The High Stakes of Turkey’s University Protests

The Erdogan regime has gotten used to controlling the country’s social institutions, but university students have had enough.

Turkish plain clothed police officers hold a group of protesters during a demonstration in support of Bogazici University students in front of Istanbul's courthouse, on Feb. 11.
Turkish plain clothed police officers hold a group of protesters during a demonstration in support of Bogazici University students in front of Istanbul's courthouse, on Feb. 11. OZAN KOSE/AFP via Getty Images

ISTANBUL—What began last month as a protest against a controversial administrative appointment at one of Turkey’s most prestigious universities has quickly spiraled into police violence, arrests—and a serious threat to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s regime. Students at Bogazici University are pushing back against Erdogan’s intrusion on campus but also connecting their plight to the overall disintegration of democratic norms in the country.

Since the 2016 failed coup attempt, Erdogan’s increasing number of appointments of a kayyum, or trustee, to municipalities and companies across the country challenge alternative sources of influence. Students liken Melih Bulu, the newly appointed rector of Bogazici University, to a government kayyum. “If even one kayyum can be fought against, then all kayyums can be fought against,” student and protester Berkehan Davran said.

After the new year, Erdogan appointed Bulu, a former mayoral hopeful from Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), as Bogazici University’s new rector by decree in the middle of the night. The appointment broke with a long-standing tradition of electing rectors from within the university. Students and alumni saw the installation of a rector from outside of Bogazici as another intrusion in a series of governmental encroachments on academic freedom.

Students began protesting on Jan. 4. Local news reported that police carried out home raids in response, detaining students in the early hours of Jan. 5. A few hours later, academics on campus silently protested the appointment at Bulu’s handover ceremony by turning their backs on him. Protests continued through Jan. On Feb. 1, police detained 159 students, all of whom were released by Feb. 4. Peaceful protests followed quickly.. In another midnight move that day, Erdogan announced the opening of two new faculties at the university. Protesters believed this was an attempt to further cement his efforts to appoint pro-AKP faculty members.

The protests have dominated Turkish media for more than a month now. As police detain, tear gas, and harass students, the stunned public response and the intransigence of Erdogan’s government evoke the 2013 Gezi Park protests, when a small group of environmentalists organized a sit-in against the destruction of a park that was supposed to make way for a new shopping mall in a central district of Istanbul. The demonstration snowballed into countrywide protests against the government. Ultimately, the protests forced the usually unrelenting Erdogan to pull the redevelopment plan. The trigger for grabbing nationwide attention then, as it is now, was police brutality.

Today’s students reference the 2013 protest in their slogans. Davran joked about Gezi’s imprint on Turkish political life: “Both the people who are denouncing Gezi and who are supporting Gezi all call everything Gezi.”

Recently, supporters of the Bogazici protests renewed one of Gezi’s tactics: banging pots and pans at 9 p.m. In her newspaper column, pro-government journalist Nagehan Alci wrote, “It is 21 o’clock and as I was writing this article, the sounds of pots and pans started to come from the outside. Are these the footsteps of a second Gezi?”

The similarities are indeed striking. A group of young people from disparate political and cultural backgrounds are again standing together against an unpopular and controversial decision by the head of state. Erdogan and his ministers have again tried to discredit the protesters, not by responding to their concerns but by smearing them. Such divisive rhetoric has again been magnified by the press held tightly under government control, which allows the government to rally support from its voter base.

The differences, however, are instructive. The journalist Gurkan Ozturan covers the Bogazici protests for the independent news site Dokuz8. Ozturan considers the protests to be a “step forward” from Gezi, in part because the opposition parties that failed protesters then have yet to articulate real challenges to Erdogan. Protester and fourth-year history student Baran Deniz Bagatur agreed that the protests are not a second installment of Gezi. He believes today’s protesters are trying to be more clearly defined in their goals. “Our will is not to overthrow some president. We just want to elect our rector.” Still, it is clear to Bagatur that these months will have lasting political effects: “In the next election, I think people will remember Bogazici University and the protests.”

The major political leaders have already voiced their support or condemnation. Alongside the opposition leader’s tepid call for the rector’s resignation, Democracy and Progress Party member Oguzhan Aygoren, who is part of an oppositional offshoot of the ruling AKP, refused to support the rector. The students want real backing from politicians, not weak statements. Bagatur said: “We just need solidarity. We will protest peacefully. We want the opposition to support us peacefully.”

The increasing number of protests outside the university validate Bagatur’s belief in their wide-reaching effects. Demonstrations are now in other areas of Istanbul and even in other cities. Meanwhile, the deputy interior minister released a statement warning the students against testing the power of the Turkish state. Coming to the government’s aid was the head of Turkey’s Radio and Television Supreme Council, who said: “We’re closely following programs about the provocative events at Bogazici University. We’re determined to disallow broadcasts opposing our state and our people.” The implied connection between the protesters and those opposing the state is clear.

Participants and supporters of the protest frequently mention the culture of Bogazici. Ozturan, himself an alumnus, said, “You cannot find two Bogazici students agreeing with each other on every topic 100 percent. This is the one thing that has unified them.” Graduate student Zeliha Cenkci said the university “was a safe place where I could find peace, helping me escape from day-to-day politics and the pressure of the collapsing economy.” Students say they are fighting for the long-held culture of freedom and democracy on the campus where varying and clashing opinions find equal voice and respect.

After the protests began, the interior minister insulted students from the university’s LGBTQ club. Using a piece of art exhibited on campus that allegedly denigrated the Kaaba as an excuse, the police detained LGBTQ protesters. Religious students were quick to respond on social media with support for their arrested friends.

“The government thinks that the religion Islam is owned by them,” Bagatur said. But the protesters have made clear their coalition is diverse. They further push back on the idea that Muslims and LGBTQ individuals hold necessarily separate identities. According to Davran, the government is “trying to force this fight between two groups or whatever. The people we have with us at the protests, they are those that are Muslims, those that are LGBTI+, and those that are both.”

The extreme decision to appoint an outsider to the position was not the first time the government tried to tinker with Bogazici’s rector. In 2008, the then-president and founding AKP member Abdullah Gul tried to appoint Ayse Soysal, who came second in the elections for rector. Soysal rejected the decision, citing Bogazici’s traditions. In 2016, Erdogan appointed Mehmed Ozkan rector, overriding the election winner’s 86 percent of the vote. Ozkan was not even nominated. Ozturan connects the current protests to 2016, when student clubs decided to hold unofficial events only, bypassing the “trustee” rector’s approval or rejection.

Following another midnight decree by Erdogan to open a Department of Law and a Department of Communication at Bogazici—ironic considering the allegedly unlawful arrests and miscommunication at the protests—students released a defiant open letter to the president last weekend     : “Do not confuse us with those who obey you unconditionally. You are not a sultan, and we are not subjects.” The creation of two new faculties is seen as the president’s “Trojan horse” attempt at taking control of the university’s academic independence. Bulu immediately welcomed the decree. With the faculty unified against him, the new rector needs incoming colleagues to tilt the balance in his favor. According to Bagatur, “By opening them [new departments], they have a chance to once again appoint professors to abolish the university.” Similar to Erdogan’s recent announcement that he would draft a new constitution, the move is likely to increase his power. It remains to be seen whether a new Department of Law at a prestigious institution will aid Erdogan’s latest maneuver.

Though the rector expects the protests to fizzle out in six months, the students are determined to fight on. With Erdogan’s consolidation of power, they face similar challenges to freedoms and democracy beyond the gates of Bogazici. Of the protests and coming years, Cenkci said, “This struggle is not the first; it will not be the last.”

Clare Busch is a freelance journalist.

Merve Pehlivan is a writer, translator and interpreter based in Istanbul, Turkey.

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