Jacob Resneck , Special for USA TODAY 4:23 p.m. EDT June 3, 2013
Protests follow Erdogan’s approval of alcohol ban
Turks blame Erdogan, saying he is too authoritarian
PM says he can bring ‘millions’ to streets
ISTANBUL – Drunkards, extremists, foreign agents and even Twitter – Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan is heaping blame on everyone except himself and his ruling party for an outbreak of violence involving a broad spectrum of Turkish society.
“He’s not been behaving rationally at all,” said Gareth Jenkins, an Istanbul-based researcher with the Silk Road Studies Program at John Hopkins University. “He appears to be becoming almost delusional and refusing to accept the reality that these protests are mainly spontaneous and are being organized by small groups of people who’ve never engaged in politics before.”
Dismissing the thousands of demonstrators confronting police in cities across Turkey, the prime minister has labeled them “looters” and “bums.”
Even so, during the past few days demonstrations have gained momentum.
STORY: Tensions in Turkey remain high
FIRST PERSON: Moments of peace amid protests
Officials report that since Friday there have been more than 1,700 arrests and hundreds of injuries as protesters confronted police armed with tear gas and water cannons. In Istanbul, an Ottoman-era mosque near the prime minister’s office has been converted into a makeshift field hospital where volunteer doctors are treating the wounded.
The demonstrations follow decisions made by Erdogan’s government to introduce tighter restrictions on alcohol, to wade into social debates like reproductive rights and to boast about its attempts to raise a devout generation of Muslim youth.
But despite the unprecedented protests for modern Turkey in Istanbul and the capital city Ankara, Erdogan remains unrepentant.
A protester wearing a Turkish flag decorated with the image of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, writes slogans on a banner that other protesters placed in Taksim Square in Istanbul on Monday.(Photo: Kostas Tsironis, AP)
“This is a protest organized by extremist elements,” Erdogan said Monday a press conference before leaving for a four-day trip to Africa. “We will not give away anything to those who live arm-in-arm with terrorism.”
In response to demonstrators who publicly mock his ideas and call for his resignation, the Turkish prime minister has also lashed out at political rivals, blaming them for provoking the public. He also blamed social media, the popularity of which has soared in recent days as protesters complain Turkish broadcasters have given scant coverage to the unrest.
“There is a problem called Twitter right now and you can find every kind of lie there,” Erdogan proclaimed Sunday. “The thing that is called social media is the biggest trouble for society right now.”
Meanwhile, in Istanbul’s Taksim Square, police have stayed out of sight since withdrawing Saturday afternoon with crowds reaching a peak of more than 100,000 around the square.
On Monday evening, crowds began to gather in Gezi Park where on Friday police injured scores of demonstrators who were protesting at plans to raze the park to make way for another shopping mall.
Despite a court injunction against the plan, Erdogan insists the project will go ahead and says he will also build a mosque as well as raze a nearby culture center.
As riot police used tear gas against protesters for a fourth straight day in Istanbul, Turkey’s president and prime minister displayed wide differences Monday in their responses to those taking to the streets. One death was reported. (June 3)
Ridvan Urper, a 27-year-old university research assistant, who arrived in Gezi Park to demonstrate for better public education, said the idea that anti-government demonstrations are the work of agitators is absurd.
“Erdogan is trying to manipulate the process,” Urper told USA TODAY. “This all happened spontaneously. This is not the work of any political party.”
Turkey-based analysts agree.
“This started out genuinely as a people’s movement,” said Didem Collinsworth, a Turkey analyst with International Crisis Group in Istanbul.
“A segment of society, mostly middle-class secularists, felt frustrated and alienated by the government’s recent policies and particularly the prime minister’s uncompromising rhetoric.”
Still, Erdogan has accused the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) of stoking tensions. He has vowed to raze a cultural center dedicated to Turkey’s first leader, and founder of the party, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. He has also claimed he’s restraining his own supporters from taking to the streets, warning darkly that if the CHP could call 100,000 to the streets, he could call “a million.”
Erdogan’s Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) was re-elected two years ago with about 50% of the vote and still remains the most popular political movement in Turkey. And it’s this kind of polarizing talk – warning of street battles between rival supporters – that is especially dangerous, warn analysts.
“He should tone down this kind of rhetoric,” said Collinsworth. “Turkey is a polarized society and I think the protests show that. But I don’t think the people want to bring it to a point of ‘us’ versus ‘them,’ and neither should the prime minister.”
Meanwhile, Jenkins says the prime minister’s behavior is counterproductive to his own political future.
“He’s certainly lost a lot of credibility domestically in Turkey, even with AKP supporters and internationally,” he said. “I think for the international community there’s a very real understanding now just how authoritarian and egotistical he has become.”