Police Storm Istanbul Protests, But Will Erdogan’s Attempt to Ostracize Movement Work?

Is Erdogan trying to make the protesters look like they are on the fringe? Mike Giglio investigates.

The streets of central Istanbul, normally home to shoppers and tourists, with hotels and restaurants buzzing until the late hours, had turned into an eerie scene of conflict Tuesday night. The crowds were gone, and many shops had pulled down their iron gates. Along residential side streets, any locals who ventured out moved hurriedly—a man in a surgical mask walking briskly with a bag of groceries; a young woman holding a cloth to her mouth as she sprinted to her door and fumbled with her keys. Tear-gas fumes hung thick in the air, and most of the people walking the streets were protesters, their faces covered by scarves or gas masks. Riot police and crowd-control vehicles filled the city’s main square.

The heart of one of the world’s most visited cities had been brought to an ugly standstill as the government renewed its attempt to suppress a protest movement that began as push to save a local park and has turned into a countrywide movement against Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Protesters have had to fill the park and surrounding Taksim Square for more than a week, after police pulled back in the face of heavy clashes that erupted when they first attempted to clear the crowds. On Tuesday morning, police swarmed back, dispersing protesters in Taksim with water cannons and tear gas as clean-up crews removed their political banners and bulldozers destroyed makeshift barricades. But as before, the heavy-handed tactics swelled the crowds, and clashes flared up again. Fires burned on some streets near Taksim as pockets of demonstrators throwing rocks and fireworks fought running battles with police.

The people in Gezi Park, which has become home to a large encampment reminiscent of the Occupy movement, remained. They had been tear-gassed heavily and reported small incursions by police, but authorities stuck to promises that the park protest would not be cleared.

Once an overlooked section of central Istanbul, the park has become the center of a nationwide push against Erdogan, who has put his weight behind a number of controversial redevelopment projects in Istanbul, including one that would upend the Taksim area and replace the park with a shopping mall. When the bulldozers came, activists staged a small sit-in to stop them, but the situation spiraled after police cracked down, with tens of thousands taking to Istanbul’s streets and similar protests sweeping across the country in the largest anti-government demonstrations to hit Turkey in recent memory.

Late Tuesday night, as clashes raged nearby, the park was tense with expectations of a siege. An aid center, once just a small table with medical supplies, had expanded into an emergency room for protesters overcome by tear gas and was full of people recovering from the effects. Those with more serious injuries were brought to the ambulances making frequent trips from the area. A man coordinating the aid station who gave only his first name, Cengiz, said that Tuesday was the worst he’d seen for injuries. The center had treated more than 300 people, he said, most from the effects of tear gas. About 25, he added, had been wounded by the canisters, which he believed police were aiming at demonstrators. “This used to be just a small table,” he said. “Today it turned into a hospital.”

“I had two tear-gas canisters whiz right past my head,” said Bora Tarhan, a photographer and film director from Istanbul who was sitting near his tent after spending the day in the park. Tarhan was sure police would eventually clear the park as they had Taksim Square. “The only reason they’re not taking it back right now is that too many people are watching,” he said.

“They’re going to clear the park [eventually]. They’re going to burn the tents,” added Ipek El, a designer in Istanbul. “And the next day we will be back. They can’t take this. I’m not leaving.”

A tentative calm returned to Taksim on Wednesday morning, and Erdogan was scheduled to meet with representatives from Gezi Park later in the day. But many protesters see little chance that he intends to compromise. Erdogan has given a series of combative speeches in which he has demonized protesters and tried to rally his own supporters, even suggesting that the two sides are pitted against one another. “Not only will we end the actions, we will be at the necks of the provocateurs and terrorists, and no one will get away with it,” he said as the clashes around Taksim raged on Tuesday.

Erdogan, the country’s most popular politician, has won three straight elections under the banner of his Islamic-leaning Justice & Development Party (AKP). But while receiving 50 percent of the vote in 2011 was enough to cruise to victory in Turkey’s parliamentary system, analysts warn that the country is becoming increasingly divided. Some observers believe Erdogan may be looking to weather the conflict by shoring up his base at the expense of making the situation even more polarized. “It seems Erdogan is sticking to his ‘play to the base’ strategy,” says David Pollock, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who studies Turkish politics. “He is probably calculating that violent confrontation will actually solidify his support among the bare majority already on his side.”

“In the short term, of course,” Pollock adds, “it risks provoking a growing cycle of demonstrations and counterdemonstrations.” Erdogan has called on supporters to stage rallies of their own this weekend, which could further inflame tensions.

The police action in Taksim on Tuesday saw bystanders as well as protesters caught up in the chaos. As the crowds around Taksim swelled in the evening, police unleashed a frenzy of tear gas, sending tourists and commuters fleeing as they choked on the fumes. Workers in shops and hotels around the square took in who they could, and then shut their doors, fearful that police would retaliate. One local photographer was holed up in a café when police threatened to gas the place unless the crowd huddled there left.

As the tumult carried on, government officials continued with a public-relations offensive against the protesters, with Istanbul’s governor holding a press conference in which he dismissed them as “marginal elements,” repeating a phrase used previously by Erdogan, who has also called protesters “looters” and “extremists.”

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Kerem Öktem, a research fellow at the University of Oxford and author of a history of modern Turkey, says the government’s dismissals show that it isn’t taking seriously the widespread criticisms that the protests have come to represent. Protesters accuse Erdogan of becoming authoritarian and of imposing the AKP’s religious values on their lives, both charges that he has denied. But beneath these broad criticisms are more specific concerns, from the government’s recent imposition of new alcohol restrictions to its forcing through of the kind of sweeping construction projects that would see Gezi Park razed. (Erdogan has insisted that the park will be demolished as planned.) Erdogan’s opponents also worry that he has undue influence over the press and judiciary and a winner-takes-all governing style. “They have decided to develop a counternarrative based on half-truths and outright lies,” Öktem says. “I think there is no interest in finding a central and conciliatory way forward.”

One 42-year-old Istanbul man, the superintendent of an apartment building who was afraid to have his name published, sat in his office watching TV news footage of the ongoing chaos in Taksim after returning from the protests Tuesday night. The program’s announcer repeated the government’s “marginal elements” claim, and the man seemed hurt. “He’s lying,” he said. “I go there every night, and no one incites me to do it. I go because I watch this”—the police crackdowns—“on TV, and it makes me uncomfortable.”

The superintendent had never voted for Erdogan, but he’d also never had much of a problem with him before the recent unrest, or otherwise been very political. He said the people leading the clashes against police might be on the fringe, but that most protesters were “normal people” like him. “I’m not a marginal element, and I’m not a radical,” he said. “I just don’t like this guy.”