On Thursday, daily Taraf revealed a document from a National Security Council (NSC) meeting at which it was decided that the movement led by the influential Islamic preacher Fethullah Gülen should be finished off. The signature of Prime Minister Erdogan is on the document, which dates back to August 2004. A long time ago, you would say, so is it actually still relevant today?
Representatives of the government, like Erdogan’s advisor Yalçın Akdoğan and Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arinc, have admitted immediately after Taraf’s scoop that such a document exists, but claim that the government never took any action on it. It was just an ‘advice’ from the NSC, a monthly meeting at which representatives of the army and the government discuss current affairs.
I don’t find that hard to believe. Turkey was quite a different country in 2004 than it is today. Erdogan’s AKP had been in power for only two years, and was not as firmly in the saddle as it is now. The party was deeply distrusted by the army because of its Islamic roots, and the AKP had to take that into account: the days of military coups, with or without tanks in the streets, was not yet over at the time.
In 2003, the National Security Council, established after the military coup of 1961, was reformed. The authority of the NSC had been expanded after the 1980 coup, and till 2003 the government had to follow up on the ‘recommendations’ it gave. The balance between military and civil representatives in the NSC (five members from the military: the Chief of General Staff, and the commanders of the air forces, land forces, navy and gendarmerie, and five from the government: the president, the prime minister, and the ministers of internal affairs, foreign affairs and defence) had only been a balance in numbers. And in 2004, Necdet Sezer was president of Turkey, a man of the old guard, who opposed the AKP just as fiercely as the army did.
Huge election victory
Since 2003, the government doesn’t have to follow the NSC ‘recommendations’ anymore. And it’s very likely that this specific recommendation was not carried out, because the relations between the AKP and Gülen were still very good at the time. The followers of Gülen helped deliver the AKP a huge election victory in 2002, after the party was established in 2001. The AKP’s economic policies helped the businessmen in Anatolian cities who voted for the AKP. The Gülen movement, in which education plays an important role, got the opportunity to open private schools, both for regular education as for private prep schools for, amongst others, the university entrance exam. And slowly the ‘Gülenci’s’ were rewarded for their loyalty by getting increasingly important posts in the bureaucracy.
In the summer of 2011, the AKP dealt an important blow to the military power, which is now largely (but certainly not fully) under civilian control, and the army is now lead by a man loyal to the AKP. That, along with the closure case against the AKP that the party survived, made the AKP free, or, more precisely, confident. Very confident. We all know by now what that lead to: Prime Minister Erdogan is increasingly authoritarian and tries to dictate his conservative values to society, either by law or by publicly scandalizing people with a different lifestyle.
Tremendous changes between the time of Erdogan’s signature on the NSC document in 2004, and now. Old powers have been marginalized, and that has given space to a new power struggle: between the AKP and the Gülen movement. It first started to surface in February 2012, when Gülen followers in the judiciary tried to incriminate the leader of the national intelligence service, Hakan Fidan (an Erdogan confidant) by connecting him to the banned Kurdish organisation KCK. Ever since, relations between the AKP and Gülen have deteriorated.
Education is crucial
The latest low is a fierce discussion about the prep schools that the Gülenci’s had opened all over the country in the last decade: the AKP wants to close them down. Prime Minister Erdogan says attending the prep schools shouldn’t be necessary to be successful in the university entrance exam, but the Gülenci’s see the attempt to close their schools as a direct attack on their movement. Education is crucial to them: there they educate their young followers, there they keep them inside the movement by housing them in their own student accommodation, and there they make them ready for the highest possible positions in society.
The power struggle between the AKP and the Gülen movement seems to have everything to do with the presidential elections scheduled for August 2014. Although not announced officially, nobody doubts Erdogan wants to run for the position. The other less certain but still anticipated candidate is the incumbent President Gül (who was present in the NSC meeting in 2004 as Minister of Foreign Affairs). The latter has, as is widely assumed, always been closer to the Gülen movement than Erdogan. If Erdogan breaks the movement, he may lower Gül’s chances for presidency.
Erdogan may have had no reason to follow up on the National Security Council’s recommendation in 2004. But it looks like he never forgot about it, and has now taken it off the shelf.