In the warren of cobbled streets just off Istanbul’s Taksim Square, hundreds of riot police fired tear gas Sunday at protesters trying to return to nearby Gezi Park, the site of a weeks-long sit-in against Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Meanwhile, a few kilometres away in Kazlicesme district, the premier delivered a fiery speech to a sprawling crowd of supporters in which he vowed to hunt down the “provocateurs” and affirmed that his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) would not “step back.”
Nationwide demonstrations had erupted two weeks previously, when demonstrators were initially forced out of Gezi Park while protesting a planned development which would see the area transformed into a replica of an Ottoman-era barracks and a shopping mall. The grievances grew beyond the park to defending freedoms of expression and assembly.
Saturday evening, after Erdogan warned protesters once again that they must leave, Turkey’s black-clad riot police, who had been waiting on the sidelines since the last assault, entered the disputed park to forcibly evacuate its temporary inhabitants.
Gezi Park protesters had just announced they would be staying put. A few hours before, one of the demonstrators manning the Gezi Park main stage, Ali Can Elagoz, told Ahram Online the park protesters had “four simple demands” that would need to be fulfilled before they shifted, including the release of those arrested during demos and retribution for the police chiefs behind the nationwide crackdowns which has seen five dead and over 5,000 injured.
Under cover of volleys of tear gas and water-cannon jets, bulldozers went in and began clearing the colourful protest campsite.
“The police only warned those by the main entrance [from Taksim Square] but didn’t warn us in the middle,” says Ahmet, a protester who wanted to remain anonymous for fear of arrest. “They started throwing sound bombs and tear gas, and then police entered with batons and shields. They targeted those wearing helmets, gas masks and goggles. We were not fighters, there were women and children present, we didn’t resist.”
Demonstrators – who hours before had been singing and dancing in a peaceful and festive sit-in – were scattered. Field hospital staff were reportedly detained.
Many, like Ahmet, sought refuge in the nearby five-star Divan Hotel, which was subsequently gassed. Protesters spun the rotating hotel doors for hours in an attempt to relieve those trapped in the smoke-filled reception.
The riot police took turns, some haphazardly firing gas, pepper spray and orange-tinted water jets at protesters, others taking cigarette breaks, at one point purchasing bagels from a cart that inexplicably materialised around midnight.
The battles raged on through the night and into the morning, as police pushed protesters away from the square and into nearby residential neighbourhoods.
By Sunday more than 1,000 police reinforcements had been flown into the city from areas to the southeast and east to secure both the Gezi Park area and the prime minister’s rally.
Riot police and gendarmerie closed off all the main routes leading to Taksim Square, bringing the area to a standstill. Battles moved into the maze of sleepy side streets: the air stung with gas as canisters smashed through shop windows.
On the square, municipality workers were busy replanting shrubbery, while police sprayed water on Gezi Park, now clear of all tents.
Across the Bosphorus, Erdogan told the gathered AKP supporters said it was his “duty as prime minister” to clear Taksim Square and Gezi Park, claiming he had handed both “back to the people.”
He blasted foreign media for being liars and misrepresenting the events on the square while hinting of a foreign plot.
Using a threatening tone, Erdogan also vowed to utilise city surveillance footage to root out “social media instigators” behind the street demonstrations, saying the authorities will identify them “one by one.”
Erdogan also accused the main opposition party, the Republican’s People Party (CHP), of opportunistically using the street to “get what they cannot get out of the ballot boxes.”
He once again stood by his statement that the protesters were “capulcu” or looters, a label Gezi Park protesters played with during the sit-in, some putting up signs proclaiming their tents “capulcu homes.”
“Some call me dictator. What kind of dictator would receive the Gezi Park occupiers and the sincere environmentalists?” Erdoğan said, referencing a Thursday meeting with Ankara protesters, during which they brokered a deal that would delay action on Gezi Park development pending a court decision and open an investigation into police violence.
He finished his Sunday speech by announcing further “Respect for National Will” rallies next week, as part of his ongoing elections campaign.
“Either he knows this has nothing to do with a foreign conspiracy but [his speech] will play well with his constituency as elections are coming, to consolidate power, or he doesn’t see that the people were using their democratic right to express dissent,” Barcin Yinac, a local journalist and editor at Turkish Hurriyet Daily News, tells Ahram Online. “For him, those who aren’t voting for the AKP are an existential threat which needs to be eliminated.”
As the fighting continues, the fear for many is that his speech is the beginning of a targeted crackdown on those standing against the ruling party and the premier.
Yinac believes that it is too early to concretely say but “from past experience, whenever a big personality displays a critical attitude towards government positions, there are punishments.”
She pointed out that while Erdogan was giving his speech, a “witch hunt” had begun: doctors who treated injured protesters were being taken into custody, as were leaders of the politicised Beşiktaş football fans club, whose football chants became political slogans.
Aykan Erdemir, a CHP parliamentarian, believes the premier will “fight the bitter authoritarian battle to the very end” and will not step down unless there is serious resistance or a split within his own party.
Erdemir, whose party publically supported the protests – although members were told they could only participate in a personal capacity – believes the police raids have cost Erdogan credibility at home and internationally, which could see the development of a new opposition party.
“There is a call for a new centre-right party and to bring it together with the liberal parties,” Erdemir says, “a grand coalition of centre-left and centre-right.”
This desire for a new alliance, he says, could pose a serious challenge to a beleaguered AKP.
The protesters for their part are unlikely to back down.
“No one will be satisfied until some of those officers and governors who are in charge are sacked… there is a lot of anger against state violence by the police,” says Ozan Tekin, of the Revolutionary Socialist Workers Party, which manned a tent in Gezi Park before it was cleared, and which has members currently fighting in the streets.
The recent protests across the country, Tekin says, are the first real movement against the AKP that has not been aligned with the army, which historically has stepped in following periods of political instability and has been the alterative to unpopular governments.
Tekin cites the unfulfilled demands of the Taksim Solidarity group, the main umbrella organisation of the recent resistance, as the main reason why demonstrations will not stop. These include the release of detained protesters and the removal of bans on demonstrating in Turkey’s public squares.
Certainly amid the colourful banners and tents of the Gezi Park protest, there were common complaints about Erdogan’s impingement on democratic and personal rights and the increasing signs of social engineering by the state.
“We’ll be here for the next few months. Gezi Park development is an indication of a wider issue,” Aysem Er, an architecture student, told Ahram Online from her tent, now cleared from the park.
“It’s not a problem about trees, it’s a problem of our freedom.”