Birch writes: Five days after Turkey’s failed coup, early on the morning of Wednesday June 20th, in Taksim, the Istanbul square that saw anti-government protests in 2013, the entire five-storey facade of the Ataturk Cultural Centre was hidden behind a banner which read “You devil’s dog Feto, we will hang you and your dogs by your own leashes.” The signature read “The brave young men of this holy nation”. The same day, the editor of the pro-government daily Yeni Şafak published a column arguing that “those who shot people in the streets and attacked the voice of the people, the Parliament, were acting on orders given by the US administration”. In a poll organised by another pro-government newspaper, 77 per cent of respondents expressed varying levels of agreement with him.
It is now clear that Turkey came close to regime change during the night of July 15th/16th. If 1st Army Chief Ümit Dündar hadn’t got on the phone from Istanbul to warn him to get out, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan might have been sitting in the hotel in the Aegean resort town of Marmaris when soldiers burst in looking for him. If the pilot of the jet flying him to Istanbul hadn’t had the presence of mind to pass himself off as a standard Turkish Airlines flight, he might have been shot down by two Turkish F16s which had the plane locked in their sights. If the minister of the interior had gone to a bogus emergency meeting called in Ankara late on July 15th, he might have met the same fate as one unfortunate senior civil servant who did go and was shot dead.
It is now also abundantly clear who Erdoğan and his followers blame for what happened that night. Feto, the devil’s dog on the banner in Taksim, is Fethullah Gülen, a charismatic preacher who has lived in exile in the United States since 1999. Over the weekend, Turkey filed a request to the US asking for his extradition. Gülen of course denies any involvement in the coup, hinting in an interview on Monday that Erdoğan organised it himself. The US ambassador to Turkey has also strongly rebuffed allegations of US involvement.
And it has to be said that it does all sound pretty far-fetched. Fethullah Gülen as “chief terrorist”? In the televised homilies he’s beamed out to followers from his retreat in Pennsylvania over the years, he comes across as a saintly old man. He is a diabetic, and he looks uncomfortable slumped in his pale brown armchair, hopping from one buttock to the other at the end of each extended harangue in florid, old-fashioned Turkish. His eyes, when they are not turned up rapturously like statues of the Virgin in Lourdes souvenir shops, fill easily with tears.
Yet it is not just Erdoğan and his supporters who see him as responsible for the attempted coup. Some impartial observers (as impartial as it is possible to be in a country as polarised as Turkey now is) do too. Writing for the online news portal T24, one of very few independent sources of news left, the former army officer and military expert Metin Gürcan has no doubt officers linked to Gülen “were the brains behind the night of 15 July”. His belief is that they probably intended to stage the coup later, but brought the date forward when it became clear that many of them faced imminent indictment by prosecutors investigating a military spy ring. The former head of military intelligence Ismail Hakkı Pekin, meanwhile, relates how, in 2013, the then chief of staff told him he had been given a list of around 1,250 officers allegedly linked to Gülen. When Pekin asked him why nothing was being done to sideline them, the chief of staff replied that evidence was not strong enough. “We’re afraid of making a mistake”, he said. “Let’s not damage the morale of the army.”
Some wider context here. When Erdoğan was elected prime minister in 2002, his popular support gave him only nominal control of the country. The secular establishment, the army and the judiciary, remained a powerful and hostile force, and he needed allies to bend it to his will. Western journalists like myself helped, accepting too willingly his self-presentation as a “Muslim democrat”. So did Turkey’s English-speaking liberal commentators, who – largely out of a hatred for the military ‑ continued to back him despite his increasingly overt authoritarianism.
His third and probably most important ally was Gülen, who had one crucial thing that he, the scion of an overtly Islamist party that had been closely marked by the establishment for decades, lacked: a foothold in Turkey’s state institutions. Right back to the 1960s, Gülen had always avoided clashing with the state. While the Islamists were taking the high rollercoaster ride to political power, sometimes in government, sometimes not, sometimes slapped down by the army, their followers purged from ministries, Gülen told his growing band of followers to keep their heads down, be good Muslims, avoid communism and pre-marital sex, get themselves a good education and a good job. By the early years of the twenty-first century, the movement he set up had become a sprawling and rather opaque business empire. Followers ran Turkey’s biggest-selling newspaper, the country’s biggest Islamic bank, a network of schools across Turkey and the world and a powerful business association that spearheaded Turkey’s expansionary international trade policy. They also had followers in the police, the judiciary and the ministries.
To cut a very complicated story very short, it now seems clear that some of these were the people Erdoğan turned to when he decided to go to war on the establishment in 2008, following an attempt to close his party down. A series of investigations into alleged coup plots spiralled out of control. Hundreds were jailed. Gülen’s media played the role of judge, jury and executioner. Journalists, senior police officers, anyone overtly critical of the movement, was character-assassinated in the press and then arrested. And always the same journalists and policemen and prosecutors seemed to be involved. The movement benefited from the upheaval. When Erdoğan purged the judiciary of secular elements following a referendum on the constitution in 2010, it was Gülen supporters – people said – who filled the vacated upper echelons of the profession.
But 2010 was also the year when tensions between Gülen and Erdoğan first surfaced. Busy rebranding himself as the Arab world’s new Saladin, Erdoğan kicked up a storm when Israeli commandos boarded a ship chartered by Turkish Islamists that was sailing to Gaza and killed several on board. Gülen urged caution. Turkey should not alienate Washington or Tel Aviv, he said. For old-guard Turkish Islamists who had always despised him, this was the latest proof of what they’d always known: Gülen was a CIA agent.
Tensions came to a much more dramatic head three years later. All-powerful now, Erdoğan moved to close down private schools, which form the engine room of the Gülen movement’s wealth. Within days, prosecutors had indicted four of his cabinet ministers for corruption. A week later, following an internet sermon during which Gülen called down God’s wrath on the sinful (“May God rain down fire on their houses, may he destroy their households”), another prosecutor began investigating business links between Erdoğan’s own son and a man the US considers a terrorist. A few weeks later, in January 2014, Turkish police stopped trucks driving to Syria escorted by members of Turkey’s staunchly pro-Erdoğan intelligence services, and found guns. As the US-based Turkish analyst Svante Cornell wrote, “these probes … perhaps cemented western suspicions of Erdoğan’s collusion with anti-western regimes and Islamic extremists, thus serving to further weaken Western support for his government”.
(It is details like this which provide the substrate for the conviction of Erdoğan’s supporters that the July 15th coup attempt was an American job, along with the widespread belief, held by people across all sections of Turkey’s ideological spectrum, that Washington had a hand in the country’s other military interventions, three full-on coups between 1960 and 1982 and one “post-modern” coup in 1997/1998.)
The icing on the cake, as far as Erdoğan was concerned, came in February 2014, when audio recordings allegedly tapped from his own mobile phone appeared on the internet. In them, we hear him telling his son to “get rid of” $30m stashed in a safe in the family house. Erdoğan of course has said it is all a mock-up, but since then Gülen’s followers have been enemy number one in Turkey. Erdoğan’s newspapers refer to them as FETÖ, an acronym for Fethullah Terrorist Organisation. The business association has been dismantled. So have the Islamic bank and the flagship newspaper. On a vast scale early in 2014, purges of alleged Gülen supporters in the police and judiciary had been rumbling on intermittently ever since.
“We will track them back down into their lairs”, Erdoğan had said after the corruption/phone-tapping scandals. In the aftermath of the July 15th coup attempt, he has started digging furiously again. Even before he announced the imposition of a three-month state of emergency on Wednesday night, over fifty thousand people had been placed under investigation. Fifteen thousand teachers have lost their jobs, as have eight thousand employees of the interior ministry and one thousand five hundred employees of the finance ministry. A quarter of Turkey’s twelve thousand prosecutors and judges are under investigation. All university rectors have been ordered to submit their resignations. “These are losses the state apparatus simply cannot cope with,” says Tarhan Erdem, a veteran observer of Turkish politics.
What to think then? Is Erdoğan right? Is Metin Gürcan – the military expert – right? Is Gülen behind the coup? Is he a CIA operative? I don’t think anybody knows, and I doubt – looking at the controversy that continues to swirl around every other case of military intervention in Turkish history ‑ if anybody ever will. It is likely some of the men involved in the events of July 15th were sympathisers of Gülen, but you don’t have to be one of these to feel despair at the direction Turkey is taking. There is also the fact that the army had long been the only Turkish institution which had successfully kept the Gülen movement at bay. The announcement coup plotters put up on the army website early in the morning of July 16th, with its emphasis on republican values, suggests the coup attempt could just as well have been the work of that much commoner military type, the secular-minded nationalist.
Two or three things are clear. Judicial investigations are unlikely to clear things up. The history of Turkey since Erdoğan came to power has been one of smoke and mirrors. It’s not the truth that matters, but the narrative. Turkey has a new generation of huge palaces of justice, but the quantity of justice to be found in them – never very much – has shrunk so as to be entirely negligible. Courts in Turkey do not shed light on things; they distract attention; they muddy the water their political masters wallow in.
Erdoğan is the great expert at negotiating this world. He has the knack of converting every suspended filament of filth he comes across to his own advantage. So it is likely to be in the aftermath of July 15th. Even his own supporters were sceptical of his desire to give himself monarchical powers. When the Turkish people failed to give him a mandate for these at elections last year, he took them anyway. The state of emergency, and the climate of fear, make it easier for him to solidify his absolute power. Perhaps before the coup he feared a slow weakening of the bonds linking him to his support base. The huge purge, and the chance to fill thousands of state positions with people of his own choosing, now opens up for him yet more vistas of potential political patronage.
Nicholas Birch was based in Turkey as a freelance journalist between 2001 and 22011.