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View from abroad: Counter-coup and crackdown in Turkey

Tuesday 9 August 2016, by siawi3


Published in Dawn, August 8th, 2016

Irfan Husain

THE ripples from Turkey’s failed coup continue to spread as the country’s unprecedented purge brings more and more people into the dragnet. Thus far, 9,000 cops; 21,000 private schoolteachers; 1,700 education ministry and 1,500 finance ministry officials have been suspended. Ten thousand members of the armed forces including 140 generals and admirals — or half of the high command — are on pre-trial detention. Some 2,475 judges have been suspended. Around 1,500 university deans have been forced to resign. And a hundred media outlets have been shut down, with many journalists in jail. A total of around 60,000 across Turkey have either been arrested or sacked.

The charge against all of them is that they were connected to the Gulen network that stands accused of being behind last month’s attempted military coup. Fethullah Gulen, the influential cleric whose message of modern education for all Muslims has inspired many, has denied any involvement. Indeed, until 2013 Gulen and President Erdogan were allied in their effort to roll back decades of Kemalist secularism, and to clip the military’s wings.

But Erdogan suspected that the exiled Gulen was behind a series of embarrassing leaks on the social media that appeared to link his close family and colleagues to massive corruption. Many police officers, public prosecutors and intelligence agency officials were sacked then, but that purge was small change compared to the ongoing crackdown.

The fallout from the failed coup has even reached Pakistan where the Turkish government has demanded the closure of 26 schools run by a non-profit organisation called Pak-Turk International Schools. Established in 1993 and run by a group of businessmen, Pak-Turk has established a reputation for high quality, reasonably priced education. Currently, around 10,000 children are being educated in its 26 schools. The directors have denied any direct connection to Gulen, and insist they will resist any government attempt to close their schools.

Gulen’s Hizmet (Khidmat in Urdu) Movement has been very active in promoting education, and in 2009, it was estimated to be running a thousand schools worldwide — including in the United States — with two million students. Muslim businessmen have contributed heavily to a generous scholarship programme. Hizmet also runs a large number of charities across the Muslim world.

What has amazed many is the swiftness with which tens of thousands were identified as having links with Hizmet which has now been labelled as a terrorist organisation. According to leaked reports, the network had been in touch through a smartphone app with weak security. But to imagine that senior generals and experienced intelligence officials would compromise security in such an amateurish way beggars belief.

Clearly, security agencies loyal to Erdogan had prepared lists of all they suspected of opposing him. The attempted coup has now given them the opportunity to cleanse the country of thousands who were against the direction the president was taking the country in. And as he can enact any law he chooses under the state of emergency that has been imposed, nobody in Turkey can challenge the government, especially given the purge of so many judges.

However, Turkey’s Nato allies have registered their disapproval of the sweeping arrests and dismissals that have rocked the country in these last three weeks. Already uneasy by Erdogan’s authoritarian ways that had been pushing Turkey towards one-man rule, this latest display of naked political power and ambition have set many teeth on edge. Many in Europe are questioning the deal that would have allowed Turks visa-free access to the Schengen area.

For his part, Erdogan has pointed out that thus far, Turkey has received only a million Euros out of the three billion promised in terms of the agreement that stopped the flow of asylum seekers into Europe across the Turkish border. If the deal unravels, expect to see another flood of Syrian refugees, especially following the massive bombardment in and around Aleppo.

What else do the coup and counter-coup portend? Clearly, the military has been hugely demoralised with half of the high command in jail, together with thousands of other officers and soldiers. The government claims that many have confessed to their part in the coup, and admitted that they had acted at Gulen’s directives. However, Turkish security and intelligence officials aren’t famous for their gentle treatment of suspects in their custody. Many have made accusations of torture, and photographs of captured soldiers have shown signs of physical abuse.

Erdogan accuses his foreign detractors of being more sympathetic to the plotters than they are to him. In particular, there have been broad hints of American connivance since Gulen has been living in the United States for many years. The official line is that if Washington is not involved, the cleric should be handed over to Turkey immediately. John Kerry, the Secretary of State, has responded by asking Ankara to provide the evidence establishing Gulen’s involvement. Thus far, this has not been forthcoming, despite constant claims that the government has irrefutable proof.

Clearly, Gulen will fight any move to deport him, and any evidence the Turks provide will have to stand up in court. Should Turkey lose a legal battle, we can expect more conspiracy theories about American involvement to do the rounds. This would be problematic for Washington as American jets are currently using the Turkish base of Inclirlik in south-eastern Turkey to conduct operations against targets in Syria.

Meanwhile, tourism has dropped drastically as foreigners have cancelled visits in large numbers. This trend started after recent terror attacks, including the June suicide bombing of Istanbul airport. The Turkish lira, already sinking against the dollar, has now slipped to a third of its value compared to where it was five years ago.

While Erdogan still enjoys strong support among his core constituency, Turkey is now politically isolated and economically fragile. Clearly, Erdogan needs to think about the many mistakes he has made, and change course before it’s too late.