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Erdogan: 'May God Forgive Us!' -- But Will Turkey?

An Ergenekon prisoner being driven in a police armoured vehicle waves at protesters in August 2013 as police and gendarmerie block access to a courthouse in Silivri, near Istanbul.
An Ergenekon prisoner being driven in a police armoured vehicle waves at protesters in August 2013 as police and gendarmerie block access to a courthouse in Silivri, near Istanbul.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, talking about U.S.-based Turkish preacher Fethullah Gulen, whom he calls the "mastermind" of the July 15 coup attempt against him, said: "Unfortunately, we have made serious mistakes [in the past on Gulen.] May God forgive us!"

And he added, "If you had told me that 20 years ago, 10, three, or four years ago, even I wouldn't believe it."

Well, he should know. In those years he was a powerful prime minister running the government himself.

Outsiders may not understand what he meant by "mistakes in the past." Erdogan was referring to the period at least from the time he came to power in 2002 to 2013, when they were close allies fighting Turkey's old secular, republican system with its strong military.

The peak of this dangerous and destructive alliance was when a group of newly recruited prosecutors and judges led a number of sensational, high-profile trials against more than 750 leading military officers, justice-system employees, journalists, and lawmakers. They were accused of creating a clandestine criminal group called "Ergenekon," which in Turkey is now a synonym for Turkish-style Stalinist show trials. The defendants were accused of an armed coup attempt by the army against..., against whom? Against then-Prime Minister Erdogan and the government of his ruling Justice and Development Party.

The alleged "plotters" were mostly traditional Turkish secularists critical of the Erdogan government out of fear that it would derail the country from its secular path onto a "hidden Islamism." Generals, prosecutors, prominent journalists, and politicians were taken away in shame, held in detention for years without any -- or as it turned out -- on fake and fabricated evidence.

That strongly supported Erdogan in an overwhelmingly secular government environment in the late 2000s. To some, it even guaranteed Erdogan's hold on power when his political career was on the balance in cases raised by the country's Constitutional Court.

But in a few years two things became clear: 1) the trials were based on fake documents and imaginary claims, and 2) the prosecutors and judges who ran the show trials were Gulen supporters implanted with the Erdogan government's support or at least tolerance just a few years back into the judiciary and military.

Finally, in April this year, Turkey's highest appeals court ruled that those show trials' verdicts will be overturned since there was no "criminal group called Ergenekon" to undertake that coup attempt in the first place.

In 2010, Erdogan started himself to act against the Gulen movement's dangerously growing power. From 2013 on, he began to clean Gulen supporters out of the government, military, and media.

Meanwhile, the strongman president of Turkey preferred not to comment on the Ergenekon show trials, its victims, and the damage done to the country's military and state system. "The judiciary is independent in Turkey," he used to say. "We prefer not to comment in order not to influence the courts' decisions."

That is why, on a different occasion, complaining again about his former ally, Erdogan said, "What did they [Gulenists] ask for that we didn't give them?"

Today, more than two weeks since the coup attempt, it has been reported that at least 60 percent of the military's generals and admirals have been fired for allegiance with the Gulen movement. "The Turkish military is now a broken force and it will take years for it to heal," Aaron Stein of the Washington-based Atlantic Council told Reuters. Many of the high-ranking officers of the recent coup attempt are reported to be recruits of Gulenists in the army over the last 20 years.

Nobody knows if God will forgive Erdogan. But people will remember Gulen's orchestrated Ergenekon trials for years to come -- something that first helped Erdogan establish his unchallenged rule and then pulled the entire country into the July coup attempt.