ISTANBUL — Police officers attacked a group of peaceful demonstrators with water cannons and tear gas on Friday in Istanbul’s Taksim Square, sending scores of residents, protesters, and tourists scurrying into shops and luxury hotels and turning the center of this city into a battle zone at the height of tourist season.
The police action was the latest violent crackdown by the government against a growing protest movement challenging plans to replace a park in Taksim Square, Istanbul’s equivalent of Cairo’s Tahrir Square, with a replica Ottoman-era army barracks that would house a shopping mall.
But while the removal of the park, which is filled with sycamore trees and is the last significant green space in the center of Istanbul, set off the protests at the beginning of the week, the gatherings have broadened into a wider expression of anger against the heavy-handed tactics and urban development plans of the government and its leader, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. His party, now in power for a decade, is increasingly viewed by many Turks as becoming authoritarian.
Erdogan still has great support among Turkey’s religious masses, but secular critics cite his government’s sweeping prosecution and intimidation of journalists as evidence of its intolerance of dissent.
Much of the anger also centers on the struggle over Istanbul’s public spaces. Erdogan’s government has proceeded with disputed urban development plans with little public input, while his police forces have increasingly used tear gas against peaceful protesters, resulting in scores of injuries, including the hospitalization Friday of a Kurdish lawmaker — who had become a vocal participant in the protests — after he was hit by a tear gas canister.
The protest movement comes amid continued public anger at Turkey’s policy of supporting the rebels in Syria, which many Turks feel has led to a violent spillover inside Turkey, including recent car bombings in the southern city of Reyhanli, which killed dozens of people.
The rising public disenchantment represents a significant political challenge to Erdogan, who is planning to run for the presidency next year and has been trying to alter the constitution to create a more powerful presidential system.
In the early afternoon Friday, as protesters gathered and began shouting antigovernment chants, police officers in riot gear began surrounding the group, positioning vehicles that resembled tanks at the edge of the square around the protesters, who were mostly sitting.