ISTANBUL: A private university in Istanbul with more than 7,000 students, including many from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf region, has become the latest arena for a bitter quarrel between Turkey’s ruling party and a breakaway political faction.
Istanbul Sehir University recently had its assets frozen by a court after state-run Halkbank claimed it was unable to repay more than 400 million Turkish lira ($70 million) in credit provided by the bank.
But many observers believe the real reason behind the move is not commercial, but something much deeper. They claim it is the result of a dispute between the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the founder of the university, former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, an ex-ally of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan who recently left the AKP to establish a new party with promises to campaign against Turkey’s drift to authoritarianism.
Now left without access to funds, the university is struggling to pay academics’ monthly salaries or even electricity bills.
And the bitter power struggle does not end here.
Valuable land on which the university’s facilities are established is another source of dispute between the government and university management. Although the land was granted to the university with an administrative decision, some believe a legal interpretation could lead to confiscation of the facility.
Last week, the Council of State, the country’s highest administrative court, ruled that it should be returned to the government as the land was improperly given to the university at the time.
Davutoglu, who resigned as prime minister in 2016, broke his silence in April this year after the local election setback for the AKP with a text criticizing the “wrongdoings” of the government. He resigned from the AKP in September along with several with other parliamentarians who served in high-ranking positions within the party.
Earlier this month, Davutoglu said on social media that the government was engaged in “deliberate political acts” against the university.
In a series of speeches, the former prime minister has repeatedly voiced discontent over the erosion of the party’s core values of justice and freedom.
Davutoglu, widely regarded as the chief architect of the AKP’s foreign policy, was ranked seventh in a list of “100 global thinkers” by Foreign Policy magazine in 2010.
Mehmet Fatih Uslu, a Turkish literature specialist from Istanbul Sehir University, said the legal battle began after disagreements surfaced between Davutoglu and the government.
“This is not only a punishment directed at the university because Davutoglu is among its founders, but also a stick to be used against any new political establishment that breaks away from the government,” he told Arab News.
Uslu said that the university has always encouraged a “pluralist academic environment” despite the current polarized political atmosphere in the country. “However, the response from the academic circle has been too weak, which allows the authorities to abuse rights,” he said.
Three journalists who interviewed Davutoglu in a YouTube program in August later had their shows dropped by the Russian-backed Sputnik news platform.
With Davutoglu rumored to be setting up his new political outfit in less than a month, the university may become a bargaining chip following Erdogan’s previous warning against splits within the party. “Those who take part in this kind of betrayal will pay a heavy price,” he said.
Muzaffer Senel, a political scientist from Istanbul Sehir University, said: “Academics and administrative staff cannot get their salaries, and it harms families because they cannot pay their rent. If no immediate solution is found, electricity, water and gas will have to be cut, and students’ education could be interrupted.”
While the dispute continues, the future of foreign students at the university, including those from the Gulf region, remains uncertain.