Sunday, February 26, 2012

The Opening Salvo?

PHOTO from Girgir
Prime Minister Erdogan and religious leader Fethullah Gulen play a game of chess. Erdogan declares, "I have taken all of your pawns," to which Gulen retorts, "My child, you will force me to take your king."

Hakan Fidan is not a name soon to be forgotten nor is the recent row between the Gulen movement and the Erdogan government. Yet the row does not center on Fidan alone, but is rather a larger struggle for control sparked by the government's increasing uneasiness with the control Gulen wields over the judiciary and police -- or, what Vatan columnist Rusen Cakir (for English, thanks to Hurriyet Daily News, click here) points to as the "axis of courts with special authorities" by which the movement has been able to use police, prosecutors, and judges to target political opponents.

This week included announcements by some AKP officials that specially-authorized courts had gone too far, and included more aggressive talk of reforming Articles 250 and 251 in the Turkish Penal Code (TCK) by which these courts derive their power. Reform of these articles has been discussed for sometime, but never with as much focus. On Wednesday, Parliament Speaker Cemil Cicek called for new arrangements to regulate the power of specially-authorized courts, though noting their past utility in dealing with state terrorism, namely Ergenekon. Yet, according to Cicek, while the courts are still needed, more focus needs to be paid to how they work in practice -- the implementation of Articles 250 and 251.

And, so what does this mean? Why is it significant? And why the shift in attitude? Let's start with the last question first. As prominent Islamic liberal Yeni Safak columnist Ali Bayramoglu explains in what is a fairly polemical interview with Cakir, the Hakan Fidan affair should be read as an intervention by Gulen -- a challenge to the AKP's authority. Tensions between Erdogan and Gulen have been on the rise given the amount of bad publicity the government has received thanks to the Ergenekon investigation, in particular the arrests of journalists Ahmet Sik and Nedim Sener last March. Following these arrests, Erdogan dismissed Ergenekon lead prosecutor Zekeriya Oz, who is known to be close to the movement and a mastermind of the  Ergenekon probe (see past post).

As Radikal columnist Omer Sahin writes, Erdogan was content to use the Ergenekon prosecution to purge anti-government forces from the state, namely those perched in high places in the military and in the Turkish press. Gulen and Erdogan supported each other in this push from the AKP's 2002 entry into office up to just more than a year ago. Yet, as Bayramoglu observes (see his Wednesday column), now that the government has largely defeated resistance within the Turkish Armed Forces, things have changed.

This shift is further explained, as Bayramoglu continues, by the sheer frustration of Erdogan with the blatantly adversarial nature of the investigations. In August 2010, prosecutors went after police chief Hanefi Avci, who once sympathetic to Gulen, was arrested two days prior to a scheduled press conference at which Avci was going to present evidence as to how the movement had infiltrated the judiciary. The next year he was charged with membership in Ergenekon, as were Sik and Sener following similar attempts to bring light to the nexus between the Gulen organization and the police.

The cost of the Ergenekon and Sledgehammer investigations are simply no longer worth the effort, and now that prosecutions seem to be targeting figures with whom the AKP has friendly relations (i.e. Fidan) and potentially elements in the military that are now pro-AKP, Erdogan, wary of power that is not his own, is likely to come down hard on Gulen. He will do this by curtailing the judicial and police power the Gulen movement has established for itself, and the first target will likely be weakening the axis of power to which Cakir refers.

Yet still unexplained is the sheer tenacity of the Gulen organization toward the Erdogan government in this first serious battle. It is true that the past weeks have evinced tension building between the two groups (stirs over the match-fixing scandal and the Uludere strike, by which Gulen figures also tried to smear the MIT -- see past post), but the source of this latest conflict is still unsure. Perhaps it was an attempt to test Erdogan. Or, it might have been a way to express Gulen's opposition to the state's efforts to negotiate with the PKK, which could be restarted in coming months. A combination of the two? We are probably unlikely to ever know.

What we can say, though, is that what was witnessed last week was a serious test of Erdogan's authority. As Bayramoglu tells Cakir, the Gulen movement expressed a unique determination this time around: first, it mobilized its media outlets and network to smear the MIT (my question: was Uludere an opening act?); second, even when Erdogan expressed that he would standby Fidan, prosecutor Sadrettin Sarikaya not only continued in his pursuit of Fidan, but upped the ante by issuing arrest warrants for four high-ranking intelligence officials. It was only when Erdogan suspended top brass officials in the police that Gulen seemed to back down.

But the end is likely not over. Bayramoglu conjectures that Gulen may take to the sidelines, realizing that Erdogan is not likely to allow Gulen to continue such free-wielding control of the police and judiciary, though not all are so sure. For sure, Erdogan does not want to see a shakeup before he ascends to the presidency in 2014 and passes a new constitution that he likely still hopes will bolster his power once there but at the same time it is unclear if Gulen will be so comfortable with his rise -- and, just what the exiled leader might do about it. As Cakir writes, rather fatalistically I might add, such a clash will largely be spectacle for most Turks, third parties will not matter, and as TUSIAD head Umit Boyner expressed last week, will simply observe in horror.

UPDATE I (2/25) -- Today's Zaman columnist Emre Uslu had a column on Friday which I nearly missed and in which the columnist postulates a conspiracy against the Gulen movement in which he implies the government is complicit. According to Uslu, the government has long been intent on curbing the powers of specially-authorized courts, and this latest episode rather was an operation against the Gulen movement. From Uslu:
If this insistent call for the amendment of Articles 250 and 251 of the anti-terror bill had been made in conjunction with the MİT crisis, I would believe that it had something to do with the MİT crisis. However, this call was made 10 days before the outbreak of the MİT crisis, in a report by the Sabah daily. The report said: “It is possible to associate every offense with terror charges, which could be further subjected to special investigation and trial procedures. To ensure the right to a fair trial, Articles 250, 251 and 252 of the Code on Criminal Procedure [CMK] on the workings of special courts and their procedures shall be revised.”

The insistent calls after the MİT crisis made reference to the same points. The meaning of this is obvious: The KCK investigations will be conducted more leniently, and KCK suspects will be released.

If you live in a country like Turkey; are aware that the KCK investigations will be ceased and the relevant parties to those protocols agreed to the release of KCK suspects; if you have read in a paper, known for its staunch support of the government before the outbreak of the MİT crisis, that Articles 250 and 251 will be revised; and all writers and columnists supportive of the KCK-AKP-MİT equation insistently called for the amendment of Articles 250, 251 and 252 of the CMK when the MİT crisis erupted; and if you call all of these a coincidence, you are surely naïve.

And for these reasons, I would say that the situation presented to us as an MİT crisis is in fact an operation jointly conducted by MİT, the pro-negotiation figures within the AKP and some pro-negotiation intellectuals. The prosecutor and the police department were framed in this operation; MİT planned and executed this operation. The signals from the AKP show that this operation will be completed, despite the decision by the Court of Appeals that the KCK is a terror organization. You will see that Articles 250, 251 and 252 of the CMK will be amended, the KCK suspects will be released and pro-Gülen movement bureaucrats will be removed from duty."
Sabah is a paper friendly to Prime Minister Erdogan, and according to Uslu, it is the government to blame for the excesses of the Ergenekon investigation, not the Gulen movement. Of course, this is highly unlikely given that it is the prime minister who ordered Oz's dismissal after the Sik/Sener arrest and the targeting of Avci, but the accusation is there all the same. Uslu also does a good job of further smearing the AKP by including a desire to release KCK/PKK suspects as part of the operation, thereby using the Kurdish issue to heighten tension.

While several figures, especially those in the government such as Yalcin Akdogan, have done their best to play down tensions, revelations of Uslu and others point to some sectors in the Gulen movement who are not so content to simply sit by sidelines.

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