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University Official Who Sparked Anti-Government Protests in Turkey Refuses to Resign

The rector of Turkey’s top university said on Wednesday he would not resign after weeks of protests over his appointment by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Students at Istanbul’s Bogazici University have been staging protests since early January over the appointment of Melih Bulu as rector.

Local media reported that Bulu, who was appointed by the president on January 1, said he never thought about resigning and believes the crisis will be over within six months.

Ecem Guler, 21, who studies literature at Bogazici, said that while many of her friends have been detained for protesting, she is not afraid.

The government “should be afraid because we are right and we are the majority and we will win,” she said.

Guler said students like her are protesting because universities should remain independent and the appointment of the rector allows the government to increase its control of the university. Traditionally, the rector is selected by a university’s professors and is usually one of their own. Erdogan has selected rectors since 2016. Protesters were particularly concerned that the rector hadn’t worked at the university before and that he was connected to Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party.

Tensions have risen following the detention of students after some of those protesting displayed a poster of LGBT flags with Islamic imagery, including the Kaaba shrine in Mecca.

A tweet by Turkey’s Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu said the protesters insulted a sacred Islamic site and referred to the demonstrators as “LGBT deviants,” which led Twitter to issue a warning over the remark.

Soylu repeated the homophobic comment on television on Tuesday, saying he had to protect families from the “LGBT deviants.”

Erdogan also praised the younger members of his party for not being part of the LGBT community.

“I think this is a tactic, of course, to shift focus from other things because it’s also a very easy target,” said Olcay Ozdolanbay, a non-binary member of the LGBT community and a graduate of Bogazici.

Ozdolanbay, 29, first took part in the protests in early January and joined more demonstrations on Tuesday when there was a heavy police presence.

“We were running here and there, and there was tear gas,” as well as riot police, Ozdolanbay told The Media Line.

Even Islamic conservatives would say, ‘Whoa, whoa, wait a minute. What are you doing?’ But if you’re beating up LGBT members, a lot of people would easily turn their backs

Istanbul-based political analyst and economist Atilla Yesilada said that focusing on the LGBT community makes it easier for the government to go after students at Bogazici University, which he said does not have a tradition of violent protests or radicalism.

“Even Islamic conservatives would say, ‘Whoa, whoa, wait a minute. What are you doing?’ But if you’re beating up LGBT members, a lot of people would easily turn their backs,” he said.

A Turkish journalist on Twitter posted video on Tuesday of sounds of banging pots and pans coming out of Istanbul apartments, a traditional form of protest that also took place after the city’s opposition mayor had his first election win canceled.

More than 300 people have been detained in the last two days of protests, according to Reuters.

There also have been protests in support of the students and the LGBT community in the Istanbul neighborhood of Kadikoy and in the capital, Ankara.

Muzaffer Senel, an assistant professor of political science and international relations at Istanbul’s Şehir University, told The Media Line that the government’s response has been due to a fear of free speech.

“Freedom of expression … brings new ideas to society, and which brings dialogue, which brings democratic [ideals],” said Senel, whose university was ordered to close in the summer by the government.

Senel believes the government feared the demonstrations would lead to a situation similar to the 2013 Gezi Park protests, which saw anti-government demonstrations across the country that were met with a brutal police response and ensuing crackdown on dissent.

However, while Bogazici protests have spread, they remain on a small scale.

Senel said the top priority for the public is the country’s poor financial situation.

 There’s a lot of dry tinder around that’s waiting for a spark to turn into a bonfire

Yesilada says that the next week will be crucial in determining whether the protests will draw wider segments of society.

He said Turkey’s current situation with a poor economy, a large number of COVID-19 cases and the lack of government support means the university demonstrations could lead to wider protests.

“There’s a lot of dry tinder around that’s waiting for a spark to turn into a bonfire,” he said. “It could get out of hand.”