Erdogan's Ongoing Purges Hasten the Decline of Turkey's Secular Establishment

The speed of arrests suggests that the government is targeting not only those who were involved in the coup, but also those on lists which were prepared beforehand.

Turkish police officers operate in front of the courthouse in Ankara, July 18, 2016.
Ilyas Akengin, AFP

ISTANBUL - Two armored vehicles, carrying heavy machine guns emblazoned with the badge of Turkey’s police special forces, were standing Monday morning at the entrance to the Turkish Air Force academy, near Ataturk airport in western Istanbul. On the third day after the failed coup against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the purge of those suspected of involvement in the coup, as well as the mass arrests of officers, is ongoing. At the center of the coup was the air force, whose F-16 fighter jets locked their radar on the executive jet flying Erdogan back to Istanbul in the early hours of Saturday morning. In addition to the arrests of thousands of military personnel and jurists, thousands of police officers and civil servants were also fired.

The commander of the academy, General Fethi Alpay, was arrested on Sunday at Istanbul's other airport, along with seven other generals trying to flee the city. Four more officers at the academy were arrested Sunday night, and members of Turkey’s intelligence service arrived at the academy in the morning with lists of additional suspects. To prevent anyone from leaving the compound, sanitation vehicles from the Istanbul municipality, which was once headed by Erdogan, were brought to block the gates. Young conscripts were forbidden from leaving and the weapons were taken from the guards at the gate. Special forces guard the gate with automatic weapons and flak jackets.

There is an aspect of media theater to the arrest operation. The police vehicles parked under the ceremonial archway with its iron eagle, symbolizing the once-great air force, are themselves a symbol of the rising power in Turkey. All the while, proceedings are being broadcast by state television loyal to Erdogan's ruling Justice and Development Party.

This isn’t about arresting suspects of treason or even just “cleaning the virus” of Muslim cleric Fethulla Gulen's supporters, as the president himself described it. There is a clear process of removing the army from the privileged status it enjoyed in Turkish society for so many decades. On Sunday, all the mosques across Turkey were directed to broadcast a prayer usually said in memory of soldiers killed during war from their loudspeakers. This time, however, it was said for those who had been killed by soldiers during the short-lived coup. “They have rifles and tanks, we have faith” said Erdogan at one of funerals.

Two women attend a pro-government demonstration outside the city hall in Istanbul, July 17, 2016.
Aris Messinis, AFP

According to various reports, over three thousand officers and soldiers have been arrested over the past three days, including a hundred officers with the rank of general or admiral. Some of those arrested were paraded in front of the cameras, but most were stripped to their underpants and herded together, handcuffed, into gymnasiums. In addition, over 2,700 judges and prosecutors have arrested, including 148 out of the 387 court of appeals judges and 48 senior judges of the State Council, Turkey’s supreme court for administrative affairs. The arrests are due to suspicion of loyalty to the Gulenist movement but are also part of the continued weakening of Turkey’s secular establishment.

The purges widened on Monday with the suspension of over eight thousand police officers across the country and senior officials at the Ministery of Interior, including 29 town governors and one district governor. The Gulenists are reported to have made significant inroads on the police force, subsidizing kindergartens and schools for their children in the past. Further purges of the public sector are to be expected — on Monday, the government forbade all state employees from leaving Turkey’s borders.

The crackdown has also reached independent websites. Twenty have been ordered to shut down by the government and the struggling independent Turkish media is bracing for another round of arrests of journalists.

The speed and efficiency of the arrests and firings suggests that they are targeting not only those who were involved in the coup, but also those on lists of suspects which were prepared beforehand. This has fed rumors and conspiracy theories that the coup was “staged,” as Gulen himself claimed on Saturday in a rare interview from his place of exile in Philadelphia, or at the very least, that the government know of it in advance and allowed it to go ahead for the opportunity to carry out the long-planned purges. Whether or not there is any truth to these rumors, it is clear that the mass arrests and firings show the level of suspicion that existed within Erdogan’s circle long before the coup, and prove that it was justified.