ISTANBUL – In a scene reminiscent of the Arab Spring, thousands of people on Saturday flooded Istanbul’s main square after a crackdown on an anti-government protest turned city streets into a battlefield clouded by tear gas.
Though he offered some concessions to demonstrators, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan remained largely defiant in the face of the biggest popular challenge to his power in a decade in office, insisting the protests are undemocratic and illegitimate.
Public anger has flared among urban and secular Turks after police violently broke up an anti-development sit-in in the landmark Taksim Square, with protests spreading to dozens of other cities as demonstrators denounced what they see as Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian style.
As the furious protests entered its second day, police fired tear gas and turned on water cannons at angry demonstrators, some of whom threw rocks and bottles on their march toward Taksim. In an area normally abuzz with tourists, stores were shuttered and protesters fled into luxury hotels for shelter. There were hundreds of arrests and people injured.
Turkish authorities later removed barricades and allowed thousands of demonstrators into the square in an effort to calm tension. Sounding defiant even as he bowed to protesters and pulled back police, Erdogan promised to stick to the government’s redevelopment plans – which protesters fear will remove one of the few green spaces in the sprawling city.
He called the protesters a “minority” that was trying to forcefully impose demands and challenged the opposition that he could easily summon a million people for a government rally.
Under Erdogan’s leadership, Turkey has boosted economic growth and raised its international profile, taking a central role in post-Arab Spring politics in the region. Though widely supported by rural and conservative religious Muslims, he remains a divisive figure in mainly secular circles and is criticized for his often abrasive style.
Hundreds of people were injured in the protests, including four people who permanently lost their eyesight after being hit by gas canisters or plastic bullets, Huseyin Demirdizen of Turkey’s Doctors’ Association told the Associated Press. He said at least two people injured in the protests are in life-threatening condition.
Interior Minister Muammer Guler said more than 900 people were detained during the protests but some of them were released after questioning.