Turkish protesters send a message to Erdogan

I am not a dictator, prime minister responds after government accused of heavy-handedness.
A woman walks past a vehicle damaged in clashes between anti-government protesters and police in Istanbul on Sunday. Sedat Suna / EPA
A woman walks past a vehicle damaged in clashes between anti-government protesters and police in Istanbul on Sunday. Sedat Suna / EPA

ISTANBUL // A day after street battles ended with a police retreat from Istanbul's Taksim Square and a victory for protesters, people turned out on the streets again and spoke of their pride at having dealt a blow to Turkey's most powerful politician in half a century.

Protests yesterday against the prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, were not as violent in the prevous two days. But police still used tear gas to try to disperse hundreds of people in Ankara's main Kizilay square and there were similar clashes in Izmir and Adana, Turkey's third and fourth biggest cities.

In Taksim Square, however, the atmosphere was more celebratory.

"It is great," said Cansu Kilic, 21. "For the first time in Turkish history, a popular movement has started by itself."

Ms Kilic, from the Umraniye neighbourhood on Istanbul's Asian side, travelled to the city centre on the European side yesterday morning to join anti-government protests.

She and her sister Ceylan, 26, were among the thousands of as protesters gathered in the square amid the signs of the unrest that raged in the days before: half a dozen cars overturned or with smashed windows and doors, and small fires still smouldering.

Surrounding buildings were covered with anti-government graffiti and posters, some of which called Taksim the "new Tahrir", the square in Cairo that became the focal point of the 2011 uprising that ousted Hosni Mubarak.

The Istanbul protests started early on Friday when police used force to clear demonstrators staginging a sit-in against government plans to turn Gezi Park, next to Taksim Square, into a shopping mall. The ensuing street battles continued for two days and spread to other cities.

Muammar Guler, the interior minister, said yesterday that more than 1,700 people had been arrested in anti-government protests that have spread to 67 cities nationwide, though most have since been released.

"A large majority of the detainees were released after being questioned and identified," he said. He added that the country had seen 235 demonstrations since Tuesday.

Nihan Akincilar, 28, an academic at the square yesterday, said the initial protest was by citizens attempting to stop the destruction of the park. But when the police shot "gas bombs" at them "thousands of other people came to Taksim to show their resistance to the AKP (Justice and Development Party) government".

"Now we will think about this as a resistance campaign," she said.

The most common chant at Taksim Square yesterday was "Tayyip go".

"We want Erdogan to leave because he does not want us to live free," said Anil Itir, a 26-year-old engineer from the Asian side of Istanbul who partcipated in all three days of protests.

The eruption of rage came as a surprise to Mr Erdogan, who at first accused the protesters of being extremists before having the police withdraw from Taksim Square hours later.

In a speech yesterday, the prime minister denied accusations of being autocratic, saying: "I am not the master of the people. Dictatorship does not run in my blood or in my character. I am the servant of the people."

But several people at the square yesterday said the unrest was the climax of a growing perception that the Erdogan government did not care about the wishes of the people. They cited a recent law that limited the sale of alcohol, internet rules that they said were too restrictive and controversial projects such as the building of a new bridge across the Bosphorus.

"Everything is being banned, freedoms are being cut back, and Erdogan is acting like a sultan, like a dictator," said Aytek, a university student. "It got up to here," he said, raising his hand over his head. "Then it exploded. The thing about the trees was just the last drop."

His friend Samet, sitting beside him in Taksim Square, said he expected the government to be more careful from now on.

"The people have won," he said about the clashes and the police withdrawal. "The people have shown what they can do, and the government retreated." Both men gave only their first names for fear of government reprisals.

Even some people who voted for Mr Erdogan took part in the protests.

Isa, 43, a construction worker, said he voted for Mr Erdogan'sAKP in the last general elections in 2011, but did not intend to do so again. He said he took part in the protests against the plans for the Gezi Park because he felt betrayed by the AKP.

I am looking for a new party," he said. "The unrest has finished off the AKP."

That seemed an exaggeration, given that Mr Erdogan is by far the most popular politician in Turkey and that the AKP is far ahead of any other party in the opinion polls.

But there were signs yesterday that the AKP was concerned about a political fallout from the unrest in the short and medium term.

"We have learned our lessons," Kadir Topbas, Istanbul's mayor and an AKP politician, was quoted as saying by the NTV news channel. "We know anyhow that we can't do anything against the citizens."

Mr Topbas said the municipality had failed to explain the Gezi Park project to the public properly. He promised that five trees, which were uprooted before a local court ordered a stop to work on Friday, would be brought back to Gezi Park.

The mayor's demonstration of humility was an indication that the AKP is concerned about losing control over Istanbul in next year's local elections, which would be a huge blow for a party that has not lost an election since it was founded by Mr Erdogan in 2001.

tseibert@thenational.ae

* With additional reporting by Justin Vela

Published: June 3, 2013 04:00 AM

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