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Turkey: Between Deep State and Dictatorship

Turkey, at the beginning of 2014, looks remarkably different than Turkey just a year ago. Certainly, the luster has worn off Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan who, just a year ago, looked on course to pass a new constitution which would enable him to lead Turkey as president for another decade, at least. Western supporters and many Turkish liberals described Fethullah Gülen as an enlightened force for religious tolerance and a man committed to reform and democracy.

Today, Turkey is moving toward one-man rule. How ironic it is that as so many Arab regimes swept out strong-man dictatorships, Erdoğan seeks to have Turkey become one. Perhaps Fethullah Gülen pushed him to it: Gülen’s minions permeate the security force and, once Erdoğan threatened Gülen’s revenue stream by seeking to close down his lucrative exam prep school enterprise, the police launched corruption probes against Erdoğan’s supporters, including his own son.

How ironic it is that while Western academics and liberals once railed against the deep state in Turkey, a reference to the shadowy networks of generals and intelligence officials who seemed to pull the levers behind the curtains, the past month’s events show that Gülen himself leads the deep state.

I spent the past week in Paris and Brussels meeting with Turkish parliamentarians. We were initially going to meet in Istanbul and Ankara, but they all believed they would be more free to speak candidly outside of Turkey, given how Gülen’s followers in the security forces now monitor the phone calls, tap the offices, and monitor the conversations in restaurants of parliamentarians, journalists, and foreigners. One parliamentarian made a good point: as critical as Turks are about Erdoğan, at least the prime minister was elected and, in theory, can be ousted in an election. No one, in contrast, ever elected Gülen, although the shadowy cult leader aspires to wield as much power as the prime minister.

The real danger now, however, has been Erdoğan’s reaction to the scandal. Whereas he once depicted himself and his party as anti-corruption crusaders, he now seeks to protect the corrupt and punish those questioning such corruption. In the last couple weeks, he has reassigned or displaced more than 2,500 police officers, and effectively frozen the corruption cases against his son, associates, and his friends. The Justice and Development Party (AKP)-controlled legislature passed an urgent bill to place the judiciary under executive control, enabling the minister of justice to appoint and remove both prosecutors and judges. The constitutional court will likely overturn that law, but the way Turkish law works, should the court strike down the law, it will have no retroactive effect: Any judge or prosecutor removed or reassigned in the past few weeks will remain in their new positions and will not win their old jobs back.

Now the AKP-dominated legislature is considering another bill that will allow the government to shut down any website immediately. Should that bill pass, the power of Internet censorship will shift from the courts to the government.

Turks say they will take to the streets on Saturday. If that demonstration moves forward, the reaction of the government will be perhaps the best indicator of what Turkey has become.

Perhaps it is time for some reflection in the White House and State Department, not to mention several think tanks and universities, about how it was that they got Erdoğan and Gülen so wrong. Too many American universities have taken money from Gülen-related institutions to organize conferences or publish books attesting to Gülen’s moderation and wisdom. Many think tanks—including some of those normally skeptical of Islamist movements—consciously moderated their assessments of the AKP in order to preserve access to the State Department. If think-tanks are to retain their value, however, intellectual integrity should trump the willingness to be yes-men. Most importantly, it’s time Congress or others lead an independent assessment of the past decade of State Department reporting to determine who got the AKP right, who got it wrong and, most importantly, why assessments about Erdoğan, his character, and the AKP were so inaccurate.


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