By Humeyra Pamuk and Ayla Jean Yackley
Turkey’s president called on Wednesday for dialogue with legitimate demonstrators after riot police cleared the Istanbul square at the center of almost two weeks of protest against Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan.
Abdullah Gul, who has taken a more conciliatory tone than Erdogan during the unrest, said it was the duty of government to engage with its critics but appeared to close ranks with the prime minister, saying violent protests were a different matter.
Erdogan, who has dismissed the demonstrators as “riff-raff”, was due to meet a group of public figures to discuss the unrest, which began as a peaceful campaign against plans to build on Gezi Park abutting Istanbul’s Taksim Square.
“If people have objections … then to engage in a dialogue with these people, to hear out what they say is no doubt our duty,” Gul told reporters.
“Those who employ violence are something different and we have to distinguish them … We must not give violence a chance … This would not be allowed in New York, this would not be allowed in Berlin,” Gul said during a visit to the Black Sea coast.
Riot police fought running battles with pockets of protesters overnight, clearing Taksim. By dawn, the square was strewn with wreckage from bulldozed barricades but taxis crossed it for the first time since the troubles started. Several hundred remained in an encampment of tents in Gezi Park.
Taksim Solidarity, an umbrella group for the demonstrators, said the delegation due to meet Erdogan was not representative and the meeting little more than symbolic.
“Had Solidarity spoken with anyone in this group to share information, the meeting with the prime minister would have meaning. Now it doesn’t,” said Bulent Muftuoglu, a leading figure in Solidarity and an official of Turkey’s Greens Party.
Hundreds of lawyers packed the entrance hall of Istanbul’s main Palace of Justice, chanting slogans to protest at the detention of their colleagues a day earlier in a demonstration supporting the Gezi Park protests.
“Prosecutor resign”, “Everywhere is Taksim, everywhere is resistance,” “shoulder-to-shoulder against fascists”, the lawyers shouted, dressed in their court gowns, some shaking their fists, others clapping.
“The police are intervening in an illegal way against citizens exercising their constitutional and democratic rights to protest,” Istanbul Bar Association Chairman Umit Kocasakal said in a statement to the crowd.
The night had brought some of the worst clashes since the troubles began. Police fired tear gas into thousands of people gathered on Taksim, including people in office clothes who had gathered after work, some with families with children.
The crowd scattered into narrow streets around, leaving a hard core of protesters to return, lighting bonfires and stoning water cannon. Police then launched tear gas attacks again, the cycle repeating itself until numbers dwindled.
A group of 500 lawyers held a protest march in Ankara and there were smaller protests by lawyers in other cities.
In the fighting talk that first endeared him to voters 10 years ago, Erdogan said on Tuesday he would not kneel before the protesters and that “this Tayyip Erdogan won’t change”.
The United States, which has held up Erdogan’s Turkey in the past as an example of Muslim democracy that could benefit other countries in the Middle East, expressed concern about events in Turkey and urged dialogue between government and protesters.
German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said on Wednesday the Turkish government was sending the wrong signal at home and abroad with its reaction to protests, describing pictures from Taksim square as disturbing.
“We expect Prime Minister Erdogan to de-escalate the situation, in the spirit of European values, and to seek a constructive exchange and peaceful dialogue,” Westerwelle said.
Erdogan has accused foreign forces, international media and market speculators of stoking conflict and trying to undermine the economy of the only largely Muslim NATO state.
Turkish markets stabilized slightly on Wednesday, with the stock market gaining 1.8 percent, having been hit by a sharp sell-off sparked partly by the protests. Stocks had fallen by more than 20 percent since 31 May.
Turkey’s broadcasting authority announced it was fining four television channels over their coverage of the protests on the grounds of inciting violence, media reports said.
A fierce crackdown on the initial Gezi Park protest triggered the wider unrest, drawing in a broad alliance of secularists, nationalists, professionals, unionists and students – some of whom would never before have considered sharing a political platform.
Erdogan argues that the broader mass of people are at best the unwitting tools of political extremists and terrorists and points to his 50 percent vote in the last of three successive electoral victories for his political authority.
Erdogan swept to power in 2002 and broke the political power of an army that had toppled four governments over four decades, including Turkey’s first Islamist-led government with which he was associated. He also opened talks with the European Union, introduced some social reforms and sought to negotiate and end to a long-running Kurdish rebellion.
What is notably absent during this crisis is the speculation of a military coup that has in the past accompanied social unrest, some tribute to Erdogan’s reforms. Nor though does there seem to be any political alternative to a man who faces a weak opposition in parliament and fragmented groups on the streets.