Violent clashes between anti-government protesters and police broke out in the heart of Istanbul this weekend, following a series of revelations about corruption within the Turkish government, months of demos in streets across the country and an all-round terrible year for Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Under the Christmas fairy lights on Istiklal, crowds of protesters set off fireworks and ripped up paving slabs to use as makeshift missiles. The police responded in the way that now seems customary for them; with tear gas, water cannons and plastic bullets. Meanwhile, the festive tourists took shelter in the bars and cafes and wondered what the hell was going on.
The Turks are wondering what the hell is going on, too. Over the past week, three government ministers have resigned following the arrests of their sons in a large scale corruption case, dozens of high-ranking police officers have been removed from their posts in spurious circumstances and a sex tape allegedly starring Numan Kurtulmuş – Erdogan’s deputy – has been leaked on YouTube. I asked Yanki, a veteran of the Gezi Park movement and a sharp observer of Turkish politics, to explain the whole sordid mess to me. “This has never happened before in Turkey,” he said. “There has always been a curtain that you couldn’t see through, but now it’s gone, for the first time. Over the past two days, Cemaat have exposed themselves.”
Cemaat is a loose and covert network within Turkey, which is also known as the Service or Gulen movement. Its members follow the teachings of Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish imam who has lived in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania since the late 90s. Although it does not exist as an official organisation, Cemaat runs hundreds of private schools across Turkey, raises millions of dollars from its followers each year and is believed to have members within the highest ranks of the police, the judiciary and the government. Most people in Turkey believe that it is Cemaat members who instigated the corruption probe and leaked the sex tape. The police officers who were fired are all believed to be members of the movement. Perhaps the most damaging revelation of the week was the news that the state prosecution had also issued a warrant for the arrest of Erdogan’s son, and that the newly purged police force had refused to act on it.
“Imagine that the Turkish State is a Russian Babushka doll,” said Yanki. “There are groups within groups, and Cemaat is like the smallest doll.” Although Erdogan himself has avoided accusing Cemaat outright for his misfortunes over the past week, he has vowed to beat the opponents who, he claims, are trying to form a state within a state.
The reason why all this has come as a surprise is that Erdogan has always counted on Cemaat’s members as his allies. Like him, they want Turkey to move in a more Islamic direction, and they also oppose the long-running involvement of the army in Turkish politics. It was Erdogan himself who knowingly placed many Cemaat members in high-ranking positions within the apparatus of the state. But last month, the government announced plans to close down many Cemaat-run schools – one of the group's major sources of income.
Yanki says that the rift between the AKP and Cemaat actually dates back to 2008, when the government entered into secret talks with the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party), the militant group that has been fighting a separatist war in southeast Turkey since the 80s – talks that Cemaat vigorously opposed. But Yanki claims they have waited till now to launch their coup, capitalising on the Gezi Park body blow that Erdogan is still reeling from. “It [Gezi Park] made Erdogan seem weak,” said Yanki. “It made it seem like he can’t manage the state any more.”
This internal coup – if that's what it is – may just bring about what Turkey’s street protesters have not yet managed: the fall of the government and the end of Erdogan’s rule. Seeing the Prime Minister’s vulnerability, the protesters have been back on the streets in a series of small-scale demos since the 17th of December, when the first arrests were made. But Friday night's protests were billed as the big event. Initially, they had planned to protest in Taksim, the symbolic heart of the Gezi Park protest movement.
The police, though, had other ideas. From the evening until the early hours of the morning, the frontline of the protest and the cops moved back and forth along Istiklal. After several hours of to-and-froing, a large stretch of the street looked more like the back alley of one of Istanbul’s less desirable neighbourhoods than the city’s premier shopping district.
“Thieves everywhere” read one piece of graffiti scrawled across the shop shutters. Last night’s protesters took the corruption scandal as their focal point. There have been allegations of huge illegal gold deals with Iran, which haven't exactly dissipated since police found £2.7 million stuffed in shoeboxes at the home of Suleyman Aslan, the CEO of Turkey’s state-owned Halk Bank. He is alleged to have paid bribes to scores of Erdogan’s political allies in order to smooth the way for the deals.
But although the protesters are ready to rally behind the allegations made by Cemaat, they are not, in any sense, their supporters. “We fear that we may be seen as acting with Cemaat,” said Nazli, a 27-year-old student who took part in last night’s protest. “Actually we want something different, we want the people of Turkey to have the power. The war between the AKP and Cemaat is just fighting between rulers.”
The events in Gezi Park had already left Turkey’s Prime Minister looking battered and weak. Now he also has to deal with a corruption scandal, what seems like a coup from within the state and a reinvigorated protest movement, packed with angry young people who won’t be happy until he’s gone.
More protesting Turks:
WATCH – Istanbul Rising
WATCH – The Battle of Taksim Square