Tens of thousands of protesters called for the resignation of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and fought police firing tear gas in central Istanbul for the second day Saturday. A defiant Erdogan declared he would not back down from a controversial construction project that set off the protests, but then called off the police.
Denouncing protesters as “entirely ideological,” Erdogan vowed in a speech to go ahead with plans to build a replica of an Ottoman-era barracks on what is now parkland off of Taksim Square in the heart of Istanbul’s downtown. But he conceded there had been excessive use of tear gas and that citizens had the right to express their views.
Shortly after 4 p.m., police withdrew from Gezi Park and central Istanbul, a sign that the protesters had won the first round, and thousands soon headed to the park, where demonstrations against the construction plans had begun in late May.
Heavy-handed police raids Thursday and Friday against protesters encamped at the park had turned what had been a sit-in by environmentalists opposed to cutting down trees into a national protest against Erdogan, who’s been in office 10 years and hopes to extend his stay by being elected president next year.
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Demonstrations ran the entire day Friday throughout central Istanbul and continued until 5 a.m. Saturday, as police chased young protesters and fired tear gas at them throughout the night. As many as 100 demonstrators were injured, about a half dozen seriously, most due to teargas inhalation or being hit by canisters, according to Turkish news media.
The protest quickly spread throughout this city, where the legendary Bosporus waterway divides Europe from Asia. On both the Asian side and in posh districts such as Nisantasi on the European side, residents of all ages protested into the night by banging pots, flashing lights on and off, shouting, clapping and chanting “government, resign.” The protest spread to Ankara, Turkey’s capital; Izmir, Turkey’s second biggest city, and to at least four other cities.
Saturday looked to be a repeat performance. Thousands of demonstrators gathered at Kadikoy, an Istanbul district on the Asian side, at 4:30 a.m. and marched across the Bosporus bridge, but police dispersed them with tear gas and water cannon before they could reach Taksim Square. Thousands more came by ferry over the Bosporus.
At about 2 p.m., the main protest began. Thousands of young people, many outfitted with half face masks, marched down the Istiklal, the main pedestrian street, chanting “The government should resign,” and “Shoulder to shoulder against fascism.” With each tear gas volley, the crowd backed off and scampered down side streets, where volunteers stood by with salve to ease the burning sensation. Then the protesters returned to the Istiklal and advanced once again. Those few businesses that were open, like the Starbucks, offered free food and drink to protesters.
On the roll-down shutters of the closed businesses, even at the Russian consulate, which lies off Istiklal, fresh graffiti called Erdogan the Turkish equivalent of an “s.o.b.” and demanded a new government.
The protesters, who in a random sampling seemed to be from parties in opposition to Erdogan’s Islamist Justice and Development party, would agree with Aisha, 25, who asked to be identified by her first name only. “This is beyond ideology,” she told McClatchy. “It was a modest protest (at Gezi park) and then there was excessive use of force.” As for Erdogan: “I think he’s a dictator,” she said. “He’s doing things so fast.” She said this was the first protest she’d ever attended.
The project at Gezi Park shows Erdogan’s most and least attractive sides. A master-builder of Turkey’s infrastructure, but impatient with delays and dismissive of critics, he has launched immense new projects, among them an underwater rail link between Europe and Asia; a third airport for Istanbul that would be Europe’s biggest, and a third bridge across the Bosporus. He also plans a canal that would link the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara, the vast lake that lies between the Black Sea and the Aegean.
But he rarely seeks public support before starting them, and when the Turkish board of cultural and national heritage conservation rejected the plans for the barracks at Gezi park, Erdogan blamed the opposition secularist Republican People’s Party.
“They wanted to prevent it and rejected it through the board,” Erdogan said. “When they rejected it, I said ‘I reject your rejection,’ because this is a historical work.” He added: “How could the board reject this historical work? What are these boards there for? In fact to protect these historical works.”
He stuck to his guns when the protests began. “We have made our decision. We are going to do this,” he said. “If you have any respect for history, first research the history of Gezi Park.” But on Saturday, he said there was no final decision on reports that the replica barracks would house a shopping mall.
“He is one-man rule. He does not have any respect for contrary views,” said Hanife Candas, 56, a primary school teacher in the Bostanci district on the Asian side of the city.
Some protesters came only to protest the crackdown itself. Damla, 29, who asked that her full name not be used to protect her employment, said she was inside the Taksim subway station when the protest began. Police fired teargas close to the stairways leading to the station, then closed the exits and set off more teargas on grates that led to directly to where hundreds of passengers were confined. “It was like hell,” she said.
At Gezi Park itself, police barricades that had closed the space off were piled in heaps, and people of all ages came by the thousands, to sit on the grounds. There were even two young Turkish women wearing headscarves, a symbol of religious observance for pious Muslims, who said they’d attended both days of protests.
“We are here to show our resistance. This park belongs to us,” said Zeynep Zabiya, 22, a student of psychology. She and her friend, Aisa Sena, 21, a student of architecture, acknowledged that Erdogan is popular in much of Turkey, particularly in Anatolia, on the Asian side of the Bosporus.
But Zeynep said she had changed her mind about Erdogan as a result of his statements on Saturday. “He is taking this issue too personally,” she said. “He is bullying people. It’s like his ego is speaking.”
It’s by no means clear that the demonstrators will win in the end, for as they strolled around Gezi Park, there were no speeches, or even banners or lists of demands – partly because the demonstration is leaderless. Edogan’s withdrawal of police may be nothing more than a tactical move – taken possibly to avoid scaring off foreign visitors at the height of the tourist season.
But what the protest seemed to show was an anger just below the surface that Erdogan is operating like a sultan, without feeling any need to consult, and not just on matters of urban construction.
Asli, 37, a psychologist at a local hospital who like others didn’t want her full name used, said Erdogan’s economic record, which has made Turkey one of the fastest growing countries in Europe, was intended to produce an “affluent minority” and a poor majority “who will be his loyal subjects.”
But she reserved special condemnation for what Erdogan, through back-channel intimidation and direct attacks, has done to the country’s media. “They are like the three monkeys,” she said. “See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.”