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The Battle for the Heart of Istanbul Is Raging On

It was another weekend of death, teargas and political grandstanding in Turkey.

by Jonathan Wiltshire, Photos: Oren Ziv
17 June 2013, 10:15am

Early on Saturday night, the protest village of tents and flags that had been set up in Istanbul's Gezi Park was razed, and its inhabitants emphatically tear-gassed and cleared, at the behest of Turkey's combative Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. In response, anti-government protesters (mostly, but not exclusively, made up from Turkey's young urban middle class) took to the country's streets all weekend, building barricades and clashing with riot police, with crowds of several thousands blocking major highways and bridges in an effort to join them.

On Sunday – after a morning of tear-gassing in Istanbul, Ankara and other major cities – Erdogan was delivering a set-piece speech to a huge pro-government rally on the outskirts of Istanbul. Designed to be a show of national unity under his Justice and Development Party (AKP), he was defiant and paranoid, deriding protesters as "marginal" and blaming the international press – CNN and BBC, in particular – for being "provocateurs".

Protesters are blaming Erdogan's fiery rhetoric for the brutal policing that, over the past few weeks, has killed five (including one policeman), injured around 5,000 and, this weekend, led to the arrest of more than 400. On Saturday night, a pregnant protester lost her baby. Many of those arrested were doctors who had been volunteering their help to stricken protesters (the doctors, dressed in their white coats, were easily picked out). Around 150 of those detained are still unaccounted for, with authorities unwilling to tell lawyers their whereabouts.

Erdogan, buoyed by victories in three consecutive elections, remains popular. But he's clearly worried enough about his future that he felt he had to hold a Soviet-style mass rally in Istanbul to reassert his support. There, Erdogan spoke to a crowd of around 300,000 people for two hours. He was flanked by a huge portrait of himself and stood before giant Turkish flags held aloft by the crowd, all while TV cameras captured a celebratory flotilla of boats on an otherwise empty Bosphorus (ferries linking the European and Asian sides of the city had been cancelled, presumably in order to reduce the numbers headed to join the protests in the centre).

Yet, as Erdogan told his supporters – many of whom had been bussed in for the occasion – that "Taksim is not Turkey", on the other side of the city many central neighbourhoods were cloaked in CS gas. Riot police were attempting to push protesters back from hurriedly-assembled barricades close to Gezi Park and Taksim Square. Early on Monday morning, it's clear that neither the leaderless protesters nor Erdogan seem particularly interested in de-escalating the situation. Despite a self-censoring Turkish media, detailed reports of police violence have accumulated over the past few weeks, leading a large cross-section of society to feel unified in opposition to the Prime Minister and his socially-conservative party. Erdogan is in denial about the power of social media and, even, of word of mouth. Every night, in most Istanbul neighbourhoods, old ladies can be seen leaning from their windows, banging pots and pans, the drivers below tooting their car horns, in support of the protesters on the streets.

So what was set to be a relatively calm weekend turned into a sleepless one. On Saturday night, in a bizarre and tense siege, the lobby of a luxury hotel on Taksim – which had been serving as a makeshift infirmary and refuge for protesters in the park – was repeatedly gassed. In the chaos, police stormed the hotel to confiscate masks, helmets and anti-tear gas solution. The crowds around Taksim were also being dispersed with tear gas and water cannons containing pepper spray, which were burning protesters' skin.

In the side streets, I saw men having their shirts ripped from their backs, then being hosed down with the corrosive spray. Nisantisi, central Istanbul's most upmarket neighbourhood, seemed to be the focal point for the worst of Sunday's CS gassing. Eyewitnesses living in the area say residents took in strangers who were choking from tear gas, some of them throwing up, and units of police brandishing batons chased any stragglers away. Residents there told me that the pavements were strewn with empty gas canisters, peppered with the odd spent rubber bullet.

In a sign that Erdogan has underestimated the depth of resentment over his rhetoric and divisive tactics, military vehicles were called in to Istanbul late on Saturday night to help riot police. In addition, a further thousand police from across Turkey's provinces were flown in on Sunday to try to keep control. Perhaps now Erdogan can begin to acknowledge that things are getting a bit out of hand.

When Taksim was reoccupied by police forces last Tuesday – which led to similar, if less intense, uproar – most Turks I've spoken to were surprised at how protesters were treated, at how much gas was used and at the deliberate, aggressive stance Erdogan took. But, come the weekend, those involved in the protests had adapted; what's notable about the most recent clashes is that, for many young Turks, carrying or wearing a gas mask, construction helmet and goggles is the new norm.

Heavy rain and fatigue mean that Istanbul is quiet in the early hours of Monday morning, although sporadic protests continue on a smaller scale. Ankara, which has seen heavier policing over the past weeks, remains tense. Monday will not be business as usual: major unions have announced strikes protesting police violence. The atmosphere on the street, and in people's apartments, remains anxious. Turks I've spoken to who are taking part in the protests have little idea of where this is headed. But after Erdogan's defiant show of political support and this weekend's marathon of protests and arrests, it's clear that no one's planning on backing down any time soon.

Follow Jonathan on Twitter: @jonwiltshire

Watch our film about the social uprising in Turkey – Istanbul Rising – here.