Old Demons in New Faces? The 'Deep State' Meets Erdoğan's 'New Turkey'

While this picture reinforces the sense that Turkey is returning to the dark days of the 1990s, there are two reasons why the country's current predicament is also different, and much more dangerous, than it was two decades ago.
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Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan delivers a speech during a meeting with village chiefs at the Presidential Palace in Ankara on October 19, 2015. AFP PHOTO / ADEM ALTAN (Photo credit should read ADEM ALTAN/AFP/Getty Images)
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan delivers a speech during a meeting with village chiefs at the Presidential Palace in Ankara on October 19, 2015. AFP PHOTO / ADEM ALTAN (Photo credit should read ADEM ALTAN/AFP/Getty Images)

2015-10-25-1445782208-345876-Police_action_during_protests_in_Ankara._Events_of_June_78_20132.jpg(Turkish police in Ankara during Gezi protests 2013./Wikimedia Commons)

One suicide bombing after another, Turkey's public is growing accustomed to images of carnage that no longer originate from Syria or Iraq, but from their own capital. The twin blasts that killed at least 102 people at a peace rally in Ankara on 10 October follow a string of deadly explosions in Suruç in July and Diyarbakır in June, and claim the unenviable title of being Turkey's deadliest terror attack from the Reyhanlı bombings of May 2013.

It is now well established that these attacks are linked with Turkey's disastrous involvement in the Syrian civil war. The Ankara and Suruç bombers were two brothers, who, like the perpetrator of the Diyarbakır attack, travelled to Syria to join ISIS and then returned to carry out atrocities against Kurds, non-Sunnis and socialists. The astonishing series of intelligence and security failures that have led to these attacks -- exposed despite the government's media ban by a handful of stubborn journalists, in particular in the daily Radikal -- has cast in a critical spotlight the state's ability or willingness to safeguard those citizens whom the government views as a threat to its rule.

Together with the escalating conflict in the Kurdish southeast, it has also given credence to suspicions that one of Turkey's old demons -- the so-called "deep state" -- has resurfaced, now in alliance with the country's beleaguered president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. It might be useful to retrace some of the critical twists and turns in Turkey's maze-like political history to assess the credibility of these fears.

A history of violence

The term "deep state" takes us back to the height of the conflict between the Turkish state and the Kurdish militant group PKK in the 1990s, when mysterious terror attacks or high profile assassinations sabotaged numerous ceasefires, dashed hopes for peace and triggered periods of fresh violence. It would later emerge that many of these acts were organized within the state in order to press on with a 'dirty war', which a shadowy network of lawmakers, bureaucrats and organized crime bosses profited from politically and economically.

In the course of that decade, ultra-nationalist assassination squads secretly recruited by the state's security apparatus kidnapped, tortured and executed thousands of Kurdish dissidents, including local politicians, activists, journalists and intellectuals. Although mass graves still emerge in the blood-drenched southeast of the country, many of the 'disappeared' are yet to be accounted for.

The 1990s is often labelled the "lost decade," but the history of state violence against citizens goes back a long way in Turkey. A century ago, the pan-Turkist junta controlling the Ottoman government enlisted the service of intelligence agents and Kurdish tribes to commit mass atrocities against Ottoman Armenians. It is no coincidence that some of the mass graves unearthed in the Kurdish provinces belong to Armenians killed in 1915-16.

(In a twisted way, nationalist propaganda in the 90s recognized this historical link, spreading rumors that the PKK was being run by Armenians, not Kurds. Ominously, Erdoğan and his supporters have been making frequent use of the same propaganda to rally nationalist Turks and conservative Kurds against the AKP's Kurdish opponents).

Squandered justice

In the early 2000s, as Turkey embarked upon liberalization reforms in pursuit of European Union membership, the 'deep state' became a topic of heated public discussion. From the annihilation of Anatolia's non-Muslim populations and the forced assimilation of Kurds and Alevis during the republic's foundational era, to the crimes committed by state agents which were then used as a pretext for military coups during the Cold War, the state's role in some of the darkest chapters of Turkey's modern history were scrutinized beyond the narrow confines of official historiography. At the time, it was then Prime Minister Erdoğan's Justice and Development Party (AKP) pushing the EU-backed reforms with the support of a liberal intelligentsia, against the will of the secular nationalist military and bureaucracy.

Between 2008 and 2011, a string of investigations and court cases were launched with the stated purpose of exposing and bringing to justice the criminal ultra-nationalist networks inside the state. Briefly raising hopes for such a catharsis, the first wave of arrests targeted notorious former members of the security establishment and ultra-nationalist mafia bosses with suspected links to the extra-judicial killings of the 1990s, as well as to more recent political assassinations, such as the murder of Turkish Armenian journalist Hrant Dink in 2007.

But the court cases, known as "Ergenekon" and "Balyoz," soon turned into show trials intended to quash any real or perceived opposition to the ruling Islamist coalition: the AKP and its former ally, the Hizmet movement of US-based cleric Fethullah Gülen. An entire generation of military officers of all ranks were rounded up, together with journalists and civil society activists, and handed lengthy prison sentences behind closed doors on the basis of flimsy or fabricated evidence.

A rare opportunity to face a troubled past and present was thus squandered in the hands of a group of men driven by power rather than a commitment to justice. In the process, the deep state started to sound more like a tall tale manufactured by the Islamists to wrest control of the state, rather than a historical reality Turkey had to confront.

A desperate new alliance

The course of the trials shifted drastically after the simmering power struggle between the two Islamist allies reached boiling point in December 2013. Pro-Gülen prosecutors and police officers -- the very same ones who had conducted the deep state investigations -- launched a high profile corruption probe against Erdoğan, his family and senior AKP figures. In response, Erdoğan's government initiated a massive purge of suspected Gülenists from the police and the judiciary.

Elected president in 2014, Erdoğan was eventually able to turn the tables against Gülen, but the infighting left him more deeply wounded, threatened and paranoid than ever. It also deprived him of a resourceful ally at a time when he had precious few, in or out of Turkey. In an attempt to tighten his tenuous grip over the state, he sought new allies and loyalists, which he seems to have found in the darker corners of the Turkish state.

Almost overnight, Erdoğan went from being the self-declared "prosecutor" of the "deep state" trials to arguing that his government had been tricked by the sinister "parallel organization," the Orwellian label he coined for the Gülen movement, which has since been used ubiquitously by pro-AKP media. Within weeks, retrial of all the cases had started. Since then all the verdicts have been overturned and every single suspect has been acquitted.

Old demons resurface

As the witch-hunt against the Gülenists intensified, the government started filling the ranks of the police force with religious-nationalist cadres ideologically closer to the far-right Nationalist Action Party (MHP). There are widespread rumors (which cannot be verified unless one has eyes and ears deep inside the state) that former security agents with involvement in the counter-guerrilla operations of the 90s have been active in the recruitment and organization of these cadres into paramilitary units.

The fragile peace process between the government and the PKK unravelled in the aftermath of this year's 7 June general elections, when the Kurds deserted the AKP en masse for the pro-Kurdish leftist Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP). The outcome of that poll denied the AKP the chance to form a single-party government for the first time in 13 years, and deprived Erdoğan of the chance to change the constitution and implement the powerful presidential system he has long wanted.

Instead of settling for a coalition government, in which the AKP could lose control of key ministries and agencies, the president opted to push the country into re-election under radically altered circumstances. The killing of 33 young socialists in Suruç on 20 July was followed by the mysterious murder of two police officers in Ceylanpınar, for which the PKK first claimed, then denied responsibility.

Either way, it soon became clear that some battle-hardened members of the PKK were also not too thrilled with the electoral success of the HDP. Reluctant to give up the leadership of the struggle to a bunch of young civilians untested on the battlefield, they responded to the government's provocations in kind. Within days, the country was at war again.

In the ensuing conflict, paramilitary police forces descended upon Kurdish towns and villages with tactics and cruelty all too familiar to those who lived through the 90s: killing squads driving unidentifiable vehicles in cities under curfew; children and the elderly shot by sniper fire; dead young Kurds being dragged behind armored police vehicles; the violated corpse of a female PKK fighter; fascist graffiti adorning the bullet-sprayed walls of besieged Kurdish towns...

In the polarizing environment of the conflict, shadowy ultra-nationalist figures have started featuring more prominently in everyday public life. A particularly controversial figure who has re-emerged as a die-hard supporter of President Erdoğan is the pan-Turkist mafia boss Sedat Peker. A convicted criminal who first rose to fame during the 90s, Peker initially received a 10-year prison sentence in the Ergenekon trial but walked free soon afterwards.

In recent months, he has been touring the country and attending various pro-government events and functions, at times flanked by government-provided security guards. In June, he was spotted chatting cordially with President Erdoğan at the wedding of an infamous AKP social media troll. His name was then linked to the beating up of columnist Ahmet Hakan, an outspoken critic of the president and the government, which has left Hakan with broken ribs and nose. (Peker has denied involvement in the attack).

One day before the Ankara bombing, Peker organized an "anti-terror" rally in Erdoğan's hometown of Rize, where he threatened the enemies of the state with "rivers of blood" before praising Erdoğan and asking the crowd to vote for the AKP in the upcoming election. The rally took place under tight police protection; a stark contrast with the demonstrations held by opposition parties, especially the HDP, where the police, if at all present, tend to be a source of insecurity rather than safety.

2015-10-25-1445779549-2433759-peker.jpg(Ultra-nationalist mafia boss Sedat Peker prepares to address his audience in Rize/DHA)

Is the worst yet to come?

While this picture reinforces the sense that Turkey is returning to the dark days of the 1990s, there are two reasons why the country's current predicament is also different, and much more dangerous, than it was two decades ago. The first is the environment of regional chaos and instability stemming from the Syrian civil war, which is unlike anything the Middle East has experienced since the fall of the Ottoman Empire a century ago. Turkey is caught in a vicious circle, whereby domestic tensions and polarization expose it to the most destructive dynamics of the Syrian conflict, which in turn further exacerbate these tensions and polarisations.

Secondly, perhaps for the first time in Turkey's recent history, the 'deep state' is not controlled by a tutelary actor, such as the military acting as the guardians of the Kemalist republic or as NATO's anti-communist bulwark, when it still functioned with a bureaucratic restraint and predictability, despite being incredibly ruthless. Instead, it is now associated with the country's (still) most popular, polarizing and unpredictable elected official, who is increasingly trapped in a 'fight or die' mentality.

With the help of a sycophantic media and a massive social media operation, Erdoğan has transformed many (though, crucially, not all) of his supporters into die-hard loyalists who are convinced that the downfall of the 'Great Master' (Büyük Usta) means the fall of the state, the nation and even the religion. His ever more aggressive, xenophobic and conspiratorial rhetoric has been exploiting Turkey's historic cleavages in ways that no leader before him has dared, with already disastrous consequences.

As a result, Turkey today is in uncharted waters. Its old demons have resurfaced in an environment of unprecedented volatility and polarization. Its already troubled parliamentary democracy has been rendered dysfunctional in the aftermath of the 7 June election. Erdoğan's refusal to accept results that are unfavorable to him or his party dims hopes for the restoration of democracy after the re-election on 1 November.

How to move back from the brinkWhatever the outcome of that election, it is imperative that voices of moderation and reconciliation on either side of the political divide and within every major political party come together to pull Turkey back from the brink of the abyss that has swallowed Syria and Iraq.

On this front, there is still hope: opinion polls show that Kurds have not given up on the promise of parliamentary democracy, now symbolized by the HDP, despite seeing their will ignored both by Erdoğan and the PKK. There is also a growing number of senior AKP figures marginalized over the past couple of years, who are utterly dismayed by the recent direction of the party and the country and may yet spearhead an alternative movement open to socio-political reconciliation.

Once the flag bearer of rigid authoritarian secularism, the CHP is much more inclusive and pluralistic today than it was a decade ago and may play a mediating role in formal or informal coalition scenarios. The far-right MHP, under its long-time leader Devlet Bahçeli, who has a habit of blocking every constructive proposal, looks rather hopeless, but should still be included in any reconciliation effort.

The first goal of such a coalition should be to elect a non-AKP speaker for the new parliament after 1 November. That would give the opposition a crucial leverage over setting the parliamentary agenda, which is now effectively hijacked by Erdoğan. He is likely to see such a move as another plot against him and resist in a familiar fashion. So be it. It is now 'fight or die' time for Turkey's democracy.

(A version of this article was published on OpenDemocracy.com on 23 October 2015)

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