Barricades bolster Turkey's Taksim Square protests
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A record number of protesters gathered in Istanbul’s Taksim Square over the weekend, suggesting that anti-government demonstrators have no intention of backing down despite increasingly intolerant rhetoric from Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
in Istanbul, Turkey
Will Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan have the patience to wait for the anti-government uprising that has swept Istanbul’s Taksim Square to run out of steam?
That question is hot on the lips of several participants in the mass protests that saw record numbers of Turks swarming the emblematic gathering place at the centre of the country’s largest city over the weekend.
Turkey’s Islamic-rooted, conservative government responded on Sunday by calling on supporters to attend two demonstrations, in the capital city of Ankara on June 15 and in Istanbul on June 16.
But Erdogan’s warnings about the “limits” of the government’s patience went largely unheeded by the tens of thousands who showed up this past weekend to voice their anger at the government.
And, according to them, Erdogan’s statement only makes a peaceful resolution to the stand-off increasingly unlikely.
“The protesters here know that they’re a minority in Turkish society, and I’m scared that Erdogan’s supporters will come here and attack those camped out in Gezi Park [an area inside Taksim Square, the demolition of which was one of the initial motivations behind the protests],” said Melike, a 23-year-old nurse who has been helping treat those injured in clashes with police.
Despite that fear, Melike strolled down Avenue Istiqlal, a pedestrian street leading to a Taksim Square, beer in hand. Though she views Erdogan as an impetuous and unpredictable leader, she also says that police raids would be dangerous for the government’s image.
Protests protected by barricades
Taksim Square is surrounded by makeshift barricades meant to slow police raids and allow protesters to gather in force on the front lines.
“We can bring 250 people to the front very quickly,” explained Serif, a member of a small group of activists wearing helmets and gas masks.
With a red hood offsetting his steel-blue eyes, Serif calls himself a “patriot” and says he is ready to fight to the finish to prevent what he sees as rampant Islamisation of his country.
Still, he has no illusions.
“By taking us by surprise and throwing tear gas grenades from helicopters, the police could without a doubt gain the upper hand,” he said. “I’m sure that 80% of the people occupying Gezi Park would take off as soon as they started getting hit by tear gas.”
But a police raid would not be easy. Riot police stationed near Erdogan’s office, along the Bosphorus River, would have to get through 13 successive barricades arranged over a half-kilometre on an uphill slope.
A De Gaulle or a Putin?
These barricades, reinforced day after day, have become a crucial visual symbol in the publicity and media stand-off between the protesters and the Turkish government, according to Esat Sabay, a thirty-year-old businessman who describes himself as a “concerned citizen”.
Sabay says he has come to see with his own eyes the demonstrations that have been able to proceed within an area blocked off from all police presence – a first in several centuries of Turkish and Ottoman history.
“The outcome of this movement does not just depend on holding on to Taksim,” Sabay told FRANCE 24. “The protesters also need to project a positive image of what they’re doing. It’s a bit like in the film ‘Gladiator’; ‘Win the people, and you’ll win your freedom’.”
Following a group of young protesters wearing Anonymous masks, Sabay scrambled over a barricade. “If the protesters hang on, it will be up to Erdogan to decide if he wants to go down in history as a De Gaulle or a Putin,” he concluded.