The Failed Coup and Turkey’s Gulenist Predicament

by Omer Taspinar

Now that the dust is settling in Turkey, the magnitude of the damage to what is left of Turkish democracy is becoming clearer. As Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan strangely admitted on the night of July 15 when tanks were still rolling in the streets of Ankara and Istanbul, the failed coup was indeed a “gift from God” for him and Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). Yet, despite Erdogan’s suspiciously quick gratitude and the poor implementation of the whole affair, the coup was not staged. To the contrary, it came disturbingly close to succeeding, as 270 people were killed in confrontations between the army, the police, and civilian protesters. Erdogan himself narrowly escaped a political decapitation attempt.

Ultimately, the coup failed for three main reasons. First, the coup did not have societal support. Erdogan still enjoys strong approval ratings despite significant discontent among Turkey’s westernized elites and the secularist segments of society. The Turkish army has a long history of overthrowing unpopular governments at times of political chaos and economic crisis. This time, there was no chaos or economic crisis in the country, and the popularity of the government should have normally been a showstopper for the plotters.

Second, the coup failed because the top brass and particularly the force commanders and the chief of staff were not involved. As a result, there was no unity of action and the chain of command collapsed. Third, the perpetrators had to act hastily and prematurely in order to preempt a major wave of arrests that was reportedly coming in the early morning of July 16. Launching the coup around 9 am, at prime time, instead of at 3 am proved to be a fatal mistake. Such haste combined with panic and clumsy implementation left the information flow, the political leadership, and the streets uncontrolled.

Not surprisingly, once things were under his control, Erdogan reacted with vengeance, declaring a three-month emergency law. The failed coup offered him the legitimacy and excuse he needed to purge all dissidents (not just followers of Turkish religious leader Fetullah Gulen) from the military and civilian bureaucracy. As a result, more than 10,000 people have been arrested and close to 70,000 people have been fired from the military and civilian bureaucracy. Almost one third of the flag officers in the Turkish armed forces have also been dishonorably discharged. The arrests and firings are still continuing, with no end in sight for this unprecedented wave of mass purges in the history of the Turkish Republic.

Who Was Behind the Coup?

The emerging narrative in the predominantly AKP-controlled Turkish media and civil society is that the coup was perpetrated by followers of a self-exiled Muslim cleric in Pennsylvania. Was this really the case? The short answer is yes, but the long answer is more complicated. There is no denying that Fetullah Gulen encouraged his sympathizers to pursue careers in the civilian and military bureaucracy since the 1980s. He did so primarily because he considered the state the most important institution in the promotion, as well as in the “defense,” of his religious vision and movement from enemies within the security establishment.

By the late 1980s, as the Cold War and Turkey’s rightwing and leftwing ideological divide was coming to an end, the ethnic and religious identity problems of the country (namely Kurdish nationalism and political Islam) were re-emerging to haunt the militantly secular and uncompromisingly Turkish character of the republic Ataturk founded in the 1930s. The generals, as the self-declared guardians of the secular republic, considered the Gulen movement an existential threat to the future of Kemalism in Turkey. Even when they ousted the Islamist leader of the Welfare Party, Necmettin Erbakan, in what came to be called the soft coup of 1997, the main threat to secularism in the eyes of the generals was not just Erbakan (who after all pursued an openly Islamist agenda with his political party) but the much more secretive and better organized Gulen movement, which had a “generational” long-term vision.

The impressive educational, media, and economic activities of the Gulen movement proved highly successful in winning hearts and minds in Turkey and beyond. Yet, in the eyes of his critics, Gulen also had a secret agenda, a cultish following, and a secret network within the state. Gulen’s well-known encouragement of his followers to pursue careers in government was a harbinger, in the eyes of Turkey’s secularist security and judiciary establishment, of a slow-motion Islamic social, cultural and political revolution.

In retrospect, this symbiotic mutual distrust between the secular establishment and the Gulen movement exacerbated Turkey’s already tense political dynamics. The secularist alarmism about the movement fueled Gulen’s own belief that the best protection against the security-judicial establishment was to conquer it from within. In this spirit of “defensive jihad,” Gulen encouraged his followers to secretly pursue careers within the civilian and military bureaucracy since the 1980s.

Despite the suspicion of the military and security establishment about Gulenist infiltration to the bureaucracy, Gulen’s ability to maintain good relations with all political leaders, with the notable exception of Erbakan’s openly Islamist movement, is a testament to his tactical and strategic acumen. His agenda was always based on cooptation and positive dialogue rather than confrontation and an overt push for Islamization.

The alliance between Erdogan and Fetullah Gulen consolidated in earnest only in the aftermath of the 2007 e-coup, when generals once again threatened to overthrow a legitimately elected government. In the eyes of the staunchly secularist army, the election of Abdullah Gul to the presidency, represented a red line. These were days when Turkey was still polarized over the headscarf issue, and Gul’s wife did not pass this militant test of Kemalist secularism. In the wake of AKP’s landslide electoral victory in 2007 and the constitutional court’s (another Kemalist stronghold) attempt to ban the AKP, the alliance between Erdogan and Gulen turned into a formidable coalition against the Kemalist establishment. This alliance ultimately launched the Ergenekon investigation against militantly secularist generals in the armed forces.

Pro-Gulen elements within the military—mostly at the colonel level in 2008—no doubt provided much-needed inside information and legal evidence for these investigations, which emasculated, sidelined, and purged a significant segment of politically interventionist military officers. However, some evidence provided by the Gulenists turned out to be fabricated or tampered with. This illegal situation led to the politicization and ultimately de-legitimization of the Ergenekon investigation. Nevertheless Erdogan and the AKP stood by the Gulen movement and strongly supported the Ergenekon investigation.

Once their common enemy was destroyed, the AKP-Gulen alliance began to crack. The alliance came to a bitter end in 2013 when pro-Gulen judges leveled corruption charges against Erdogan. Shortly after the corruption crisis, the AKP labeled the Gulen movement a state within a state, a parallel structure, and a terrorist organization determined to overthrow the democratically elected government of Turkey. Once his coalition with Gulen ended, Erdogan sought to restore his strained relations with the army. His Machiavellian nature became clearly evident when he declared that the Ergenekon and Balyoz investigations led by Gulenists “framed” the armed forces.

The next two years, between 2013 and 2015, created a toxic political environment in the country. A relentless witch-hunt began against Gulenists. Educational institutions, media groups, business associations, bureaucrats, judges, and intellectuals associated with the Gulen movement have all become the target of a destructive political campaign. This was fratricide at its worst, with an Islamist oriented government pursuing its agenda against another Islamic movement.

What’s Next for Turkey?

All self-respecting armies have a high level of cohesion, discipline, hierarchy, morale, and esprit de corps. Turks once viewed the military as most trusted governmental institution. Even after the bruising process of highly politicized investigations such as Ergenekon, the overwhelming majority of Turkish officers were believed to be duty-bound, honorable, and highly professional servants of the Turkish state. This positive public image of the military was in great part thanks to the perception of officers as guardians of the founding principles of the Republic and Ataturk’s vision of an independent, sovereign, secular nation-state.

Turkey is now in uncharted waters because this picture of the Turkish military came to be tragically questioned in one night with the failed coup attempt on July 15. This is a monumental and unprecedented crisis for Turkish politics, governance, institutional structure, and, of course, civil-military relations. Since the Turkish military represents the most respected governmental institution, nothing less than the future of the Turkish political system and institutional makeup is at stake.

The sight of military violence against innocent civilians and protestors, the unforgivable bombing of the parliament, the brutal clash between the police and the military, the confrontation of pro- and anti-coup officers within the military’s ranks, the sense of utter confusion and panic among coup plotters who failed to follow the basic rules in implementing a coup, and the tragic scenes of lynching of young soldiers by violent mobs on the Bosphorus bridge will haunt future generations.

In the wake of the failed coup attempt, the Turkish army is traumatized, demoralized, and broken. Its professionalism needs to be quickly re-established. The recovery process will first require a clear identification of what went wrong. There seems to be a clear consensus on that front. Most Turks have identified the followers of Fetullah Gulen as the main culprits. Given the numbers of officers involved in the coup, the level of Gulenist infiltration appears mind-boggling. That one third of the active-duty generals and admirals have been identified as coup plotters and are now discharged from the military indicates the kind of existential crisis into which the Turkish military has been thrown.

If all these officers are officers are indeed Gulenists, this is a monumental admission of failure for an institution that prided itself on its highly effective and accurate vetting mechanism for upward mobility within the officer corp. The very high number of flag officers that are being discharged and jailed seems to indicate a larger level of involvement in the planning and implementation of the failed coup. In addition to the pro-Gulen group that probably masterminded the coup, this coalition was probably composed of additional “anti-Erdogan” elements such as traditional Kemalist elements and some opportunistic careerist officers who did not want to be sidelined after a successful coup.

Given the opaque and politicized judicial process in Turkey, the details about the non-Gulenist profiles who took part in the coup may never be known. The belief that all the bad apples are Gulenist will also serve a major strategic and political purpose: to demonstrate that the core ideology of the military—Kemalism—played no role in the “illegal,” “terrorist” coup perpetrated by traitors to the nation. In other words, the identification of Gulenists as the only problem within the armed forces will help restore a much-needed sense of unity, cohesion, discipline and esprit de corps around the principle of Kemalism. Thus, the top brass of the Turkish general staff will deny any kind of Kemalist involvement in the failed coup. There will be no daylight between the AKP and the army in terms of demonizing Gulenists as the existential threat to the Republic and the root cause of all problems.

Despite such attempts at Kemalist unity, it will still be a monumental challenge for the armed forces to recover fully. Turkey’s fight against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party and the Islamic State will be affected negatively by the security and governance vacuum created by the seismic changes and mass purges within the military and security bureaucracy.

Finally, the failed coup will also test Turkey’s already strained relations with the United States. There is now a new sense of urgency to Turkey’s demands for the extradition of Fetullah Gulen. Yet, the US is unlikely to oblige in the absence of concrete evidence. Combined with American support for Kurds in Syria, the Gulen file will also create unprecedented levels of anti-Americanism in Turkey. Moscow will try to exploit the situation. Erdogan had already sent an olive branch to Putin before the failed coup, and a rapprochement between Ankara and Moscow is now in the offing.

In short, Erdogan and his presidential regime agenda have emerged stronger from this failed coup. Yet, the institutions and the military structure of Turkey had never been weaker.

Photo: Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Fethullah Gulen were once allies.

Omer Taspinar is a nonresident senior fellow in the Center on 21st Century Security and Intelligence and an expert on Turkey, the European Union, Muslims in Europe, political Islam, the Middle East, and Kurdish nationalism. He is a professor at the National War College and an adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies.

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One Comment

  1. Contrary to this article, I believe that the coup was organized and managed by “kemalists’ within the army and the civil society who are opposed to the creeping Islamization of Turkey by the AKP. The Gulenists who also wanted to get rid of Erdogan provided the support but did not manage the coup. In fact, if they had the full control of the coup it would have succeeded. It seems the coup was totally managed by military Kemalists and it failed. If on the other hand the coup had succeeded, the Gulenists would have come out from the shadow and taken over the government to impose Gulen’s vision of Turkey.

    Now Erdogan’ crackdown is aimed at eliminating the Gulenists AND Kemalists from the Turkish institutions as he wants the end all ‘secular’ elements even if this is going to cripple the army and the other Institutions. He got the greenlight from the traumatized, confused and manipulated population. He is now discreetly implementing an Islamic revolution with the final elimination of secularism in Turkey. Ultimately he wants to replace Ataturk as the father of the new Sunni Islamic Turkey and Iran is his model.
    I doubt that he will succeed as contrary to Iran, Turkey is a more ethnically and religiously diversified country and the West is far too close. We may see turmoil in Turkey for many years to come.

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