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Istanbul protesters fear what a new day will bring

June 13, 2013|By Glen Johnson

ISTANBUL, Turkey -- It’s dawn and tea pots bubble above low flames. Faces appear, poking out from tents, with reddened eyes. The first cigarettes of the day are lit, their tips glowing orange. Smartphones glow as people line up in an exhausted haze, waiting for a breakfast of coffee, bread and cheese.

It is a slow start to the day, but the clock is ticking: Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Wednesday declared that the protests in Gezi Park would be over within 24 hours.

Scores of police are in Taksim Square. Some stand in the center, others sleep, their faces pressed against the windows of the vehicles that bused them here.

“Today or tomorrow they will come,” said Gusel, a recent graduate of an Istanbul university who asked that his last name not be used for fear of arrest. “I have seen how the police act, we are all scared.”

Gusel said he is scared that tear gas canisters will come through the sycamore trees stretched skyward above him; scared of the plastic bullets and stun grenades. He worries about how to get out of the park -- several thousand are camped out there -- if acerbic gas blankets the area, sending people scurrying in a stampede. He’s scared of Erdogan.

“We have not responded to punches with punches. From now on security forces will respond differently,” Erdogan reportedly said late Wednesday, following a meeting with a group of protesters. “This issue will be over in 24 hours.”

The statement prompted outrage from advocacy groups that have urged the Turkish government to de-escalate the crisis, which Amnesty International said has given rise to “appalling levels of violence.”

“Prime Minister Erdogan’s outrageous statement is nothing short of a provocation, only likely to lead to more violence and more injured protesters." Andrew Gardner, a Turkey researcher at Amnesty International, said Tuesday in a statement.

Throughout the crisis, the incendiary rhetoric of Erdogan, who rose through the Islamic underground to become the most powerful man in Turkey, has exposed schisms in his Justice and Development Party, or AKP.

Through two weeks of civil disobedience the government’s response has appeared schizophrenic, with Erdogan’s comments juxtaposed against President Abdullah Gul’s and Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arnic’s more conciliatory statements.

While Erdogan talked of responding “to punches with punches,” senior AKP officials announced late Wednesday on the prime minister’s behalf that there may be a referendum on the issue of the park, a concession that could mitigate tension.

“We will respect the results of the referendum and do what the people decide in Istanbul,” said AKP Deputy Chairman Huseyin Celik, according to state media.

Yet the protesters in Gezi Park argue that the government has betrayed them too often.

They talk of the recent arrest of nearly 50 lawyers who were defending protesters; of the brutality throughout the country; that the governor of Istanbul promised that protesters would not be harmed and yet police stormed Taksim on Tuesday, three times entering Gezi Park seemingly searching for “marginal elements."

“The thing is, how will they hold a referendum on this? What will the question be?” said Temir Karadeniz, an activist. “I’m sure the government will manipulate the vote, twist the question.”

Though there are radical groups participating in the protest at some level -- the Revolutionary People’s Liberation Front, or DHKP-C, for example -- they thus far do not define the movement, an Occupy-style demonstration driven by a secular, nationalist strand of nonviolent youth previously alienated from Turkish political life.

“Erdogan’s approach has inflated the radical groups’ view of themselves, while radicalizing the mainstream groups,” said Hugh Pope, head of the International Crisis Group’s Turkish wing.

“The way to start dealing with the crisis is to engage with the mainstream opposition, and ensure they feel their grievances have been listened to -- as Gul did,” he said.

Veins of lightning streak through the sky above Gezi Park. People quietly sweep rubbish into piles. Hardhats are on, gas masks hang from necks. A small group plays football on the fringes of Taksim Square, their gas masks demarcating goal posts. Police officers' armored vehicles come to life.

The sense in the park, and on the streets of Istanbul, is that the demonstrations may have reached their final act. Everyone is holding his breath, waiting for whatever comes.

Ezgi, who also didn’t want to give her last name, is busy taping a flag to a tent. She is part of a Turkish youth group camped out in the park. Nearby, two men use trenchers to turn soil, planting a bed of flowers.

“The police will come with their gas and noise bombs,” she said. “I’m not afraid; I trust the people here to protect me.”

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Johnson is a special correspondent.

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