Turkey protests show no sign of letdown

By Ivan Watson and Gul Tuysuz, CNN
Istanbul (CNN) — More than a week after protests began sweeping Turkey, demonstrators kept up their occupation of bustling Taksim Square on Monday amid appeals from the government to abandon the rallies and return to work and school.

What began as a small sit-in over the Turkish government’s plan to demolish a park in central Istanbul in favor of a shopping arcade has morphed into the biggest protest movement against Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan since he was elected more than 10 years ago.

On Monday, a confederation of unions claiming some 240,000 members added its voice to the anti-Erdogan chorus, saying it would go on strike against what it called the “fascism” of Erdogan’s ruling party.

Angry protesters — who say police have responded to their demonstrations with excessive force and accuse Erdogan of being paternalistic and authoritarian — show no sign backing down. And a defiant Erdogan showed no inclination to give in to protesters’ demands.

While crowds Monday in Taksim Square were smaller and calmer than in recent days, police in Ankara brought in armored vehicles and fired tear gas at protesters chanting anti-government slogans in Kizilay Square.

Demonstrators set up a makeshift barricade and threw rocks at police. It was unclear if anyone was injured.

That episode followed clashes Sunday night between police and protesters in the Besiktas district of central Istanbul, about a mile from Taksim Square, where the protests began.

In that incident, demonstrators wearing face masks and goggles hurled rocks at police, who responded with tear gas.

Some demonstrators wounded in the clashes, including a young man with a bloodied face, were carried to a 150-year-old mosque for treatment by medics.

In Izmir on Sunday night, protesters also set fire to the offices of Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, or AKP.

There were no signs of security forces at Taksim Square on Monday. Authorities abandoned the district Saturday after 36 hours of vicious clashes and angry demonstrations against the government.

Police have detained more than 700 people across Turkey since Tuesday, most of whom have been released, Turkey’s semiofficial Anadolu News Agency. Fifty-eight civilians are still hospitalized and 115 security officers have been injured, the agency said.

Protests have broken out in 67 of Turkey’s 81 provinces, according to the agency. Among them is Adana, where protester Cenker Kardesler said Sunday that police had “tried to corner the people.”

“They came at us from both sides,” Kardesler said.

International human rights groups Amnesty International and Greenpeace have denounced what they describe as excessive use of police force against peaceful protesters.

On Monday, Erdogan dismissed such allegations.

“We are servants of the people, not masters. We did not use violence,” he said before leaving for a four-day trip to North Africa.

He also downplayed claims that Turkey could be on the cusp of its own “Arab Spring” — the series of popular uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East that led to political upheaval in Tunisia and Egypt, particularly.

“Those in Turkey who speak of the Turkish Spring are right; the season is, in fact, spring,” he said. “But there are those trying to turn it into a winter.”

Meanwhile, the Interior Ministry urged residents to not take to the streets Monday.

“We invite our citizens, especially our youth, to act with common sense and sensitivity and refrain from taking part in these illegal demonstrations being carried out by certain groups today, the day when the work week begins,” it said.

In Istanbul, the crowds have been chanting “Tayyip resign” — referring to Erdogan — and “Shoulder to shoulder against fascism.”

Erdogan is the most powerful and popular politician Turkey has seen in generations, but his approach to leadership doesn’t sit well with all Turks, said Asli Aydintasbas, a columnist for Milliyet Newspaper.

“We have a prime minister who has done great deeds and he really has run the economy well,” she said. “But you also have this paternalistic style: ‘I know what’s good for you. I, as your father, can decide on the park, the bridge, the city and the constitution.’ So, I think people are just wanting to have a more inclusive form of democracy in Turkey.”

Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party appeals to a base of culturally conservative voters.

On Monday, he said opponents who had failed to defeat his party in elections were trying to beat it “by other means.”

“The issue of trees in Gezi Park thing is just the trigger,” he said.

A day earlier, he praised his accomplishments overseeing a decade of unprecedented economic growth in Turkey. He also defended his record as a leader who has planted many trees.

“They are putting on airs saying we massacre trees,” he said. “We have planted approximately 2 billion trees.”

Some demonstrators say protesters’ anger is no longer directed against the government proposal to demolish the park.

“This park was just the ignition of all that,” said Yakup Efe Tuncay, a 28-year-old demonstrator who carried a Turkish flag while walking through the park Saturday.

“The Erdogan government is usually considered as authoritarian. He has a big ego; he has this Napoleon syndrome. He takes himself as a sultan. … He needs to stop doing that,” Tuncay said. “He’s just a prime minister.”

Hugh Pope, a senior Turkey analyst with the International Crisis Group, called the protests “completely unprecedented.”

He said Erdogan was caught off guard by them. Most demonstrators, Pope said, are “overwhelmingly ordinary people” who simply want their voices heard.

“However there are other demonstrators who are somewhat more opportunistic in the left-wing factions who normally don’t get much in the way of airtime in Turkey and are camped on Taksim square,” Pope said.

“They have outposts where they are delivering their message and in fact it has to be said that they are sometimes on the front line of the protestors in the fights against the police at the barricades,” he said.

Erdogan’s chief adviser, Ibrahim Kalin, said Saturday that the protesters have a right to express their discontent, within limits.

“People are entitled to disagreement with the government; they can exercise their democratic rights, but they can do so within the context of a democratic society,” he said.
How the protests began
The protests began with plans to raze Gezi Park, the last green space in central Istanbul, and replace it with a replica of 19th-century Ottoman barracks. The development would contain a shopping mall.

What began as a sit-in by a handful of angry residents quickly grew into a larger protest. Riot police moved in, using tear gas and pepper spray.

Protesters responded by hurling bottles, setting up barricades, blocking bulldozers and burning trash in the middle of the street.

Then, outraged by the behavior of security forces, demonstrators began attacking police.

Mayor Kadir Topbas emphasized that the park demolition was not related to the shopping mall project, but was a part of a wider renovation project of Taksim Square, and on Friday, a district court ordered a temporary stop to any construction.

But by then, the protests had morphed into broader demonstrations against Erdogan.

CNN’s Nick Paton Walsh contributed to this report.

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