Turkish Leader Orders an End to Protests in 24 Hours

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ISTANBUL -- Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan ordered his interior minister on Wednesday to end all antigovernment protests within 24 hours, as thousands of protesters returned to Taksim Square after riot police officers dispersed crowds overnight with tear gas and water cannons.

At a meeting in Ankara with representatives of the Confederation of Turkish Tradesmen and Craftsmen, a labor union, Mr. Erdogan dismissed international criticism of his handling of the protests and claimed that Turkish intelligence knew three months ago about local and foreign efforts to inflict chaos in Turkey, according to a union official who attended the meeting and who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

"There are people who claim this is the Turkish Spring, but what they do not see is that Turkey has been living through its spring since 2002," said Mr. Erdogan, referring to the year his Justice and Development Party won a majority of seats in Parliament.

"By tomorrow at the latest, the Gezi Park incident will end," he continued. "This is a public park, not an area of occupation."

For nearly two weeks, the prime minister has remained largely defiant, demanding that protesters leave the square, placing armed police officers on standby to sweep the area and insisting that the demonstrations were nothing like the Arab Spring protests, which ousted entrenched leaders across the Middle East and northern Africa. But as homemade firebombs and tear gas wafted through the city center, it seemed that Mr. Erdogan and his supporters had miscalculated the opposition's tenacity and conviction.

"Thugs! Thugs!" a protester shouted at the police as she was shrouded in a cloud of tear gas. "Let God bring the end of you!"

The demonstrations began over a plan to tear out the last significant green space in the center of the city, Gezi Park in Taksim Square, and to replace it with a mall designed like an Ottoman-era barracks. Mr. Erdogan, who once advised the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, to negotiate and compromise, sent the police to clear the park.

The tactic backfired, leading to large protests and expressions of frustration at Mr. Erdogan's rising authoritarian streak. Environmentalists and conservationists were joined in the protest by radical leftists and street hooligans. Mr. Erdogan pulled the police back, but for days Taksim has been a sprawling hub of grievance against him and his party.

On Monday, he offered to talk on Wednesday -- but then he sent the police back to clear out the protesters. By Wednesday morning, the operation had succeeded, but anger over Mr. Erdogan's handling of the protests had not abated.

In Taksim Square, the police cleared out most of the barricades set up by protesters on streets that surround the park, while anti-riot police and their armored vehicles stood guard around the old opera house, which was stripped of political banners and posters that had been decorating its facade for more than 10 days.

A smaller group of police officers circled the Republic monument in the heart of the square, preventing groups from putting their banners on a statue of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey.

The medical aid tent inside the park had to be moved after the police fired tear gas in and around it, injuring the medical workers and protesters.

On Wednesday, the Bianet news site reported that Ethem Sarisuluk, a protester who was reported to have been struck on the head by a plastic bullet on June 1, was brain dead. Two other protesters and a police officer have been killed, while at least 4,947 have been injured in the violence.

Thousands of black-robed lawyers left courthouses around the country on Wednesday to protest the behavior of the police, television images showed.

After the meeting with the labor union, Mr. Erdogan met separately with a group of 11 people, including academics, artists and students, in Ankara. Taksim Solidarity, an umbrella group of protest organizers that had been excluded, said the meeting with the smaller group was an effort to mislead Turkish public opinion and would not produce anything while police violence continued.

The smoldering violence represents Mr. Erdogan's worst political crisis since coming to power a decade ago. It also highlights the kind of class politics that have divided society, with his conservative religious followers strongly supporting his position. But his political base -- a majority -- has not protected the economy, which is suffering as the currency loses value and the cost of borrowing rises.

Analysts now worry that Mr. Erdogan, instead of finding a way out of the crisis, has only made it worse by hardening divisions among his constituents, and by digging in.

"The leaders may be searching for a way out of the deadlock," Melih Asik, a columnist, wrote in Milliyet, a centrist newspaper. "However, has inciting one half of the people against the other half ever been a remedy for overcoming such a crisis? If limitless anger does not give way to common sense, Turkey will have a very difficult job ahead."

Mr. Erdogan, in rally after rally over the weekend, sought to energize the conservative masses who propelled him to power by invoking his personal history as an Islamist leader opposed to the old secular state and its undemocratic nature. His supporters represent a social class that was previously marginalized, and Mr. Erdogan has used his speeches to play on those class resentments.

"The potatohead bloke, itching his belly -- this was how they regarded us for decades," he said in a speech on Tuesday. "They think we do not know anything about politics, arts, theater, cinema, poetry, paintings, aesthetics, architecture."

Though he was democratically elected, unlike the Arab leaders he has counseled, commentators say he appears to have appropriated several tactics of those ousted by popular uprisings. In addition to sending in the police, he has blamed foreigners for stoking the unrest -- a refrain also heard in Cairo and Damascus, Syria.

"Those who attempt to sink the bourse, you will collapse," Mr. Erdogan said at one of several speeches he gave on Sunday. "If we catch your speculation, we will choke you. No matter who you are, we will choke you."

But there is a danger, analysts say, because even with a strong majority as his base, he is vulnerable if the crisis drags on. Several columnists for Zaman, a pro-Islamist newspaper linked to Fethullah Gulen, an important spiritual leader in Turkey who is exiled in the United States, have become critical of Mr. Erdogan's intimidation of the news media and his pursuit of a powerful presidential system.

The White House called Tuesday for dialogue to resolve differences between the government, a close ally of the United States, and the protesters.

"We continue to follow events in Turkey with concern, and our interest remains supporting freedom of expression and assembly, including the right to peaceful protest," a White House spokeswoman said in a statement.

Speaking in Paris on Wednesday, Egemen Bagis, Turkey's chief negotiator with the European Union, said protesters in Taksim Square had a democratic right to protest. But he said that terrorists had infiltrated the square and that Turkey had a right to defend itself from violence and provocation.

"Those who resort to violence will be dealt with like they are in all democratic societies," he said, arguing that the situation was analogous to allowing Al Qaeda to put banners or posters at the Statue of Liberty or Times Square.

Asked how it was that Mr. Erdogan had supported democracy movements in Egypt and Syria, yet appeared to be resorting to the kind of language used by some dictators, Mr. Bagis said such analogies were baseless.

"After the first night of demonstrations, people in Western media said the Turkish Spring had started," he said. "I highly condemn that approach. Comparing what is happening in Turkey to Arab Spring is out of sight, out of logic. Turkey is a democracy. There is a campaign to tarnish a democratically elected government."

Mr. Bagis blamed unspecified outside interests for seeking to undermine and destabilize Turkey and said that in due course, Mr. Erdogan would make public the names of those responsible. Attempts to label Mr. Erdogan as authoritarian are slanderous and unacceptable, he said.

He warned that those who tried to impede Turkey's progress would not succeed. "I have bad news for them. They will not be able to stop us."

When the day began it appeared that the government had a cautious strategy aimed at reining in the protests by clearing the square, but leaving the demonstrators in the park. A Twitter message from the provincial governor, Huseyin Avni Mutlu, said, "This morning you are in the safe hands of your police brothers."

But there was so much distrust in the park that demonstrators began girding for an attack. Some scribbled their blood types on their arms in ink, in case they needed emergency care.

On Tuesday night, the police began firing tear gas in the park, where many demonstrators were as critical of the protest violence as of the police. "It started with throwing stones, but now the extremists are sinking to the level of the police by throwing fireworks and firebombs," said Ece Yavuz, 36. "We will not participate in this violence."

Dan Bilefsky contributed reporting from Paris.

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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