Behind Bars in the Deep State

Does a shadowy mullah in Pennsylvania really hold the reins of power in Turkey? If not, then why are the country’s leaders so intent on silencing a single investigative journalist?

For many Turkish citizens, the evolution of their democracy is best discussed in whispers. Turkey has come far in recent years, but these days they prefer not to speak too loudly about where it is headed.

In the past two years, thousands of citizens who have voiced criticism of the government have been detained, usually led away by police in predawn raids on their homes. On Jan. 5, one of the country's most high-profile detainees, investigative journalist Ahmet Sik, testified in court for the first time to defend himself against charges of propagandizing for a shadowy pro-military conspiracy called Ergenekon, which allegedly plotted to overthrow the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

In his testimony, Sik mocked the evidence presented against him, which included transcripts of telephone conversations, published news articles, and the draft of his unfinished book, The Imam's Army, which aimed to expose the Islamist Fethullah Gulen movement's pervasive influence within the Turkish state.

"I am here today because of a politically-motivated trial, which is devoid of justice and law and which is conducted with falsified and fabricated documents," he said.

The charges against Sik appeared absurd from the start. He had dedicated much of his professional life to investigating the very structures Ergenekon represented, along with their various human rights abuses. According to those that support the government line, Ergenekon represents the military "deep state," which has served as the self-appointed guardian of Turkey's secular identity since the republic's founding. Democratically-elected governments that met with the military's disapproval were ousted from power in 1960, 1971, 1980, and 1997.

But it's not the military that has moved against Sik -- it's another, different deep state. The Imam's Army chronicles the rise of Fethullah Gulen, an aging cleric living in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania who has built up a powerful network that claims to operate thousands of schools in 140 countries. He calls for inter-faith dialogue and promotes the study of both science and religion in his classrooms. Supporters say the group is solely involved in fostering education and an ethic of public service throughout Turkey and the rest of the world. While the true reach of Gulen's network remains hard to quantify, his supporters flocked to Foreign Policy in 2008 to vote him as the top public intellectual of the year -- an open ballot in which over half a million votes were cast.

But Gulen hasn't just used his support network, known as the Cemaat (or "community") to tilt online polls -- his followers provide a key voter base for Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP) and have established themselves in top positions within Turkey's bureaucracy, police force, and judiciary. And as the Sik case shows, their influence appears to be one of the forces pushing Turkey in a less free direction.

In a nine-page, hand-written response to questions sent to him in jail, Sik said the Gulenists were a key driver behind the current crackdown. "What Nedim [Sener, another journalist on trial] and I experienced was meant to intimidate other people from the media who were opposed to the Cemaat," he wrote.

While Sik supported previous investigations into the Turkish military's covert influence over the country's civilian leadership, he said the Ergenekon trial -- which has seen the government push back against the armed services -- has become an "illusion" and an excuse for mass arrests.

"The Ergenekon investigations are the most important part of allowing the Cemaat to take power in the country," he wrote. "I must say that the deep state is still intact. Just the owner has changed. What I mean by this ownership ... is composed of the coalition of AKP and the Cemaat."

If the government's goal in arresting Sik was to squelch his research, it failed miserably. While Sik's book was initially banned, it was posted online soon after his arrest, most likely by friends who had copies of the unfinished manuscript. Later, it was published by a group of journalists and intellectuals under the title 000 Book -- the file name of one of the saved manuscripts of the book that police found on Sik's home computer. It currently has prominent placement in several bookstores along Istanbul's central Istiklal shopping street and at the city's airport.

The Gulenists were likely angered by Sik's reporting on how they intervened in multiple internal police investigations in order to keep their presence within the force under wraps, according to a friend of Sik's, journalist Ertugrul Mavioglu. Sik claims high-ranking members of the police force, both retired and active duty, as among his sources.  

The criticisms of Gulen, who preaches a moderate version of Islam, are not focused on his religiosity but rather on the movement's lack of transparency. The group has accrued a large degree of influence over Turkey's nominally secular government and society, and the AKP's own parliamentary deputies have confirmed that the party has links to the Gulenists. While nobody can pinpoint the precise scope of the Gulen movement's influence in Turkish society, its affiliation with several prominent media outlets, such as the newspaper Zaman and the Samanyolu Broadcasting Group, and its prominence in the Gulen-affiliated Turkish Confederation of Businessmen and Industrialists points to a highly organized, well-funded network.

"You can only make allegations and guesses about the institutionalization of the Cemaat within the state bureaucracy," Sik said. "Everybody should ask themselves, ‘Why such secrecy?' If their only aim is to provide charity works as they claim, why do they have to organize within the state? As you can see I am just asking."

Sik is far from the only victim of Turkey's runaway judiciary. Prosecutors moved on Jan. 9 to strip the country's main opposition leader of his parliamentary immunity so that he could face legal charges, and the former head of Turkey's armed forces, Ilker Basbug, was arrested on Jan. 5. And of course, dozens of journalists currently sit in Turkish jails, with the latest roundup coming only weeks ago.

The mass arrests are arguably the worst PR Turkey has faced in years, and the Sik case is a particularly nasty black mark on what has otherwise been a massively successful decade. Since the AKP came to power in 2002, it has been lauded for introducing political stability, reining in the country's once all-powerful military, and presiding over economic growth that is second only to China's among the G20. However, the growing crackdown suggests Turkey's golden age for freedom of speech may be coming to an end.  

"If Turkey wants to have international credibility and promote democracy in the region, it can't neglect the state of human rights at home," said Emma Sinclair-Webb, an Istanbul-based Turkey researcher at Human Rights Watch.

But the recent turmoil may be little more than a precursor to a larger political earthquake: a divorce between the Gulenists and the AKP.

"There was a marriage of convenience between the Gulenists and Erdogan because they shared the common goal of trying to demolish the old Kemalist regime," explained Gareth Jenkins, a Turkey expert and non-resident senior fellow at the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute of Johns Hopkins University. Now, with that job nearing completion, the relationship appears to be fraying.

The Gulenists and Erdogan differed recently over the response to military air strikes that killed 35 Kurdish civilians. Erdogan supported the military, while Gulen-affiliated media alleged that still untamed members of the deep state were trying to destabilize the country.

Last month, the two sides also clashed over a soccer match-fixing scandal involving top business interests within the country. Erdogan was pushing parliament for the amendment of lengthy sentences for those convicted in the scandal, while President Abdullah Gul -- who is considered closer to the Gulenists -- nearly succeeded in vetoing the legislation while Erdogan was convalescing after surgery.

If the partnership between Erdogan and Gulen is coming apart, it will be the end of a long relationship. Pictures show a younger Erdogan and Gulen, though their dates are difficult to verify. Turkish journalists who have investigated the movement, such as Mavioglu, said that at least one meeting took place between Erdogan and high-level Gulenists in Istanbul soon before the Ergenekon investigation began.

But with Erdogan only too aware of his own popularity and the power of the military quashed, a struggle for dominance has emerged within the alliance. Sik agreed with Jenkins that it would be the AKP that would have to rein in the Gulenists. "Erdogan saw what this uncontrolled power is capable of," he said. "Because there is no one left to struggle with, there will be a struggle in sharing power."

Jenkins said the tension is likely to intensify in the coming year, as Turkey begins writing a new constitution and Erdogan looks for a way to remain in power. AKP rules state that Erdogan cannot serve again as prime minister, and many analysts expect he will try to change Turkey to a presidential system of rule -- and then get himself elected president. "He has such control over the AKP that he can probably get them to draft a constitution along the ways that he wants it," Jenkins said

In this coming clash, it's remarkable how little even the most dedicated researchers understand about the Gulen movement. Sik himself admitted he did not have a clear grasp of its overall goal. He rejected the notion that the group is trying to establish an Islamic republic, making the point that any goal beyond seizing power was not very clear.

"'Something' has come to power in Turkey, but not sharia," he said in his letter. "I can't name that 'thing' properly."

What is clear is that the Gulenists are prepared to respond to those who ask uncomfortable questions with the same tools once wielded by the secretive military organizations that pulled the strings in decades past.

"You should obey or you should stay silent or you should go to jail," Sik said. "Yes, this is the new 'thing' that has come to power in Turkey."



Burning Our Heritage

Why is the Egyptian military letting our history go up in smoke?

CAIRO – On the evening of Saturday, Dec. 17, while thousands of protesters confronted military police in downtown Cairo, I stood watching a valuable piece of Egypt's cultural heritage go up in smoke. As Molotov cocktails and bullets flew around the cabinet building, where the clashes were concentrated, the nearby Egyptian Scientific Institute, a decrepit and neglected old building full of rare books and valuable manuscripts, had caught fire. I cried in disbelief. What had brought me -- and Egypt -- to this point?

I had not come back home to witness such sights. In early December, I took a break from my graduate studies in Australia to return to Cairo and vote for the first time in my life. I proudly cast ballots on Thursday, Dec. 15, for the candidates I thought would best represent me in post-revolutionary Egypt's first parliament. Then, the next day, I woke up to news of renewed clashes between soldiers and protesters staging a sit-in in front of the Egyptian cabinet to pressure the new government formed by Prime Minister Kamal Ganzouri to fulfill their growing list of demands. The army, in a surprise early morning attack, had swooped in on the protesters, attacking them brutally with rocks, batons, and live bullets to force them to leave the street. Qasr al-Aini Street and the cabinet building had become a war zone of broken glass, strewn rocks, blood, and smoke.

I joined the protest at noon, right after I heard that there were clashes, not only to show solidarity with my fellow Egyptians against the brutality of the security forces but also to document the events via my Twitter account, where I posted photos and live-streamed videos that offered clear proof of the army's attack on civilians.

There was a rhythm to the clashes. Protesters would press forward in the street in front of the cabinet building, only to be pushed back by the army and plainclothes policemen. At around noon, we noticed large rocks and furniture falling on our heads -- only to realize, to our horror, that policemen and soldiers were hurling the objects at us from the cabinet's roof, making each projectile as deadly as a bullet. Later that evening, the army fired live ammunition at the protesters, possibly as a reaction to the protesters' use of Molotov cocktails. The plain-clothed police and army then started throwing Molotovs themselves. Many people were fatally hurt, including a Emad Effat, a senior cleric from al-Azhar University who died from a gunshot wound to the heart. Over the next few days, more than 15 martyrs would lose their lives.

It was on the next day, Dec. 17, as violence once again erupted near the cabinet, that the Egyptian Scientific Institute building -- set up in 1798 at the request of Napoleon Bonaparte --  was set ablaze. Bonaparte had established the institution only two months after landing at Alexandria, modelling it after the Institute de France in Paris and tasking it with the "research, study, and publication of physical, industrial and historical facts about Egypt," according to the Scholarly Societies Project. Since then, the institute has housed many cultural treasures that document the country's rich history. Its library boasted a collection of 192,000 books, journals, and manuscripts, some dating back before the early 19th century. Amongst its prized collection was a copy of the famous "Description de l'Égypte," the handwritten and bound volumes created during Bonaparte's time in Egypt.

On Saturday, the building burned for hours before firemen finally arrived. As the fighting continued around us, we ran into the institute to save whatever books we could find. We were able to protect some books and journals, some dating from the early 1800s.

Dodging falling chunks of roof, we left the smouldering building with our arms piled high with books, only to get pelted with rocks and glass by policemen and hired thugs standing on the roof of the building next door. While firemen ultimately managed to contain the fire, the water that they used destroyed many of the remaining books -- turning invaluable scientific relics into nothing but charred fossils.

Those books we were able to save, we handed to the army unit that was blocking Sheikh Raihan Street. The irony of handing the books to the army while uniformed soldiers and plainclothes police continued their attack on us from the adjacent roof was lost on nobody.

Egypt lost much more than a building that night. "Description de l'Égypte" was destroyed, along with many other rare manuscripts, including historical maps used to delineate Egypt's border and an original map that played an important role in Israel's withdrawal from Taba in 1989. Since then, volunteers have been working to try to repair and preserve the volumes and documents that were saved. The historic building itself was completely burned and its roof had fully collapsed by the next day.

Who is to blame? There are many contradicting reports. Some say that a protester aiming to throw a Molotov cocktail at the army to resist their brutal attack missed his target and hit the institute instead. Other reports say that hired thugs intentionally set the building on fire to discredit the protesters, bringing back memories of the Great Cairo Fire of 1952 and the conspiracy theories behind it. The official government narrative on state television was that unnamed baltagiya (thugs) had set the building on fire and looted it. Only independent Egyptian TV stations told the real story of us rescuing the institute's treasures, and the New York Times ran a blog post with a photo of me saving some of the ancient books.

Regardless of who lit the fire, it is clear that the only people to gain from this shameful disaster are the elements of the old regime who benefit from this state of chaos and anarchy, which is slowly but surely chipping away public support for the protesters, who were once depicted as heroes but are now increasingly portrayed as thugs and vandals seeking to destroy and destabilize Egypt.

Ultimately, I believe that the blame falls squarely on the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) as the de facto ruling body in Egypt. According to Article 6 of the UNESCO declaration concerning the intentional destruction of cultural heritage, "A State that intentionally destroys or intentionally fails to take appropriate measures to prohibit, prevent, stop, and punish any intentional destruction of cultural heritage of great importance for humanity, whether or not it is inscribed on a list maintained by UNESCO or another international organization, bears the responsibility for such destruction, to the extent provided for by international law." In other words, regardless of how the fire started, under international law, the Egyptian state, personified by the SCAF, is responsible for this destruction.

The immolation of Egypt's cultural heritage is not without precedent. During Hosni Mubarak's time, there were several similar incidents, including a mysterious fire that destroyed a large part of the Shura Council building housing Egypt's 200-year-old legislative body. In another incident, vandals destroyed and looted several objects from the Egyptian Museum during the revolution itself on Jan. 30. Protesters formed a human shield around the museum while Egyptian authorities initially did nothing.

The truth is that the SCAF cannot be trusted with our heritage. The military's response to the fire is a classic example. The fire brigade was sent to the institute hours late, and the firemen, in their attempt to control the raging fire, destroyed more of the books and manuscripts. Meanwhile, the army continued its attacks on the protesters even as they sought to salvage part of Egypt's heritage.

Since the carnage that happened in December, the SCAF has been busy trying to pit the blame on anyone but itself. The military arrested 73 minors, prompting calls from UNICEF to demand protection for Egypt's children. A Muslim cleric and a prominent activist were summoned to the police and questioned about their role in the violence. Even former presidential hopeful Ayman Nour was summoned and questioned about his alleged role. The SCAF has consistently fostered  conspiracy theories in attempting to explain all clashes that have happened, without presenting credible evidence of the "hidden hands" constantly blamed for the violence in the official narrative.

The Jan. 25th revolution brought out the best in the Egyptian people, and it continues to do so. Unfortunately, however, it has also brought out some of the worst in people, manifested in part by the continued damage inflicted on our 7,000-year-old culture. We owe it to future generations of Egyptians to preserve and maintain this heritage, and we have failed to do so to date. I pray that we do not fail again.