by Victor Kotsev
ISTANBUL — On Taksim square, a festive mood prevailed Friday, with barbecues smoking and street vendors carrying anything from beer to protective masks and goggles against tear gas.
Elsewhere in Turkey, however, the atmosphere remained tense one week after the start of the mass protests against police brutality, aggressive gentrification and government-imposed Islamization of Turkish society.
Some three people died and more than 4,355 were wounded in the violent police crackdown on the demonstrations, according to Amnesty International and Turkish rights groups. Several people remain in critical condition, and at least ten have lost an eye, the Turkish Medical Association told journalists.
Numerous eyewitness accounts suggest that the police deliberately fired tear gas canisters at people. At least two reporters and an opposition member of parliament were among the injured.
An additional 3,300 people were arrested, including at least 25 social media bloggers accused of sedition and 11 foreigners including European Erasmus students.
In the past days, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan slammed social media as “the worst menace to society” and branded the protesters as “looters” and “alcoholics,” echoing the words of North African dictators recently deposed in the Arab Spring such as Egypt’s former president Hosni Mubarak.
In his absence during a trip to North Africa, his deputy Bulent Arinc and President Abdullah Gul took a more conciliatory approach, vowing to listen to demands of the people, but on his return Thursday morning Erdogan once again struck a defiant tone.
“These protests must end immediately,” the prime minister told a crowd of supporters who had gathered to meet him at the airport. “No power but Allah can stop Turkey’s rise.”
Protesters in Gezi park, on the other hand, vouched to stay there at least until their demands, including the release of arrestees and the sacking of top police chiefs over the grossly excessive use of police violence, were met .
Some said they would not go home until Erdogan quit, though most acknowledged that this may not be immediately feasible. “This is a leader who is saying, ‘Everything I do is right and every other thing is wrong,’” said Ferah, a 50-year old woman who was demonstrating. “This is a dictator.”
Victor Kotsev is a freelance writer based in Sofia, Bulgaria.