Turkey unrest divides fond locals in PM’s birthplace

Supporters of Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan shout slogans as they wait for his arrival at Istanbul's Ataturk airport June 6, 2013. (Reuters)

At the pavement cafes of the Istanbul district where he grew up, folks speak fondly of Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. But even here, doubts are creeping in about his handling of a violent crackdown on protests against his rule.

The unrest broke out a few hundred meters (yards) from the Kasimpasa neighborhood, where as a young boy Erdogan hawked lemonade and bread rings and attended the local Koranic school before growing up into a successful businessman.

The recent police response to the protests has drawn stern nods of approval from some locals and frowns from others.

“He is one of the bravest prime ministers Turkey has known. This country is full of love and respect for him,” says Mithat Uran, an estate agent of 46, sitting at an open-air cafe with a glass of tea in his hand.

For Uran, the police were just doing their jobs when they violently dispersed protesters demonstrating a week ago against plans to bulldoze the trees in Istanbul’s Gezi Park, next to the protest hotspot Taksim Square.

“What’s a policeman supposed to do when someone throws stones and bricks against the state?” says Uran. “He hits back, that’s what he’s supposed to do.”

The national doctors’ union says 4,785 people have been injured, 43 of them seriously, as police have tried to quell the protests with tear gas, pepper spray and water cannon.

Ali Dagdelen, a 43-year-old construction employee, says he always has and always will vote for Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) “because they have done good things for the country.”

But in the past week, he adds, “some of the police went too far with their violence and have harmed the country for nothing.”

In a conservative neighborhood with a big mosque and countless headscarf-wearing Muslim women on the pavements, these locals are part of the one half of Turkey that supports the AKP -- a party grounded in conservative Islamic values.

They have voted Erdogan into office in the three past elections amid strong economic growth, handing him nearly 50 percent of the vote in 2011.

His supporters had stayed mostly silent in the week of crisis until Thursday night, when they rallied at the airport to welcome him back from a trip.

Erdogan said at the start of the unrest that he could “mobilize a million supporters” if he had to.

He has dismissed the protesters as “looters” and “extremists” and alleged that shadowy foreign agitators and “terrorists” are behind the trouble.

Dursun Bekci, 74, agrees that the real culprits behind the unrest lurk outside Turkey.

“Under Erdogan, Turkey is coming out of captivity. It is on its feet and has started to give orders instead of taking them,” Bekci said.

“The exploiters don’t like that,” he added, referring to the West. “So they are fuelling the revolt.”

Another local of Kasimpasa, Hayrullah Yosma, 67, has no sympathy for the protesters.

“They are louts, manipulated by certain interests -- especially Israel -- to make the government fall,” said Yosma, a cafe owner in an Ottoman-style turban.

“We won’t let the government fall at any cost. We are by his side, behind him and in front of him,” he said of Erdogan.

As the disturbances lay bare the polarization of Turkish society, however, some lay the blame at Erdogan’s door even here.

“He always does everything by himself and that doesn’t work in a democracy,” said Sahin, another estate agent.

“You cannot say, ‘I am the sultan,’ just because you have won the elections,” he said.

“There are the people to consider. You have to respect each of them, even the small minorities.”

Younger people in Kasimpasa, who were children when Erdogan first won power in 2002, are throwing their weight behind the protests.

Melek, a 22-year-old nurse in a headscarf, pounds along the pavement, impatient to reach Gezi Park.

“I think it is very important to protect this green space because in a big city like Istanbul there is no more room for nature,” she said.

“I think the demonstrators are right,” added Melek, who did not give her second name, criticizing “the very hard approach of the government”.

“You’re very wrong to think that all women who wear the veil support the AKP.”

Last Update: Wednesday, 20 May 2020 KSA 09:41 - GMT 06:41