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Tear gas gives way to festivity in Turkey’s Taksim Square

Protesters in Turkey celebrated their hold — for now — on Istanbul’s Taksim Square. But it’s unclear what will happen next in the anti-government movement.

Thousands of anti-government Turkish protesters turned Taksim Square into a must-see local tourism site today, posing on burnt vehicles and barricades after two days of street battles, as the prime ministerial target of their anger defended his policies. 

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan dismissed the protests against his rule, saying he had “no words” for those who “call someone who has served the people a ‘dictator.’”

Mr. Erdogan said: “I am not the master of the people. Dictatorship does not run in my blood or in my character. I am the servant of the people.”

Tens of thousands of mostly secular protesters waged pitched battles with police, and finally seized control of Istanbul’s central Taksim Square on Saturday afternoon. What started as a small sit-in protest over the protection of trees in Gezi Park, due for demolition to make a shopping mall, turned into a wave of anger against what protesters see as Mr. Erdogan’s authoritarian rule.

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In the exact spot where yesterday protesters choked by volleys of tear gas tried to wash their eyes of the sting, today they posed for photos of each other climbing on makeshift barricades with arms raised in triumph.

Uncertainty ahead

Despite the festive ambiance and proclamations of “victory” today, many questions remain about how this protest – conducted largely by a secular minority, against the decade-long leadership of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) – will change long-term politics in Turkey.

Also uncertain is whether even the coming days will see a peaceful resolution and calming of tension, or further eruptions of violence with police trying again to clear the square. Turkey’s interior ministry announced that nearly 1,000 arrests had been made, and that protests spread to dozens of cities in half of Turkey’s provinces. Violent clashes between police and protesters in the capital Ankara continued today, unabated.

“Our prime minister is like a fascist, he takes everything he wants, but we are standing up, we want our rights, and I am very happy for that because with this AKP government they have been pushed down,” says a middle-aged housewife called Derya, who was taking photos with her husband beside an overturned police car.

“Not now, there won’t be change. But if [Erdogan] insists, there will be many protests. It could be like World War I, which started with the death of just one person, and then spread into that war,” says Derya.

She says recent decisions by the Islamist-rooted AKP to rush through legislation limiting alcohol consumption, and lack of coverage of the protests on Turkish television, added to the unease. Derya also notes that the secular Turks on the streets now are not the majority who have elected Erdogan three times in a row – most recently in 2011 with nearly half the electorate.

“We have to protest, but we are a minority, not the majority. They try to buy people with money and a little food,” she says. She bristles at Erdogan’s description of those on the street as terrorists. 

“They are the terrorists, the police,” says Derya. “The government does terrorism to us. Everyone should have their rights.”

Street party atmosphere

Taksim today resembled a street party, with chants against “fascism,” waving of Turkish and opposition party flags, and denunciations of police tactics that left sizable and affluent neighborhoods repeatedly swathed in tear gas.

Families pushed children in strollers next to burnt vehicles for a photo opportunity. Young Turks clamored atop smashed buses. Other protesters – some still wearing surgical masks and with goggles around their necks, like badges of participation in the tear gas-soaked revolt – climbed on makeshift barricades which blocked every entrance to the square.

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In some places, volunteers with trash bags collected every scrap of garbage from the square, and an adjacent construction site.

In a speech and interviews, Erdogan sought to portray the protests as ideologically motivated against him, and not about trees, claiming that as the former mayor of Istanbul and then premier, he had overseen the planting of 2 billion trees and creation of 160 national parks – and that he was “still planting.”

Erdogan also stated that he would complete a controversial mosque project in Taksim: “I am not going to seek the permission of the [opposition] or a handful of plunderers,” he said.

The prime minister asked why people were revolting: “Did we take your democratic and voting rights away?” He called Twitter and social media a “menace” to society, and vowed that the development project of Gezi Park – removal of a tree-lined park to make way for shops built into a new façade of an Ottoman barracks, which sparked the protest, would continue.

“We are living in a historical moment; we don’t know what will happen because we have never been here before,” says Eda, a history student at Bogazici University.

“As Turkish youth, we have been sleeping since the AKP came, for more than 10 years, and now we are just awake,” says Eda, who asks that only her first name be used. “For 10 years we knew what was happening, but only commented. I don’t know what fueled us, but now we are acting.”

Don’t call it a Spring

She and others dislike comparisons between Turkey’s protest and the Arab Spring uprisings that toppled autocrats in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya in 2011. Those were distinctly Arab events, they say, while Turkey’s protest is about more inclusive democratic leadership.

“This is the radicalism of the moment,” Eda says, pointing to a nearby police car, where other students cavorted and took photos of themselves, as if on a new playground toy. “This is not the consensus. It’s just a show.”

Passersby also kicked at the overturned satellite van of Turkish NTV news, while one man banged at the satellite set-up with a wrench. One student with a Turkish flag draped over her back added her own graffiti to the vehicle. Joking about how Turkish media – especially TV channels – were slow to show the worst anti-government violence in years, she penned: “Unbiased? He he, yes,” and added a smiley face. 

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* Follow Scott Peterson on Twitter at @peterson__scott