Erdogan’s Attack On Student Protesters Hurts Turkey


In Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s sustained assault on Turkey’s universities, he has dismissed thousands of academics and encountered little pushback, at home or from abroad. That may explain his government’s latest ham-fisted, at times hysterical, response to the first serious resistance the president has faced since 2016. 

Not that it has made much difference. Despite mass arrests and heavy-handed police tactics, the faculty and students of Bogazici University in Istanbul are now into a second month of intense protests against Erdogan’s appointment of a businessman known for ties to his conservative AK Party as their rector. 

Since Bogazici is one of Turkey’s top universities, with the most prominent profile outside the country, the protests have inevitably attracted international attention. Such scrutiny bodes ill for Erdogan’s ambition of attracting more students to Turkey. Intervening in a university known for its STEM programs is hard to square with the president’s stated goal of making his country “a center of attraction for all the scientists in the world.”

This is the second time Bogazici University has been at the center of controversy over an Erdogan appointee. There were rumblings of discontent in 2016 when the president named Mehmed Ozkan, whose sister was a Justice and Development Party (or AK Party) member of parliament, to the rector post. The president had only just assumed sweeping powers over academia, and was determined to purge its ranks of critics and those suspected of collusion with, or sympathy for, a failed coup attempt

But Ozkan was a bona fide Bogazici professor. The new man, Melih Bulu, is an outsider who’s been dogged by accusations of plagiarism in his doctoral dissertation and essays. (He has denied these, saying he had sometimes forgotten to use quotation marks for attribution.)

Protesting students and faculty fear that Bulu will impose the AK Party’s conservative ethos on the university’s liberal culture. They worry, too, about the impact on Bogazici’s international standing.

Although the students have held firm in their defiance of Bulu’s Jan. 1 appointment, the response from the government, the ruling party and its allies has grown more desperate.

The first line of attack was to portray the protesters as spoiled rich kids determined to preserve their elite privileges. This was never going to get much traction, as students are selected on the basis of a national exam and pay no fees. For many, the university is a ladder to escape an underprivileged background, since a Bogazici degree provides a significant leg up in the job market.

Next, some protesters were depicted as sexual deviants and anti-Muslim — an especially damning characterization among the conservative support base of Erdogan’s Islamist party. LGBT students are among the demonstrators, and a poster showing the rainbow flag in Islam’s most sacred site, the Kaaba in Mecca, sparked government outrage and the arrest of two students. Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu tweeted that “LGBT perverts” had been detained for “disrespecting the Kaaba.” (Twitter Inc. placed a disclaimer on the tweet, saying it violated its rules about hateful conduct.)

Not to be outdone, Fahrettin Altun, Erdogan’s communications director, accused the protesters of “coup-mongering.” And for good measure, Erdogan himself claimed that “terrorists” were involved in the protests and pledged that the government will do “whatever is necessary” to end the unrest.

The overheated response is unlikely to find much purchase among the protesters, and more generally among young Turks. Erdogan has been the dominant political figure of their lifetime — and the man most responsible for the economic decline that, along with the coronavirus pandemic, has pushed youth unemployment to 24%. The president’s popularity with young voters has been waning for years, even among those who identify as conservative. 

The next turn in the Bogazici affair may be determined by how young Turks elsewhere react to the government’s attacks on the Bogazici campus. Although the protesters have mounted successful social-media campaigns, they have not yet been able to motivate student bodies at other schools to join en masse in the demonstration of discontent. Opposition parties have been supportive, but cautious. This could change if the Bogazici students and faculty, taking heart from the government’s panicky response, persist in their defiance. 

Arguably, it is Erdogan who faces the greater challenge: How to end the crisis without further damaging Turkey’s academic reputation and further alienating young Turks. Never a man to gracefully back down, the president might only do himself, his party and his country harm. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Bobby Ghosh is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He writes on foreign affairs, with a special focus on the Middle East and Africa.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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