By Parisa Hafezi and Daren Butler
A LONE, silent vigil by a man in Istanbul inspired copycat protests yesterday, as police detained dozens of people across Turkey in an operation linked to three weeks of often violent demonstrations against Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan.
Overnight in Ankara, riot police used tear gas and water cannon to disperse hundreds of protesters who had gathered in and around the government quarter of Kizilay.
But in stark contrast to the recent fierce clashes in several cities, dozens of protesters merely stood in silence in Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir, inspired by a man who lit up social media by doing just that for eight hours in Istanbul’s Taksim Square on Monday.
“I am just an ordinary citizen of this country,” Erdem Gunduz, dubbed the ‘Standing Man’ on Twitter, told Hurriyet TV. “We want our voices to be heard.”
Interior Minister Muammer Guler said 62 people had been detained in Turkey’s biggest city, Istanbul, and 23 in the capital, Ankara. The state broadcaster TRT said 13 had been held in Eskisehir.
Protests have frequently turned into fierce clashes between police firing teargas and water cannon and masked demonstrators throwing bottles and other missiles, images that have dented Turkey’s reputation for stability in a volatile Middle East.
Western countries have expressed concern about the police’s handling of the protests against Erdogan, whose authority rests on three successive election victories, the last achieved with 50 per cent support.
Critics accuse him of disregarding the half of the population who did not vote for him, and some say he has connived to subvert the secular constitution and create an order based on religious principles – something Erdogan denies.
The 59-year-old has struck a defiant tone throughout the unrest, which poses the greatest public challenge to a 10-year rule marked by economic boom and a concerted drive to extend economic and diplomatic influence beyond Turkish frontiers.
“In the face of a comprehensive and systematic movement of violence, the police displayed an unprecedented democratic stance and successfully passed the test of democracy,” he told members of his ruling AK Party in parliament.
“The police have been represented as using violence. Who used violence? All of the terrorists, the anarchists, the rioters,” he said in a speech punctuated by loud cheers.
Officials have sought to distinguish between those they considered legitimate protesters and others described variously as “riff-raff” and “terrorists”.
But Kemal Kilicdaroglu, leader of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), goaded the leader.
“The master of dictators was not even able to be an apprentice of democracy,” he told party members. “We have a prime minister who has lost his dignity.”
The unrest began as a small action by environmentalists opposed to government plans to build a replica Ottoman-era barracks on Gezi Park, one of the few green spaces in the centre of the teeming city of Istanbul.
But it has broadened to a protest movement against what Erdogan’s critics say is his domineering style and tendency to meddle in people’s private lives – a tendency some opponents say is driven by Erdogan’s Islamic faith.
The unrest, which has eased since Istanbul saw some of the worst clashes so far on Saturday, has left four people dead, including one policeman, and about 7,500 injured, according to the Turkish Medical Association.
Yesterday, Cem Oezdemir, the co-chair of Germany’s opposition Greens party, who is of Turkish origin, joined the international chorus of condemnation of Erdogan’s handling of the unrest.
“Erdogan will no longer be able to travel the world presenting himself as a reformer and a moderniser,” he said in an interview published in the German newspaper Die Welt. “He won’t be able to shake off the images of brutal violence.”
By Parisa Hafezi and Daren Butler