Protests resumed at an Istanbul park after the country's deputy prime minister issued a conditional official apology over the heavy-handed police attempts to disperse the crowd last week. The demonstrations, which appeared to have caught the ruling government of Recip Tayyan Edrogan off guard, represent the first serious challenge to Erdogan's authority since his taking office nearly a decade ago.
In a decade at the helm, Erdogan has become the most powerful Turkish leader in generations, overseeing a remarkable economic transformation of his nation and making Turkey a much more assertive player in international affairs and a key U.S. ally.On Tuesday, Turkey's largest trade-union confederation announced a two-day general strike as more protests spread throughout the country. The strike is expected to affect schools and universities along with select government offices throughout Turkey as Erdogan went ahead with a previously scheduled state visit to Morocco.
But Erdogan has lost a bit of swagger at home since he visited Washington last month and failed in his very public efforts to persuade President Obama to send more military aid to Syrian opposition forces. Widespread condemnation of violence by government security forces in Taksim Square stands to chasten Erdogan further, analysts said.
The protest and clashes began last week when peaceful demonstrators gathered in Istanbul's Gezei Park. The park itself was slated to be razed so that a new shopping center could be built, part of a massive construction boom in Istanbul that has seen a number of historic buildings demolished to make way for newer residential and retail spaces as well as construction firms closely allied with Erdogan's government being awarded lucrative contracts. The plans also reportedly call for the demolition of the nearby Ataturk Cultural Center and historic Ottoman-era military barracks. Fans of Istanbul's three soccer teams- considered despised rivals under the best of circumstances- donned their respective team colors and joined protestors in the park while taunting police in riot gear.
"Go on spray, go on spray, spray your pepper gas. Take off your helmets, put down your truncheons and let's see who's the tough guy," sang the fans, taunting police with a Besiktas chant which has become popular with the demonstrators.Some municipalities have also reportedly have refused to provide water to police vehicles- specifically the riot controlled vehicles called TOMAs. Images and video of uniformed police in riot gear striking unarmed demonstrators- some of whom were already subdued and handcuffed- with truncheons and fists circulating online have only served to galvanize the opposition.
There are tales of Galatasaray fans coming to the aid of Fenerbahce supporters trapped by the police, or of fans rushing down the hill from Taksim to the aid of rival supporters in the nearby Besiktas district on the shores of the Bosphorus.
"We are normally enemies, but this has really brought us together. It's never happened before," said university student Mert Gurses, 18, wearing a black-and-white Besiktas scarf and chatting with friends near the fish market in Besiktas.
It is a remarkable transformation in mood among fans more usually soured with animosity which sometimes spills into violence, tainting the image of Turkish football.
Just three weeks ago, a Fenerbahce fan was stabbed to death at an Istanbul bus stop by someone wearing a red-and-yellow Galatasaray shirt after an end-of-season derby match.
While there has been opposition to Erdogan in the past, it has been mostly fragmented. Despite Erdogan and his allies being caught off guard by the protests and public backlash against the government's handling of the demonstrators in the park, the Turkish PM has enjoyed support from about 50% of the population until fairly recently. A number of Turks say that recent legislation restricting alcohol sales and lowering the age at which school children could enroll in Islamic madrasas show that Erdgoan's government is moving towards a gradual Islamicization of Turkey, despite safeguards in the nation's constitution preventing exactly that happening.
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