ISTANBUL, Turkey -- Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan returned to Istanbul on Friday morning in a defiant mood, calling for an end to the anti-government protests that have rocked the nation during the last week.
In a speech from atop an open-air bus to thousands of supporters, Erdogan, back from a four-day North Africa trip, said, “These protests must end immediately.”
“No power but Allah can stop Turkey’s rise,” continued Erdogan during an address to the scores of Justice and Development Party (AKP) faithful who had gathered at Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport, according to local media reports.
The speech largely scuttled hopes that Erdogan would strike a more conciliatory tone upon his return.
Tens of thousands of protesters have taken to streets across Turkey following a bruising police crackdown on demonstrators protesting plans to demolish Gezi Park, one of Istanbul’s last major green spaces, to make way for a shopping mall and a replica of Ottoman-era barracks.
Erdogan later said the plans for the shopping center would be shelved, but authorities would press ahead with the rest of the project, including green space that he suggested at a conference Friday would be "far better than the current park."
The protests quickly morphed into a broader display of discontent with Erdogan, whom the demonstrators -- largely secular and middle-class youth -- accuse of authoritarianism and political exclusion. They also believe Erdogan is pursuing an Islamist agenda.
“They say I am the prime minister of only 50%," Erdogan told his supporters, referring to the vote secured by his party in the 2011 general election. "It’s not true. We have served the whole of the 76 million from the east to the west."
Deniz Halman, a student who stood in Gezi Park on Friday, was not impressed.
“People don’t care about his speech,” Halman said. “He’s become a dictator. Other politicians are seeing this and saying to us, 'We have got your message.’”
Turkish President Abdullah Gul has spent much of the last four days in damage-control mode, widely interpreted as an effort to offset Erdogan’s incendiary rhetoric regarding the protesters, whom he has characterized as hooligans and extremists “running wild.”
“If there are objections, there is nothing more natural than voicing them,” the Hurriyet Daily News quoted Gul as saying earlier this week. “Everyone should show restraint. All the messages with good intentions were received, and what is necessary will be done.”
Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc offered an apology Tuesday to the protesters assailed by police during the initial raid on Gezi Park. However, Erdogan on Friday said the “police are doing their duty.”
“These protests, which have turned into vandalism and utter lawlessness, must end immediately,” he said.
The redevelopment of the Taksim Square area is but one of a number of controversial projects pushed through by Erdogan and the AKP – a center-right party steeped in Islamic ideology – despite widespread opposition as Istanbul’s green spaces diminish.
The recent destruction of an old and much-loved cinema to make way for a shopping mall also sparked outrage.
Erdogan is reported to be planning a third Istanbul airport and has announced plans for a mosque visible “from every corner of the Bosphorus,” adding to the 17,000 mosques that have already been built during his decade in power.
Turkey’s economy has grown rapidly during his tenure, driven by increased foreign investment and a focus on large-scale construction projects.
Johnson is a special correspondent.