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 square, with protests spreading to 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 the city’s landmark Taksim Square. In an area normally abuzz with tourists, stores were shuttered and protesters fled into luxury hotels for shelter.
Turkish authorities later removed barricades and allowed thousands of demonstrators into the square in an effort to calm tension. Sounding defiant even as he 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.
“I am not claiming that a government that has received the majority of the votes has limitless powers … and can do whatever it wants,” Erdogan said in a televised speech. “Just as the majority cannot impose its will on the minority, the minority cannot impose its will on the majority.”
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 canister 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.
At Taksim, protesters chanted “Tayyip resign!” Turkish celebrities joined the crowds, with thousands milling around the square, waving flags, and cheering and clapping at anti-government speeches. Many drank beer in protest of newly enacted alcohol curbs, singing “cheers Tayyip!”
Private NTV television reported that protesters built barricades at entrances to the square to prevent police from returning.
Sporadic clashes continued between police and a group of protesters who were trying to approach Erdogan’s office in Istanbul, which is located at a former Ottoman palace. The Dogan news agency said the protesters had set an abandoned police vehicle on fire.
Although scenes at the square brought to mind Cairo’s Tahrir Square, the center of an uprising that ended Egyptian President Hosni Mubarek’s rule, the protests were not likely bring down Erdogan’s government, one analyst said.
The protests were more of a warning, according to Ahmet Cigdem, a professor of sociology and political science at Ankara’s Gazi University.
“The people showed that the government’s rule is not guaranteed just because they obtained some 50 percent of the votes and just because there is no powerful political opposition in Turkey,” Cigdem said.