Resistance on the Bosphorus

Resistance on the Bosphorus

Erdoğan’s rector appointment to Boğaziçi University[1] using state of emergency decree-law triggered a massive resistance. The government did not anticipate such an opposition. Erdoğan had also made the previous appointment, by-passing the elections, choosing a name (Mehmed Özkan) that was deemed to be close to the government. Again this was met with protests, but they died out with time, and the appointed rector was tolerated as he was an insider to the university. This time Erdoğan went a step further and appointed Melih Bulu, who was not a member of the university, who had a shady academic career, and was a candidate in the primaries of the ruling party AKP in the 2015 elections. Even though he would not (be able to) become a member of the parliament from AKP, he assumed a more critical political responsibility by being the founding rector of Istinye University, belonging to the 21st Century Anatolia Foundation directly linked to AKP. In addition to his practice as a rector of Istinye University, his experience in the despotic regime’s beloved weapons manufacture company FMC-Nurol/FNSS (one of Erdoğan’s so-called “native and national” companies, this one taking part in joint projects with the British weapons manufacture monopoly BAE Systems) seems to have been influential in his most recent appointment. Melih Bulu has stronger ties with the despotic regime than just his AKP candidacy.

Boğaziçi University students, faculty, and administrative staff defiantly called this appointee an “administrator” in reference to the government-appointed administrators in place of the elected mayors in Kurdish regions. Erdoğan and his despotic regime, as per the general character of repressive governments, strive to conquer if possible or otherwise eliminate all institutions which develop opposition and resistance to repression. The municipalities became a target of despotism because they belonged to HDP, the Kurdish dominated party. Not only the municipalities but bar associations, the chamber of doctors are targeted, and the chamber of engineers and opposition trade unions are under severe oppression. Furthermore, Erdoğan even mingles in the internal affairs of bourgeois opposition parties such as CHP, IYIP, and Saadet, as exemplified in his recent declaration: “we will bring in a native and national opposition to this country.” Universities have long been in the crosshairs of the despotic regime in this environment.

Despotism’s conquest of Boğaziçi

Even the Council of Higher Education (YOK), founded by the 12 September military dictatorship against university autonomy, is now being sidelined by the government in an effort to control the universities directly. Many universities are already shackled in this way. New universities popping up everywhere are set up to serve as appendages of the government in the academic sphere from the start. Yet Boğaziçi University stood among the few examples as an institution that the government could not directly bring under its control. Even the previous rector appointed by Erdoğan without taking part in the elections could not perform to Erdoğan’s satisfaction. For example, when most universities were busy doing purges in their academic and administrative personnel using state of emergency decree-laws issued after the failed coup of 2016, Boğaziçi university stood apart from this process. When the campuses of even the most established universities turned into police stations, it was still a “big deal” for the police to enter the Boğaziçi University campus. Faculties and departments retained their de-facto autonomy. Here, an officer directly under the command of Erdoğan’s party hierarchy was needed. Melih Bulu, with his résumé containing AKP candidacy, was chosen as the most appropriate candidate for the rectorship post that was not to be filled with elections but applied for with a CV.  

Unexpected pushback

Erdoğan naturally must have anticipated some reaction and protest against this appointment. He likely thought that they would wither away, just like the last time. Besides, due to the pandemic, Boğaziçi University has been continuing education remotely, like other universities. A big part of the students is in other cities, remotely following lessons. Hence the government probably did not anticipate a “massive” protest. They might have assumed they could control the demonstrations and repress them with the despotic regime’s usual mechanisms. Meanwhile, they might have hoped to consolidate their conservative mass base and agitate them against the academic personnel and students of the university, using the common labeling of the Boğaziçi University as “an American University,” “pro-western” and “elitist,” in part because of its historical background.

But Erdoğan and his despotic regime were wrong in many ways. Despite the pandemic situation, remote education, and the overbearing repression felt throughout the country, the students’ protests were a lot more massive than expected by the government. Naturally, the despotic regime tried its hand with police brutality first. But the violence strengthened the magnitude of the pushback instead of weakening it. The government’s stance has been to increase violence and intimidation as the protests got stronger. Once the first demonstration became much more massive than anticipated, the police broke up the students using rubber bullets. Later, many students’ homes were raided by the special forces police early in the morning, using heavy weaponry and breaking the doors. This excessive show of force was aimed not just to brutalize the detained students but also to intimidate the whole mass of students.

Naked violance and smear campaign

Propaganda trying to smear the detainees as members of “terrorist organizations” and not Boğaziçi University students accompanied the intimidation efforts. This aimed to break the general public’s growing sympathy for the protesting students and justify the repression by claiming that the demonstrations were orchestrated from the outside by terrorist organizations. Yet, there were many Boğaziçi students among the detainees. Besides, this rectorship appointment in the Boğaziçi University became a symbol of despotism targeting all universities and university youth. Nothing could be more natural than university students resisting it collectively. The claim of “terrorist organizations” was not justified by any evidence or legal investigation but were based on the police’s arbitrary and illegal profiling. Indeed the prosecutor would not make any accusations against the detained students related to “terror,” and the students were released. The fact that the issue had nothing to do with outsider students was to become glaringly obvious again later when hundreds of Boğaziçi University students were beaten and detained by the police during a sit-in protest.

Fascists, political Islamists and mafia hand in hand

The official propaganda apparatus of the despotic regime could only defend the appointment process based on “legality” while focusing on the themes of “terror” and “provocation.” In its search for provocation materials, the despotic regime tried to use everything from police profiling to lyrics of rock songs played during the rallies. Finally, it ignited a big provocation with the claims of “desecration of religious values” by a piece displayed in an art exhibition organized by the students as part of the protests. What followed was really a summary of the despotic regime in Turkey. The government’s unofficial coalition partner, fascist MHP, made a series of threatening statements against students and academic personnel, culminating in a mafia leader associated with MHP threatening Bulu himself in an underhanded manner with an open letter; urging him “not to resign.” Political Islamist youth confronted the students organizing a peaceful demonstration by calling for a counter-demonstration after prayers in a mosque close to the campus.

A new tool of oppression in the hands of despotism: the pandemic

Later, Sariyer and Besiktas districts’ governorships, where the campuses are located, banned all public meetings. When the call for a demonstration was done on the other side of the straits in Kadikoy, the same ban was declared again. In the meantime, city and district congresses of AKP all around the country were filled to the brim, Erdoğan boasted. Once it was apparent that police brutality failed to suppress the mass protests, the despotic regime moved on to pressure the courts, leading to legal measures like detention, home arrests, and a ban on international travels. All the while, Erdoğan was making calls to the EU and the US with promises of law reform and the minister of justice was talking about how arbitrary detentions would not happen with the reforms.

From administrator rector to administrator faculties

The despotic regime employed all oppression and propaganda tools available to them. It continues to use them. The despotic regime with its police, courts, media stand behind Melih Bulu but fail to provide him the thing he needs the most: legitimacy. Even though Melih Bulu is appointed as a rector, he is unable to lead the university. His deputies and advisors are forced to resign due to public pressure. Faculties, departments, and smaller specialized institutes continue their highly effective resistance to keep the illegitimate rectorship from being functional. The academic personnel’s pushback is not as massive and militant as the students, but it is still very comprehensive and efficient. For this reason, Erdoğan was forced to create two new faculties in the university in a move that goes beyond his statutory authority. By appointing personnel to these faculties from outside, just like Melih Bulu himself, he seeks to bring operational functionality to the administrator rectorship.

Boğaziçi did not yield to oppression

In the end, the students did not yield to oppression. Arrests led to more protests demanding the release of fellow students. To create a wedge between the general mass of the students and the militant ones leading the protests, they employed the “terrorists” smear. But the students in the Engineering Faculty boycotted their exams in support of their “revolutionary” fellows, leading to the exams being postponed. Despite not facing physical oppression to the same extent as students, the academic personnel also did not yield in the face of threats and provocations. Their experience regarding their previously passive stance towards the last appointed rector Mehmed Özkan, due to him being an insider, leading only to further attacks by the government, is undoubtedly an important factor. Therefore Boğaziçi University was not only a stage where the despotic regime’s character was on full display but also brought into light the yearning of the people and youth for freedom and their determination to achieve it.  

Of course, students from DIP, both from the Boğaziçi University and elsewhere, were active members of these struggles. Another significant development is Boğaziçi students’ adoption of the slogan of “Down with despotism, long live freedom” used by DIP for the last four years against despotism. “Down with despotism, long live freedom” was the Young Turks’ slogan who led the successful 1908 revolution against the II. Abdulhamid monarchy, a sultan who created an absolutist despotism at the beginning of the 20th century. While Erdoğan and his ideologues adulate Abdulhamid, DIP responded using the slogan of the revolution that overthrew him. Make no mistake, today’s revolution, unlike 1908, will start from the factories and not the army, and it will have a proletarian internationalist character instead of bourgeois nationalism. But the revolution is once again the order of the day. The slogan expresses precisely this. Once entered this fierce struggle, Boğaziçi University students did not choose to adopt the wishy-washy apolitical slogan “everything will be great” of the Istanbul mayor Ekrem Imamoglu, who won a difficult mayoralty election in 2019 against AKP as the candidate of the major bourgeois opposition party CHP, but instead chose the revolutionary slogan that DIP has been using for years. This points to the necessity of the forces fighting against despotism to turn their faces to revolution.

The underbelly of the resistance

The coming period will show us how long the rising struggle in Boğaziçi University will be able to endure the repression of despotism. Since its past as Robert College, we cannot deny the strong pro-West, pro-American, liberal, and post-modernist tradition at Boğaziçi University. That tradition may have created a de-facto autonomy in the university, even encircling the rectorate appointed by the president. Naturally, we defend the rights of anyone whose essential liberties in intellectual, scientific, or artistic pursuits are being trampled. Yet, we cannot let the attention be diverted away from the freedom of the university as a whole. More broadly, the pro-Western tendency is not a strength but a weakness of the Boğaziçi resistance. Counting on the liberal bourgeoisie in the country and the US and the EU internationally to pressure the government will undoubtedly disappoint. Even if this expectation were to come true, it would only replace the naked tyranny of despotism with the invisible tyranny of money. This clearly does not satisfy youth’s yearning for freedom. 

More importantly, Boğaziçi University’s rising struggle can engage and raise the fight for bread and freedom together with the worker’s movement, similarly facing police barricades, repression and smears of terrorism and provocation. Petty bourgeois illusions like expecting any help from imperialism or thinking the issue is about the power struggle between the bright and the successful as opposed to the mediocre, and ultimately post-modernist, identity-fetishistic tendencies will imply a distancing to the laboring masses and the ruin of this great potential. 

Students, academics and toilers hand in hand!

The academic personnel of Boğaziçi University who took a firm stance until now, despite their identity-fetishistic ideological formation, must grasp the necessity of following the action and organizational forms of the working class as education and science workers. Melih Bulu stated in one of his interviews that he anticipates the protests to wither away in about six months and everything to return to normal. The academic personnel must meet the students’ boycott with a de-facto strike to show that nothing will return to normal before the “administrator” resigns. Things returning to “normal” under this administrator would mean the conquest of another post by despotism. This is not Boğaziçi University’s problem alone. Any gains of this struggle will positively affect the fight for freedom against despotism outside the campus.


[1] “Boğaziçi” is the Turkish name for the Bosphorus, the famous straits that connects the Black Sea to the Marmara and thence to the Aegean and the Mediterranean through the other famous straits the Dardanelles. The Bosphorus runs between the European and the Asian parts of the city of Istanbul.