UK

#Occupy Gezi Istanbul Protests Are Sign That 'Turkey's Halo Has Slipped'

01/06/2013 14:20 BST

The brutal reaction of Turkish police to the Occupy Gezi protests in Istanbul could have permanently damaged the country's reputation, a leading expert on the region has warned.

Fadi Hakura, Chatham House's Turkey analyst, told The Huffington Post UK that the "halo had slipped" from Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's government in the wake of the violence, and the use of tear gas and water canons by police.

"No doubt, the halo that the government had in the eyes of its allies, has been greatly diminished," he said.

istanbul

A woman protects herself from tear gas and pressurized water used by police to disperse protesters staging a sit-in protest to try and prevent the demolition of trees at an Istanbul park, Turkey

"The Turkish government has consistently protested the lack of human rights and democracy in Syria. And it is not practicing what it preaches, in its own backyard.

"This has greatly undermined Turkey's image which the government has fostered over the last three years. These images have been broadcast worldwide."

The demonstrations are into a second day. Erdogan has called for them to end but indicated the government would press ahead with redevelopment plans that sparked the protests in the first place.

Speaking in a televised address, he said police would break down the protests at a main square in Istanbul. He added that officers may have used tear gas excessively and that this would be investigated.

The protests grew out of anger at heavy-handed police tactics yesterday to break up a peaceful sit-in by people trying to protect a park in Istanbul's main Taksim square from government plans to revamp the area.

Officials have said the plans include building a shopping centre and the reconstruction of a former Ottoman army barracks.

The park demonstration turned into a wider protest against Erdogan, who is seen as becoming increasingly authoritarian, and spread to other Turkish cities despite a court decision to temporarily halt the demolition of the park.

Hakura told HuffPostUK it was being seen as especially heavy-handed because "this group were not trying to overthrow the government, they were peaceful demonstrators trying to protect one of the last green spaces in Istanbul, to prevent a shopping mall being built on that space.

"Turkey is a deeply ideologically polarised society between the right and the left, the secular and the conservative. And there is certainly a perception that the government is fuelling this polarisation rather than trying to heal it.

"People feel the political environment is not tolerant of opposing views. It's an extremely charged environment which makes it less surprising that the police have used, what even the Prime Minister of Turkey describes as 'excessive force'.

"The government have been seen as cavalier on environmental issues, there is a building war across Turkey with no consideration of environmental issues. Turkey spent £4.8bn on building in Istanbul alone last year. Couple that, with futher restrictions on alcohol, more religious teaching in schools, liberal, secular people feel their lifestyle is being restricted."

But Hakura said he did not think it was likely that the protest would become a "Turkish Summer".

turkey

A second day of clashes between protesters and police

"My guess is the protests will eventually die down, and be contained," he said. "But this very much depends on the actions of the police and the government. If the police occupation of central Istanbul continues, protests may continue."

A Foreign Office spokesperson told the Huffington Post UK that: "We are concerned by reports of violent clashes between protesters and police across Turkey.

"We urge the Turkish authorities to exercise restraint and not to use tear gas indiscriminately to disperse protesters.

"We encourage the Turkish authorities to respect the right to peaceful protest and freedom of assembly, which are fundamental human rights in any democratic society.”

The United States government has expressed its concern at the government's handling of the protests, joining Amnesty International in condemning the fighting.

The Foreign Office is advising against all but essential travel to parts of Turkey in the light of anti-government demonstrations.

Britons have been warned not to get involved in the protests.

The travel advice was changed today, with the message on the Foreign Office website reading: "Demonstrations are taking place in Istanbul and in other cities across Turkey, including Ankara.

"Police are using tear gas and water cannons in response. We advise British nationals to avoid all demonstrations."

Travel organisation The Association of British Travel Agents (ABTA) said approximately 15,000 holidaymakers from the UK would have been in Turkey over the past week during the half-term break, but that many would be returning this weekend.

However, an ABTA spokeswoman said most tourist resorts are in coastal areas, away from the cities where protests are taking place.

She added: "The vast majority of people travelling to Turkey shouldn't be affected, but if people are in Istanbul they should avoid central areas where the demonstrations are happening."

Turkey is a popular choice for families during the long summer holidays, with some 800,000-900,000 Britons heading there in July and August.