(CNN) — What started as a peaceful sit-in over plans to demolish a park in central Istanbul has grown to become the biggest protest movement against Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan since he was elected more than 10 years ago.
What prompted the protests?
Gezi Park sits in Istanbul’s main commercial district and is the last green space in the city center. So, it didn’t go down well with many residents when authorities announced they want to raze the park and put in its place a replica of 19th Century Ottoman barracks — containing a shopping mall.
On Friday, a district court ordered a temporary stop to any construction. Mayor Kadir Topbas emphasized the park demolition was not related to the shopping mall project, but was a part of a wider renovation project of Taksim Square.
But many of the demonstrators say their anger is no longer directed against the proposed government plan. In Istanbul, the crowds have been chanting “Tayyip resign” — referring to Erdogan — and “shoulder to shoulder against fascism.”
Why did the demonstrations turn violent?
At first, the protests involved a handful of angry residents holding sit-ins. But the numbers quickly grew. Riot police moved in, lobbing tear gas and pepper spray and protesters responded by hurling bottles, blocking bulldozers and setting up barricades. Then, outraged by the behavior of security forces, demonstrators began attacking police.
International human rights groups Amnesty International and Greenpeace have denounced what they describe as the excessive use of police force against peaceful protesters.
A spokesman for European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton issued a statement that said Ashton “regrets disproportionate use of force by members of the Turkish police.” Ashton also called for talks between the two sides.
Erdogan conceded Saturday that Turkish security forces had made excessive use of tear gas against demonstrators.
“There have been errors in the actions of the security forces, especially with regard to use of pepper gas. Right now that is being investigated, researched,” he said.
“There is an error there, sure. When it is used excessively we are against it as well. And in fact there was such excess.”
How widespread are the protests?
Since Friday, there have been protests in 67 of Turkey’s 81 provinces, according to Turkey’s semi-official Andalou News Agency. There have been reports of confrontations in the capital, Ankara, as well as the port cities of Izmir and Adana.
More than 700 people have been detained since Tuesday, and most have been released, the agency said. Fifty-eight civilians are still hospitalized and 115 security officers have been injured.
Why do the protesters want Erdogan to step down?
The police crackdown on the park demonstrators set off the wider unrest. Now, the scope of the protests shows there is a bigger issue, about freedom of speech and accusations of heavy-handed government, at stake.
Elected to power than a decade ago, Erdogan is the most powerful and popular politician Turkey has seen in generations, but his approach to leadership doesn’t sit well with all Turks, said Asli Aydintasbas, a columnist for Milliyet Newspaper.
“We have a prime minister who has done great deeds and he really has run the economy well,” she said. “But you also have this paternalistic style: ‘I know what’s good for you. I, as your father, can decide on the park, the bridge, the city and the constitution.’ So, I think people are just wanting to have a more inclusive form of democracy in Turkey.”
Tuncay, a 28-year-old demonstrator, told CNN on Saturday. “The Erdogan government is usually considered as authoritarian. He has a big ego; he has this Napoleon syndrome. He takes himself as a sultan… He needs to stop doing that. He’s just a prime minister.”
How has Erdogan reacted?
A defiant Erdogan shows no inclination to give in to protesters’ demands.
On Monday, he dismissed allegations that security forces used excessive force, and denied that Turkey could be on the cusp of its own “Arab Spring.” “We are servants of the people, not masters. We did not use violence,” he said before leaving for a four-day trip to North Africa.
“Those in Turkey who speak of the Turkish Spring are right; the season is, in fact, spring,” he said. “But there are those trying to turn it into a winter.”
He said opponents who had failed to defeat his party in elections were trying to beat it “by other means.” “The issue of trees in Gezi Park thing is just the trigger,” he said.
Fadi Hakura, associate fellow and manager of the Turkey Project at London-based think-tank Chatham House, said demonstrations were not equivalent to the uprisings that led to the toppling of other Arab leaders two years ago.
“Unlike Egypt and other Arab countries, Turkey is a functioning, albeit incomplete, democracy and has been since 1950,” he said.
“Erdogan received a resounding mandate of almost half the vote in the last general elections in 2011. He still remains the most popular politician in Turkey, while the opposition is widely seen by many Turks as weak and ineffective.”
Hakura said the protests coincided with a “rapidly slowing economy” and “the ultimate determinant of Erdogan’s staying power will be the state of the Turkish economy rather than anti-government demonstrations.”
So is Erdogan authoritarian?
In November 2012, Erdogan won leadership of his Justice and Development Party, or AKP, for the third time, reaching the party’s term limit.
However, the AKP’s internal constitution was amended during the party congress to allow parliamentarians who have already served three terms — such as Erdogan — to be re-elected after sitting out an election cycle.
“One of the most important aspects of the convention was the message that the prime minister is not going anywhere,” Suat Kiniklioglu, a former AKP parliamentarian and director of the Strategic Communication Center based in Ankara, wrote in an e-mail to CNN at the time.
“Instead he will try to become a president who can maintain his party affiliation, or will try to change the system into a presidential or semi-presidential system,” he said.
Has religion played any role in the unrest?
Hakura says the protests partially reflect “the deep ideological polarization between secular, liberal-minded Turks, and the more religious Turks.”
The modern Republic of Turkey was founded in 1923 by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who instituted secular laws to replace traditional religious orders.
“Secular Turks complain that the Islamist-rooted government is intolerant of criticism and the diversity of lifestyles,” he says and “so far, Erdogan’s robust and muscular stance vis-à-vis the demonstrators has reinforced those perceptions.”
Erdogan describes his AKP party as a “conservative democratic” party but some fear the AKP’s conservative Islamic values are encroaching on Turkey’s traditional secularism.
Writing for Hurriyet Daily News, Yusuf Kanli said an “arrogant” Erdogan had taken a series of wrong steps ahead of the protests, including passing legislation that placed additional restrictions on the sale and consumption of alcohol.
Erdogan had referred to “two boozers” who had introduced liberal alcohol laws, Kanli said.
“That was an obvious reference to Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the diehard secular founding father of the republic, and his comrade in arms and second president Ismet Inonu,” he wrote.
Culture wars frequently pit Turkey’s ruling Muslim elite against more secular segments of Turkish society.
The AKP narrowly avoided being banned from politics in 2008 when it was fined by the country’s constitutional court for alleged anti-secular activities. The court has also blocked legislation to lift a ban on Islamic headscarves at public universities.
Last month, there was an outcry in social media and newspaper columns when Turkish Airlines — which is 49% government-owned — announced it was banning certain shades of lipstick and nail polish among flight attendants.
A similar uproar had ensued when the company announced it would stop serving alcohol on a number of domestic and international routes.
Do Turks have freedom of speech?
Last month, Emma Sinclair-Webb, from Human Rights Watch, said that one of Turkey’s “most fundamental human rights problems is in fact intolerance of free speech.”
“Politicians regularly sue journalists for defamation. Editors and publishers are mostly unwilling to permit much criticism of the government for fear of harming their bosses’ other business interests,” Sinclair-Webb said.
“The European Court of Human Rights has found over and over that Turkey has violated free speech. But prosecutors, courts, and government figures are still applying different standards to Turkey, muzzling views they don’t want to hear,” she said.
Turkey applied to join the European Union in 1987. In a 2012 progress report, The European Commission said “important reforms are needed to strengthen human rights structures and the number of criminal proceedings brought against human rights defenders is a matter of concern.”
It said an increase in violations of freedom of expression also raised “serious concerns” with “pressure on the press by state officials and the firing of critical journalists” leading to widespread self-censorship.
In a statement on its website, Turkey’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs says promotion and protection of human rights are “among the priority policy objectives of Turkey.”
“In this regard, Turkey has been going through a comprehensive reform process in recent years with a view to further strengthening democracy, consolidating the rule of law and ensuring respect for fundamental rights and freedoms.”
Erdogan’s chief adviser, Ibrahim Kalin, said Saturday that the protesters had a right to express their discontent, within limits.
“People are entitled to disagreement with the government; they can exercise their democratic rights, but they can do so within the context of a democratic society,” he said.
Is it safe to visit Turkey at the moment?
Britain’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) has advised British nationals to avoid all demonstrations “following recent demonstrations in Istanbul and other cities in Turkey in which police used tear gas and water cannons,” but it has not told its citizens to avoid travel to Istanbul.
The U.S. has also warned its citizens to beware of demonstrations, in Turkey, which is one of Washington’s key allies in the Middle East. “U.S. citizens traveling or residing in Turkey should be alert to the potential for violence, avoid those areas where disturbances have occurred, and avoid demonstrations and large gatherings.”
Australia advised its citizens to “avoid protests and demonstrations throughout Turkey as they may become violent.”
Meantime, war-torn Syria has warned its citizens not to visit its neighbor.
”The Foreign and Expatriates Ministry advises the Syrian citizens against traveling to Turkey during this period for fear for their safety, due to the security conditions in some Turkish cities that have deteriorated over the past days and the violence practiced by Erdogan’s government against peaceful protesters,” it said in a statement Sunday.