For over a month students in Turkey have been mounting protests at Bogazici University in Istanbul, one of the country’s most prestigious schools. They’re calling for the resignation of a new rector appointed at the beginning of January by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Support actions have spread to other universities and cities, such as Ankara, Izmir and Bursa, and stirred resistance to the government’s police-backed attacks on the students.
Working people near the Bogazici campus have joined students in banging pots and pans from their balconies at 9 p.m. daily, revealing a wider mood of discontent against the Erdogan regime.
For decades the university rector was chosen by an open election from within the campus. This was part of a broad tolerance of different political and religious opinions and affiliations there.
But this time Erdogan stepped in and appointed Melih Bulu, a failed mayoral candidate of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). Protests began almost immediately as people at Bulu’s installation ceremony Jan. 5 turned their backs on him.
To try to break up the protests, police began arrests, firing rubber bullets and tear gas and erecting barriers. Over 600 demonstrators have been detained since Feb. 1. But the unrest has continued.
A defiant Feb. 6 open letter by student protesters to the Turkish president read, “Do not mistake us for those who obey you unconditionally. You are not a sultan and we are not your subjects.”
Erdogan has smeared the demonstrators as “extremists” and “terrorists” in an effort to polarize the country against them. Taking advantage of an art exhibit on campus that included one piece showing flags supporting the rights of those who are gay, lesbian and transgender that his interior minister claimed insulted Islam, the cops went after members of the campus LGBTQ group. The regime’s goal was to try to divide students and alienate Muslim workers from the campus protests.
But many Muslim students opposed the arrests. Ece Sevik, a 21-year-old third year student, told the Financial Times that a wide range of students take part in the protests. “There are Muslims, atheists, conservatives, secularists,” she said. “People of all different views believe that the appointment of the rector was wrong.”
This is one of the most significant challenges the Erdogan regime has faced since widespread protests in 2013 brought up to 3 million people into the streets.
While his 18-year rule has been marked by a growing effort to position Ankara as a major Middle East player, with military interventions from Syria to Libya, a deepening crisis has made the regime less stable. The fallout from lockdowns during the coronavirus pandemic, rising living costs, unemployment reaching 25%, a plummeting value of the Turkish lira and continued oppression and attacks on the Kurdish people have devastated millions.