ISTANBUL (AFP) — Embroiled in political turmoil, Turkey’s leader has declared war on a shadowy enemy, a Muslim cleric he accuses of running a parallel “deep state” from faraway rural Pennsylvania.
Out on the campaign trail ahead of Sunday’s local elections, there are few doubts about who Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has in mind when he vows to “liquidate” his foes.
His declared nemesis is the moustachioed 73-year-old imam Fethullah Gulen, an estranged former ally turned alleged puppet-master plotting the strongman’s downfall.
For months, Erdogan has faced the worst crisis of his much lauded 11-year-rule, weathering massive street protests, an explosive corruption scandal and a stuttering economy.
His Islamic-leaning government has endured a barrage of damaging online leaks, with tales of sleaze and graft going viral on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube.
Erdogan has responded by lashing out at “traitors” and “terrorists”, while alienating Western allies with draconian curbs on social media.
As he faces the first ballot-box test since the crisis started in June, he has bitterly vowed to pursue his adversaries “into their caves”.
Erdogan and Gulen were once close allies who transformed a political landscape that had for decades been the domain of secularists and coup-happy generals.
With a strong popular appeal among conservative Muslims tired of the era of “military tutelage,” Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) took power in 2002 and has won every election since.
Both faithful and pro-business, the AKP presided over a building boom and dynamic economy as Turkey earned plaudits abroad as a model Muslim democracy and emerging global player.
If the AKP delivered stunning ballot-box muscle, Gulen provided the technocrats for the bureaucracy, tapping into what is part religious movement, part business empire.
Gulenists, known for their piety and business acumen, say their faith seeks to merge a “civil Islam” with modernity, science and Turkish nationalism.
Gulen fled to the US in 1999 to escape charges of “anti-secular” activities. He now heads a foundation which runs a range of media outlets, cultural centres and schools.
Its Hizmet (Service) educational network operates schools in 150 countries, encouraging civility and diligence and promoting a modern and tolerant Islam.
In Turkey it runs pre-university cram schools called Dershanes, whose loyal alumni have been prominently placed in the police and justice apparatus.
“We don’t prepare for exams only, we prepare them for life,” said spokesman Faruk Akdic. Students, he said, learn “kindness, universal law, not to be corrupt, not to steal … to become role models”.
Many point to the opaque nature of the tight-knit movement.
“Nothing is transparent,” said Sinan Ulgen of the Edam research centre. “We do not know who takes orders from whom. They have infiltrated the entire system, both in the executive and in justice and law enforcement.”
Erdogan, a former semi-pro footballer and Istanbul mayor, is dubbed admiringly the “tall man” or “sultan” by his loyal followers, but critics accuse him of having drifted toward “one-man rule”.
When police cracked down on protesters in June in clashes that left eight people dead and thousands wounded, Gulen newspapers provided comprehensive coverage.
The Gulen-linked Journalists and Writers Foundation warned that Turkey risks losing “its character as a state governed by the rule of law”.
Its vice president Cemal Usak told AFP that claims the “respected doctor” Gulen is pulling strings are false, stressing that “we’ve never done and never will do politics”.
In an escalating feud, Erdogan in November threatened to close down Gulenist cram schools, gloating that “they are going to lose $1 billion annual income,” a move parliament approved this month.
The massive corruption scandal that erupted in December was, most Turks believe, payback time.
Dozens of the premier’s political and business allies were detained. The allegations, backed by a spate of online leaks, ranged from bribery to gold smuggling and illicit trade with Iran.
Erdogan responded by purging thousands of police and prosecutors, while the government tightened controls over the judiciary and the Internet.
Gulen, who rarely gives interviews, charged in a comment piece in the Financial Times this month that “a small group within the government’s executive branch is holding to ransom the entire country’s progress”.
In the past week, the gloves truly came off, when a clandestine recording appeared on YouTube of a high-level security meeting debating possible military action in Syria.
The dust is unlikely to settle any time soon. With parliamentary and presidential elections on the horizon, Erdogan faces a long season of campaigning even after Sunday’s local elections, and rumous are flying of more leaks on the way. The battle for control in Turkey is far from over.