May 28 (Bloomberg) -- Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s rare expression of sympathy for Turkish generals this month may signal a split with Turkey’s most powerful religious movement, undermining the unity of his government.
Erdogan, who has backed a series of inquiries into alleged coup plots that have left hundreds of army officers in prison, was critical of the latest probe, saying it was “unsettling” the country. Previously, he blocked an attempt by one of the investigations to interrogate Turkey’s intelligence chief.
Many Turkish analysts saw those actions as a warning directed at Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish imam based in the U.S. and leader of a movement widely seen here as a driving force behind the prosecutions. Curbing the army’s power has been a key policy for Erdogan, who has presided over record growth after ending an era of fragile coalition governments. Now, the premier and Gulen may no longer share the same goals, threatening the stability that underlay Erdogan’s economic success.
“All movements start to crack once they’ve reached a certain point,” said Atila Yesilada, an Istanbul-based analyst at Global Source Partners, a political and economic research firm. “If Gulen believes that Erdogan will never share political power with him, he will organize within alternative institutions to rival him.”
Conquer From Within
Gulen has been based in Pennsylvania since he left Turkey in March 1999 to undergo a health check-up in the U.S., according to Ahmet Sik’s book “The Imam’s Army.” In June that year, Turkish television broadcast footage of the imam telling followers to spread his ideas and conquer the state from within in the name of Islam, the book says. Gulen was prosecuted in absentia for seeking to overthrow the constitution, a charge that was dismissed by judges in 2008.
His followers are known as the Cemaat, or Congregation, in Turkey. The organization runs more than 1,000 schools in 140 countries, Mustafa Yesil, one of its leading figures and chairman of the Journalists and Writers Foundation in Istanbul, told Taraf newspaper this month. He described the movement as “faith-based, pacifist, pluralist, colorful and pro-democratic.”
Detractors say it has cells within key areas of the Turkish state. Sik’s study chronicles the group’s efforts to organize inside the police force. Prosecutors banned the book and Sik was arrested and charged with involvement in a coup plot. He was released pending trial in March after 13 months in jail.
Yesil told Taraf that there are Gulen followers in the police and judiciary, though their loyalty to the group wouldn’t interfere with their responsibility to enforce the law. He declined to comment when contacted by Bloomberg. Gulen’s website didn’t respond to an e-mail seeking comment. Ekrem Dumanli, editor-in-chief of Gulen-backed Zaman newspaper, the country’s best-selling daily, didn’t respond to requests for an interview.
‘End This Injustice’
Hundreds of serving and retired military officers, including former Chief of General Staff Ilker Basbug, have been jailed during the probes, as well as academics including Baskent University Rector Mehmet Haberal, and journalists including Sik and Nedim Sener who wrote about the Gulen movement.
“What’s scary is that the Gulen followers in the prosecution are trying to do away with respectable public personalities in order to recreate Turkey in their vision,” Sener, who was released together with Sik, said in a phone interview. “The government can’t control this and is uncomfortable. Still, the government isn’t taking any action, it’s only voicing disturbance. Its duty is to do something to end this injustice.”
Disturbed by Raids
On May 8, Erdogan said he is “disturbed” by the unending raids against current and former military officers, after the arrest of army personnel for allegedly plotting to remove the government in 1997. He urged the prosecution to get their investigation “over and done with” -- backtracking from earlier expressions of support when he said the case should be pursued “as far as it needs to.”
Prosecutors detained four retired generals today in connection with their investigation of the so-called postmodern coup 15 years ago, sending them to Ankara for depositions. All were members of the National Security Council that prosecutors say ousted the government, NTV news channel reported.
Fadi Hakura, an analyst at Chatham House research institute in London, said he’s skeptical whether Erdogan’s comments mark a change of course, saying he may be seeking to assuage domestic and external critics of the investigations, which have been slammed by the European Union and rights groups. The government has shown in the past that it can remove prosecutors from cases when it isn’t happy with their direction, and that hasn’t happened with the 1997 coup probe, he said in a phone interview.
Still, the comments earned Erdogan a rebuke from Gulen’s media outlets. They will be “etched into history as not befitting a prime minister,” wrote Bulent Kenes in the Gulen-backed newspaper Today’s Zaman. “The masses, who are the main makers of history and the main power driving the ruling AKP, do not agree with the prime minister in this respect.”
Erdogan’s own background is Islamist: he was a leading member of two parties banned on the grounds they threatened Turkey’s secular system, and served a jail sentence in the 1990s for reading a religious poem at a political rally.
Since his Justice and Development Party or AKP came to power, Erdogan has reduced the powers of the military, which has seen itself as the guardian of secularism in Turkey and ousted an Islamist-led coalition in 1997. He ended army control over the National Security Council and ignored military objections to a United Nations plan to unify Cyprus.
When the generals objected to his choice of Abdullah Gul as president in 2007, Erdogan called a snap election, won with an increased majority, then installed Gul as head of state. Erdogan is favored to succeed to the presidency, an above-party job, when Gul’s term ends in 2014.
Under Erdogan the economy has grown at an annual average of about 5.5 percent. His government slashed budget deficits, helping reduce borrowing costs to record lows and the national debt to less than 40 percent of economic output.
Erdogan ‘So Dominant’
For now, “Erdogan is so dominant, I’m not sure Gulen would want to take him on,” said Tim Ash, head of emerging markets research at Royal Bank of Scotland Plc in London.
Still, when the premier was off work sick last year, “we saw guys around him battling Gulen’s people,” Ash said, referring to a row over legislation on soccer match-fixing late last year. Factional disputes could intensify and become “a big issue for Turkey” if the presidency takes Erdogan away from day-to-day politics, he said.
Erdogan’s support for the coup probes that began rounding up army officers in 2007 pushed the four top military commanders to quit in July last year.
“Erdogan is quite happy with the current leadership of the Turkish military because they were effectively chosen by him,” Hakura said.
There are signs that Erdogan is concerned by the spread of the investigations. When prosecutors asked in February to question the national intelligence chief, Hakan Fidan, an Erdogan appointee, the prime minister pushed through a law within a week that shields Turkey’s spies from the judiciary.
“Even though the party and the congregation deny it, there’s a serious battle,” Open Source’s Yesilada said.
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