Turkish Student Protest Over Rector Becomes Wider Struggle for Freedom

The mass protests by students against a politically appointed rector in an Istanbul university have turned into a broader battle for democracy and the rights that the government has taken away.

Kudret Cetinkaya, a 21-year-old student in Istanbul, experienced brutal intervention by the Turkish police against this week’s mass student protests in Istanbul.

Despite that, like many of her fellow students, she is not giving up. “We will never ever give up; these rectors will go and we will prevail,” she told BIRN over a friend’s phone; the police confiscated her own phone when they took her into custody earlier this week.

Cetinkaya is one of thousands of students, primarily in Istanbul but also in other cities, who joined the mass protests this week – despite the heavy-handed police intervention and edicts banning any social gatherings.

The original cause of the rallies was the government’s appointment of a rector at Turkey’s prestigious Bogazici University in Istanbul, which is nicknamed the “Turkish Harvard”.

Following the police intervention, however, it has turned into a wider student-led revolt against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s harsh government and his crackdown on universities.

The government, and its allies, has inflamed the situation further, branding the protesters “terrorists” and “fascists”, and accusing them of causing “anarchy”.

President Erdogan waded into the row himself on Friday, saying the real target was not the new rector but his own government.

“They say the rector should resign; if they are brave enough, they would say the President should resign, too,” Erdogan said.

“They will not be successful. There will not be no second Gezi Park protest,” he added, recalling the first mass street protests in 2013 against his rule.

Undaunted, following Erdogan’s statements, some students have started a social media campaign with the hashtags: “We are brave” and “Resignation of president”.

Police detained hundreds of students during the week, and more detentions are still being carried out in Istanbul and other cities.

Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu has vowed to stop the students in their tracks. “I would not allow it [removal of the contentious rector] even if Bogaziçi University were to be set in uproar; if the whole of Turkey was in uproar,” he said.

“Let’s stop pretending that this is about freedom of expression and the right to peaceful protest.” Fahrettin Altun, head of communications at the state presidency, said in a video released by the presidency on Thursday.

According to Altun, Bogazici has become a hotbed of radicalisation from which students have joined terrorist organisations.

The students detained or dispersed by the police deny these claims and say that they will continue their protests until all government-appointed rectors resign.

Political interference kicks off disturbances

Cetinkaya has been detained by police not once but twice. “I was detained by police a month ago in my house when the protests started and again this week in front of Bogazici University. Detentions and arrests cannot stop us,” Cetinkaya said.

For a month, both students and academics at Bogazici University have been demonstrating against the appointment of Melih Bulu, who was given the post of rector on January 1 by President Erdogan.

They want the rector to resign and demand the right to elect their own rector.

In the clampdown that followed a failed coup attempt in 2016, the government cancelled rectoral elections by presidential decree.

Erdogan has since appointed college rectors himself. Critics say he is trying to control academia and stifle critical voices in it as part of a broader repressive policy.

Tension rose further this week when his Islamist government alleged that demonstrating students had insulted Islam at a protest at the Bogazici University campus.

Four students were detained for allegedly displaying an LGBT rainbow flag next to a picture at an exhibition of the Islamic holy site in Mecca. Two of them have been charged.

In a post on Twitter, Interior Minister Soylu launched into a homophobic attack. “We will not tolerate the LGBT perverts who insulted the Kaaba [an holy site in Mecca].”

Twitter later flagged the post as violating its policies on “hateful conduct”.

Critics say President Erdogan’s government uses protests as a tool to polarise society even further.

By doing so, they say, Erdogan hopes to consolidate his electoral base, which has decreased because of the effects of the pandemic, almost never-ending political crises at home and abroad and deepening economic crisis as well.

“We want to study in more democratic conditions and administrate our universities together. This is not only a university issue anymore,” Cetinkaya said.

Sevin Ulusoy, a 21-year-old student at Yıldız Technical University who was detained by police this week, agrees. She says the government links everyone who does not think like them to terrorist organisations.

“Mentioning every dissident [in connection] with terrorist organisations is the new normal in Turkey.

“Students, businesspeople, workers, teachers, lawyers and doctors are all labelled ‘terrorists’ if they do not suit the government,” Ulusoy added.

A wider struggle for academic freedom

A student leader at Bogazici University told BIRN under condition of anonymity that the protests were not only over their politically appointed rector.

“This problem is a problem of academic freedom and independence. It includes not only Bogazici but all other universities,” he said.

“Our prime aim now with these protests to see all our detained and arrested friends released, and we will not stop until all the appointed rectors resign,” he added.

But the new rector, Bulu, has no intention of resigning. “Becoming rector at Bogazici University is my 22-year-old dream. I will not consider resigning,” he told reporters on Wednesday.

Ege Sengezgin, a 22-year-old student at Bogazici, also doubts that the rector will resign of his own free will.

“This would not be his decision. This decision should come from a higher place [meaning President Erdogan],” Sensezgin told BIRN.

Police detained Sensezgin when they raided the university campus on the invitation of the new rector on Monday.

“The police at first did not allow us to leave the campus. When we started a sit-down strike in front of the rectorate, they entered the campus and detained me and many others,” Sensezgin said.

The government and its appointed rector claimed the students aimed to invade the rectorate, but the students deny it.

“We never attempted to invade the rectorate and we never had any plans to do so. We were waiting for the rector to come outside and talk to us, like he did before,” Sensezgin said.

Sensezgin was held in police custody for three days and released by the courts on Thursday.

But he still has to go to a police station every week to give his signature, and is banned from foreign travel, like many of the other protesters.

“We simply want democracy. We demand our fundamental rights of peacefully protest and academic freedoms,” he told BIRN.

“As long as despotic responses and interventions to these kinds of peaceful demands continue, protests will continue as well,” he concluded.

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