Erdoğan in his palace in 2015, with actors dressed up as ottoman soldiersTens of thousands of Turks have been arrested, dismissed from duty, or sent to trial following the attempted military coup in Turkey. The number of university teachers that have been suspended, had their visas withdrawn, or have been prevented from leaving the country has reached more than fifteen thousand, thousands of judges and prosecutors have been removed and a few hundred imams called back by the Diyanet, the Ministry of Religious Affairs. The purge is affecting every aspect of society, not just the members of the military who were accused or are suspected of having participated in some way in the organization of the coup, which failed after a few hours on the night between July 15 and 16.
President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan will soon be back to “mobilize to push through a constitutional reform to concentrate power in his hands and become an executive-style president,” said Soner Çağaptay, of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “They [the government] certainly did not come up with this list of judges overnight. It is likely that this purge was a project they had in waiting, and the coup triggered the arrest of judges.”
The most common accusation is affiliation, or even suspected closeness, to the Hizmet movement, founded by Fethullah Gülen, a former supporter and now an enemy of the AKP (the Justice and Development Party) and of Erdoğan. Immediately after the failure of the coup, in fact, Erdoğan accused Gülen of infiltrating the army and the judiciary, and of leading organization that was plotting against him, opening a debate in the Turkish press. There is no doubt that “Erdogan’s government already wanted to cleanse Turkish bureaucracy of Gulen sympathizers,” said Çağaptay. Valeria Giannotta, professor at the Turkish Aeronautical Association University of Ankara, agrees with this view: “Measures against the Gülen movement have been taken since 2013, when the ‘marriage of convenience’ between the group and the AKP ended badly. We have been witnessing removals of this kind for years.”
It is not news that Gülen and his sympathizers are accused of conspiracy. “In the past four years, there has not been a matter of internal or foreign policy which has not brought up the name, Fethullah Gülen, accused of the umpteenth attempted coup,” said Kerim Balcı, Turkish journalist and member of Hizmet, who moved to London along with the editorial staff of his publication, censored in Turkey. Following the attempted coup, Balcı was put on the blacklist of journalists sought by the government.
“There are members of Hizmet in the judiciary and in the army,” Balcı said, “but there were approximately three thousand people in the judiciary who were removed from their positions and arrested, that makes up a fifth of the judiciary sector, including Kemalists and liberals. It is strange that the first to be arrested were judges and prosecutors. Many of those who were relieved from duty had the right to vote for the Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors” (the most important legal body in Turkey, Ed.). According to Balcı, the move was preventative: all those who were arrested in recent days will in fact be processed and sit in front of courts that are likely to be friendly to the president.
In October 2014, when the elections were held for the Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors, the list supported by the government clashed with a united front of camps other than just the Gülenists: Alevis, Kemalists and liberals. But by identifying Gülen as enemy number one and eliminating every possible remaining resistance, Erdoğan comes out strengthened by this event. “Although Turkey is evenly divided between those who support and those who oppose Erdoğan,” said Çağaptay, “a military coup is a terrible thing to face for any democratic leader. In this case, furthermore, the botched coup heightened the President’s popularity, allowing him to unify the entire spectrum of the political right around him.”
The coup was botched because “the main actors were low ranking members of the military,” said Giannotta, “young soldiers, ideologically oriented, rather inexperienced and therefore easily manipulable. In view of the operations in the country’s Southeast (where a guerilla war between the military and the Kurds of the PKK has been going on for about a year, Ed.) in an antiterrorist tone, the army has regained ground and, with it, visibility, as well as voice in the political scene. This was what probably deluded the architects of the coup into thinking that it would be a success.” The majority of the generals, however, did not support the coup plotters, and the same applies to opposition parties: “For the first time after 14 years, all political movements in Turkey took the same position,” Giannotta said, “meaning that all, regardless of their political views, are in favor of a democratically elected government and oppose a military junta.”