Taksim Square, the symbolic heart of Istanbul, was engulfed in black fumes and white clouds Tuesday as riot police firing tear gas and water cannons moved in to regain control over an area that has been occupied by antigovernment protesters for the past two weeks. In Ankara, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the demonstrations, which began over an environmentalist sit-in to protest plans to demolish a center city park, were part of a “comprehensive attack” designed to harm the country. Erdogan insisted that he would move ahead with plans to redevelop the park, an issue that has become a symbol for what protesters say is his arrogant leadership.
The standoff is the worst turmoil Turkey has seen in a decade of Erdogan’s rule, and the protests show no sign of abating. “There is a big game that is being played on Turkey in the guise of Taksim Gezi Park,” Erdogan said on Tuesday to a gathering of members of parliament from his party, the AKP. “They package it in trees and environmental sensitivity, but really there are those who want to slow a growing, strong Turkey.” Though he styled himself as a champion of democracy during the Arab Spring protests in Egypt and Tunisia, this is the first time Erdogan has faced mass protests at home.
The unrest began over a peaceful sit-in demonstration on May 28 against the government’s plans to raze Gezi Park, just off Taksim Square, and replace it with a faux-Ottoman-style commercial development and barracks. Police attacked the activists, burning their tents and tear-gassing them, while bulldozers began uprooting trees. As images of the violence went viral, frustration with the government’s increasingly heavy-handed politics hit a boiling point and tens of thousands of people took to the streets on May 31 to protest. Police responded with more tear gas. Hours later, defiant demonstrators seized Gezi Park and the square surrounding it. Protests then spread to dozens of other cities.
Erdogan, who was elected for a third time as Prime Minister in 2011, has variously blamed the unrest on vandals, terrorist groups and international interest-rate speculators seeking to undermine the Turkish economy. He has not been willing to acknowledge that the roots of this discontent, in fact, run deep within Turkish society. The new movement forged in Gezi Park has transcended old fault lines. Thousands of supporters of Turkey’s three top soccer teams united for the first time in recent memory to support Occupy Gezi. The area has become a truly public space, a free zone where dissidents of every stripe — nationalists, leftists, environmentalists, Kurds, conservative Muslims — have found a home. Several thousand people are camped out there, and their ranks swell to the hundreds of thousands in the evenings when people get off work.
The core group of Gezi Park occupiers are young people, mostly under the age of 25 and most with no prior political affiliation, according to an Istanbul Bilgi University study. The Turkish media have called this movement a Generation Y revolution. Their grievances include the government’s Islamist-influenced attempts to curb women’s reproductive rights and the sale of alcohol, its poor environmental track record and Erdogan’s paternalistic manner. Though the movement has no official leader, a loose coalition called the Taksim Solidarity Platform has emerged. Its demands include the cancellation of Gezi Park’s proposed redevelopment, resignation of officials responsible for the police violence, a ban on the use of tear-gas bombs against the protesters and the release of protesters who have been detainees. The government has shown no sign of addressing any of their demands. Three people have died and some 5,000 have been wounded since the unrest began, according to Turkey’s Medical Association.
The mood inside the park on Tuesday was more somber than it has been in recent days as people donned gas masks and goggles. Clouds of tear gas drifted inward while Istanbul Governor Huseyin Avni Mutlu told protesters that police would not enter the park. “The protests in Taksim Square and Gezi Park have been entirely peaceful and have a right to continue,” said Amnesty International’s Turkey researcher Andrew Gardner. But Mutlu later on Tuesday night called on youths to leave the park. “Our state power will be directed at marginal groups. People should not go to Taksim until security has been established,” he said.
Separately, some 72 lawyers were arrested Tuesday noon as they gathered to make a statement about the situation in Gezi Park at Istanbul’s main Caglayan Courthouse. They were subsequently taken into custody.
However, she estimated they were unlikely to continue as they had. “Many believe that the message to the government was given sufficiently loud enough and that the opposition to the government should now move off the streets and be channeled through other ways.”
But as night fell to the echoes of exploding tear-gas canisters in Taksim, few protesters appeared willing to leave.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.