Turkey's Political Civil War

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the populist religious movement of expatriate cleric Fethullah Gulen are vying for control of Turkey.

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Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks after the EU and Turkey signed agreements in Ankara, Turkey, Monday, Dec. 16, 2013. Turkey and the European Union on Monday signed agreements starting talks for a possible deal that would lift visa restrictions for Turkish citizens traveling to Europe. Under the agreements signed in the Turkish capital Ankara, Turkey would in turn, agree to take back immigrants who illegally enter the EU from Turkish territory. Erdogan called agreements a 'milestone' in relations between his country and the 28-member bloc.

A power struggle is brewing in Turkey. It is a contest not among the ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, and the country's secularists, but between Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the populist religious movement of expatriate cleric Fethullah Gulen. It is not about elections or democracy. Rather, it is a struggle for control of the Turkish state itself.

From his self-imposed exile in the Poconos, where he has lived since 1999, Gulen has explicitly declared that he wishes his followers to control the state to encourage a kind of a cargo-cult Westernization, one that may be described as bringing to Turkey what he views as the good part of the West – technology and global commerce – without the bad: liberal democracy's inherent resistance to Islamic conservatism. Superficially, there is no huge difference between Gulen's and Erdogan's worldviews. Gulen presents himself – nowadays – as more liberal, reasonable and friendlier to the United States. But he has not always done so, and unlike Erdogan he enjoys the luxury of being unaccountable to the electorate.

The Gulen movement has spent the past three decades aggressively expanding its presence in the education sector, both in Turkey and abroad. It is one of the largest players, for example, in the American charter school market. The movement seeks to create a well-educated "Golden generation," friendly to the movement and possessed of the technical skills to assume high positions in strategic sectors of the economy, government and armed forces.

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The contemporary Gulen presents himself as an elderly, humble champion of interfaith dialogue, and perhaps this is now true. Age, after all, mellows many a man. But Gulen has never unequivocally reversed his early teachings, on which his senior cadres have been raised, including his early sermons, which are replete with bracing exhortations to Muslims to "become bombs and explode," and "tear to pieces the heads of the infidels."

Initially, the AKP and the Gulen movement formed an alliance of convenience aimed at dislodging the old, "Kemalist" establishment in Turkey. But like any alliance of convenience, it reached a natural conclusion. Today, the old guard is safely in prison or silenced for fear of arrest. As a result, what we are witnessing now is a fight among the new, ostensibly pious ruling elites about how to divide the spoils of power.

Erdogan's wing of the AKP is mainly in charge of the military, and the Gulenists in control of the police and judiciary. But the state isn't big enough for them to share. The split had been papered over for years, but broke into the open when Gulenist prosecutors attempted to arrest Hakan Fidan, Erdogan's intelligence chief. It exploded during the Gezi protests this past summer, when the movement issued an 11-article communiqué to dispute "accusations and charges" that it claimed came from AKP quarters.

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The most recent flashpoint was Erdogan's decision to abolish the dershanes – something like private university crammer schools, and a major source for Gulen's recruits. The movement correctly perceived this as an attempt altogether to eradicate their influence. While they're fighting, of course, the actual business of governing has been crowded out.

Erdogan is unlikely to encounter serious obstacles in the three approaching elections: municipal in March 2014, presidential in August 2014, and general in 2015. His support in the polls remains high, and he has no serious challengers. Unable to throw his weight behind a serious political alternative, all Gulen can do is grumble and sabotage. This may make some difference at the margins, but will not result in Erdogan's removal via democratic means. The crucial question is who will take over the ruling party after Erdogan – and whether the Gulen movement will remain influential.

For those still friendly to the idea of Western-style democracy in Turkey, there are two ways to look at this. In the optimistic view, any counterweight to the growing authoritarianism of Erdogan's government is a positive development. If the Gulen movement is the last meaningful barrier to one-man rule, at least it's a barrier. In the alternative view, a balance of power only serves a nation well if it is a legitimate one. No one has elected Gulen, he and his movement did not come to power transparently and there is no mechanism by which they may be peacefully and transparently removed.

The optimist and Turkophile in me focuses on the former. The pessimist and Turkophile in me sees the latter and despairs.

Claire Berlinski is senior fellow for Turkey at the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, D.C.

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