The real story behind the Tayyip Erdoğan-Fethullah Gülen war

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Translated by Melissa Clissold

Hello, good day. Osman Kavala was arrested again last night. This is a very sad state of affairs; I must stress the fact that this incident does not fit well with equity, democracy, the rule of law, fundamental rights and freedoms in Turkey. And it must also be stressed that this incident shows us indeed how politicized and dependent the judiciary in Turkey has become. Throughout the day, with the news we presented about this and with our evaluations, I have observed that the Gülenists are actually trying to be involved with this incident.

And I have observed that they have been trying to get a share of ‘righteousness’ from the suffering that Osman Kavala has experienced. However, we know very well that what we are talking about are completely different things. We also know that Osman Kavala, even the unfounded and non-existent evidence provided during the first Gezi trial, were dished up by the Gülenists themselves. And when they could not get Osman Kavala there, the political administration then wanted to link Kavala to the Gülenist coup attempt. This has once again shown us that this July 15 coup attempt is one of the trump cards used regularly by  Erdoğan’s government whenever it gets stuck. But linking Osman Kavala with the July 15 coup attempt has also seriously overshadowed the real issue of tackling the coup plotters. There was already a lot of serious criticism taking place. With this incident, we can truly say that this claim has now come to an end.

Yesterday, President Erdoğan made an interesting speech regarding Gülenism in the Assembly. He had to in some way admit that they were also involved in the strengthening of this structure – FETÖ, as he calls it. Yet, he basically tried to blame the main opposition party instead. He particularly emphasized that, and pro-ruling media outlets also bore this headline: “I personally, and my administration started the war against FETÖ.” This does not reflect the truth. Because it is not Erdoğan who began the war, but Fethullah Gülen who did. Erdoğan simply replied to the war that Fethullah Gülen started. This also has a story behind it. I want to talk a little about that story a little bit today. So, this incident did not really occur in the way that Erdoğan has presented it. Nor did it really occur in the way that Gülenists want to present it. I would like to summarize this incident chronologically with an objective eye as much as possible. It is useful to remember these over and over again and refresh our memories.

Now, from the moment that the Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power alone at the end of 2002, discussions of whether it would be liquidated by the deep state or whether it could be the government or not, or whether it could control the state or not, were had. From the very first moment that they came into power, there had always been an expectation that a coup might take place; a postmodern or an old style coup was always on the agenda. In this process, the Gülenists used this incident to their advantage in a very serious manner shortly after the AKP came to power. They used it very effectively. They offered an alliance to Erdoğan, either directly or indirectly, they offered their alliance claiming that Erdoğan would be assassinated or that there would be a coup attempt against him.

Together, they proposed a joint struggle against the deep state, the military, bureaucracy, the high judiciary and the media, who all claimed to be the true owner of power in Turkey. But since the rulers of the AKP did not trust the Gülenists at all — there has been such an approach by the National Vision movement against the Gülenists; they see it as a structure built by the Americans, even the CIA, directly — so they always kept a distance. Meanwhile, Nokta magazine published the coup diaries of Retired Admiral Özden Örnek in 2004, and this publication led to these coup allegations to be available publicly. This brought on a very serious discussion. We see here that the Gülenists had started to create a very serious public opinion using Nokta magazine.

Another key incident  was the Şemdinli incident that took place on 9 November 2005. There, it was claimed that some soldiers would organize a provocation in a bookstore in the Semdinli district of Hakkari. After that, the Gülenists created a huge amount of propaganda, especially on the media, that the military would be taking action that would put the government in a difficult situation. But still during this time, the AKP always kept a distance against the Gülenists.

I would especially like to stress this: The state did not prevent the Gülenists from organizing within the state, it did not speak about its organizing capabilities within the state as well as the judiciary, the army and the police. Erdoğan saw them as a potential ally -if the former owners of the state decided to attack him. But until the last moment, he did not respond to these insistent invitations by the Gülenists. He tried to mainly focus on establishing good relations with the European Union, the United States, and even Israel. In other words, he tried to stand up, protect his power and control the state by gaining the support of global power against the former owners of the state.

The most important point here is, of course, the closure case that was opened against the Justice and Development Party. On 31 March 2008, the indictment was accepted and this came before the AKP as a serious judicial coup, even if it was not a military one. From that moment on, the AKP accepted the alliance proposals of the Gülenists with the fear that it might not be able to maintain its power. We have already seen that the Ergenekon case was opened on July 25, 2008, just after the closure case was opened – there are other cases that were also opened after the Ergenekon case. The most important one was the Sledgehammer case that started on June 19, 2010. I think it is as important as Ergenekon.

All this happened with the support of the Gülenists own media organs as well as the partial support of some other media organs, but also with the existence of a newly emerging newspaper, Taraf newspaper. Taraf newspaper became a flagship of the AKP-Gülen alliance in the media by presenting a very effective publication in the process of Ergenekon and Sledgehammer.  The process there was as follows: There was a triangle: the police, the judiciary and the media. The police and the judiciary were working together. Gülenist policemen, prosecutors and judges also received media support; they would first leak something to the media and then would take immediate action after accepting what the media had written as a true warning.

Prosecutors would commission the police for these investigations, and then start trials in courts of their choice. By creating a devil’s triangle they managed to very powerfully liquidate and purge the former owners of the state in Turkey with the unconditional support of the current administration. However, the Justice and Development Party government, the leaders of the government, started to become afraid of the severity of the Gülenists and the waves of Ergenekon cases coming in etc. They had not expected this much. They wanted it to be more balanced, more partial, perhaps symbolic. But the Gülenists took the initiative, and they carried out this process in ways that Erdoğan and his colleagues did not want and expected, but they carried it out successfully.

The first serious crack in this alliance came about due to the Kurdish issue. I think one of the most fundamental reasons for the Gülen-Erdoğan relationship to begin to crumble is indeed the Kurdish issue. Maybe that is it. First, a workshop was held at the Police Academy in Ankara on August 1, 2009. With the invitation of Interior Minister Beşir Atalay, a group of journalists – and I was one of them – came together in a hall of the Police Academy. The people at the head of the Police Academy who we knew were Gülenists directed this workshop. But they were not too enthusiastic.

Beşir Atalay and the government officials were very enthusiastic. And so the event which was called the famous “Kurdish initiative” began. It was a bumpy event. The famous Habur incident took place in October 2009. A group of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) members came and surrendered. But the shows of joy, crowds, and public opinion there caused a very serious split. Gülenists used this very seriously. One of the most critical things – now we will show you a photo – was the Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK) operation in Diyarbakır. In this operation, 80 people in civil politics were detained terribly. This operation was described by the spokespersons of the Kurdish parties of that period as the “operation of the Gülenists” – which it was. It was said that this was done to undermine the solution process. It was a very critical event.

Then the next big split took place three years later, with the National Intelligence Organisation (MIT) crisis on February 7, 2012. The MIT crisis was as follows: In Oslo, some PKK rulers and some National Intelligence Service officials were meeting to mediate in a third country. They were discussing eminent issues and trying to negotiate for a solution. In the new lawsuit, we learned of  the details that some Gülenist policemen and members of the judiciary or the Gülenist secret organization, placed certain audio recordings on the computers of a party in Diyarbakır – probably the People’s Democratic Party (HDP) – and then seized the computer and then opened an investigation based on these audio recordings. 

And the MIT Undersecretary Hakan Fidan called on the former officials of MIT, especially the specially authorized prosecutor. In fact, this was an arrest attempt. Prime Minister Erdoğan prevented this incident. I think this was the real declaration of war. 7 February 2012 is the actual date that the Gülen-Erdoğan war declared. And it was Fethullah Gülen who declared the war. What would happen if Hakan Fidan and other MIT administrators went to testify and were arrested? It is not really possible to predict. But after both unsuccessful attempts, the tables turned with the intervention of Erdoğan, and the incident was prevented. And both sides said interestingly that this was nothing to really big up. Because both sides needed each other. But the war had begun and would not be an easy return.

Meanwhile, the solution process was continuing. A pullback occured… That message of Abdullah Öcalan on Nevruz in 2013 was read on March 21 in Diyarbakır. That was a very important turning point. Then, in Kandil, the PKK managers declared that they would pull back its forces in Turkey. But after a while, the retreat stopped. And somehow things froze.

And then we come to Gezi. By 2013, one of Turkey’s most critical years, it seems… The events that started in Gezi in June 2013 were the last fragments of the alliance between Erdoğan’s government and the Gülenists.  The Gülenists within the Police and Judiciary played a primary role of turning the Gezi protests into a breaking point for Turkey. And it made Erdoğan make certain decisions that he was inclined to already, a lot easier. When we look at things today, perhaps the Gülenists were trying to say something to Erdoğan through Gezi; but this is a lie.

Because when we have a look: The main materials used during the Gezi trial that resulted in acquittal, the audio recordings etc. were also collected by the Gülenist prosecutors and police officers of that time. We know that the vast majority of the chiefs of police, who played a role in suppressing the demonstrations there violently, were Gülenists and that the chiefs of the administration were Gülenists too. There, the alliance went through with a final experiment. But those who think that Erdoğan has weakened during Gezi… –In other news, in September, in September 2013, PKK spokespersons announced that they had stopped withdrawing; such an incident also occurred -… the social opposition on the one hand, the PKK on the other hand, and the Gülenists who thought that Erdoğan was weakened here, immediately uncovered the corruption files that they have been working on for a long time; these were the 17-25 December 2013 corruption investigations.

That truly was the second big attempt of Fethullah Gülen to try and take down Erdoğan – the MIT Crisis was of course a much bigger attack, of course. It was a big declaration of war. December 17 was very harsh. But Erdoğan managed to take control of the situation by December 25, in a way that the Gülenists could not calculate, and with a counter reply, he quickly purged the Gülenist police and prosecutors, etc and took control of the situation. And this repelled the attack.

Erdoğan declared war against the Gülenists straight after 17-25 December. Of course, what happened right before must also not be forgotten. Another issue that triggered this event, that is, another issue that triggered the December 17-25 incidents, was Erdoğan’s announcement of the regulation regarding the private teaching institutions (dershanes) in November 2013. He stated that these dershanes would be closed down – and the concept of dershanes was at that time something synonymous with Gülenism in Turkey. Gülenists reacted very seriously to this. After this announcement that Erdoğan had made in November, the 17-25 incidents took place in December. And finally after December 17-25: the coup attempt on July 15, 2016. The ultimate finale of this war.

Now, when we look at all this, we can actually see that it was not Erdoğan who began this war. Erdoğan tried to keep Gülenism under control until the last moment. He tried to work with them somehow, but also tried to keep them contained. He denied their presence in the state in a controlled manner. But the Gülenists, Fethullah Gülen himself, wanted much more. He wanted the administration. He infiltrated several areas. He also infiltrated the AKP.

He infiltrated other parties too, the Gülenists were within the whole political sphere – the judiciary, bureaucracy, the economic sphere. They surrounded the country from everywhere. And when Gülen thought it was time, when he thought that Erdoğan had lost his power,  either due to the health problems Erdoğan was going through or the crises he was experiencing, he wanted to deliver some lethal blows against him. 

However, I do not think that he succeeded greatly in this. I think that this is the real story. But there are a few questions that have not been answered yet. I think that the most important of these questions is with regards to one of the issues that I still do not know the answer to; I am very curious about why Fethullah Gülen and the Gülenists do not want a solution to the Kurdish problem. While things had been going so well together, whilst their alliance was flourishing. This may have some political and ideological explanations. Fethullah Gülen being a very strict Turkish nationalist, etc. At one point, we know that before the solution process, Fethullah Gülen had suggested to Erdoğan – and this is clearly known: “Leave the Southeast region to us. Let us place some administrative chiefs there and let’s solve this problem one way or another”.

In other words, they had put forward the claim of winning over the Kurds through the state. It was not something that could have happeedn. The government did not approach this anyway. Probably because they did not think that it could happen, or because they did not want to deliver such a thing to the Gülenists. But it is still a very important question for me. Why did Fethullah Gülen do everything he could to sabotage this solution process?

Another related question is, of course: In March 2015, during the peak of Erdoğan’s war with Gülenism,  a year and a half after the December 25 incidents, why did he decide to give up on resolving the Kurdish problem in peaceful means? Some blame the PKK for this. 

Why did he give up after having made some way? So, in a sense, why did he adopt the view that the Gülenists had adopted initially? I think this is a very important question. Of course, the answers to all these questions lie with certain people, especially in the actors of the incident, of course in Fethullah Gülen himself, in Erdoğan himself, and in some high-level names of these movements – even if not all. Yet I am certain that this incident is not to be understood only within the territory of Turkey. Moreover Fethullah Gülen has not lived in Turkey for decades. He has control in areas all across Turkey, but he lives in Pennsylvania. This alone shows us that this incident is not solely limited to Turkey. Yes, that’s all I have to say. Have a nice day.

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