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Turkish Police and Protesters Clash in Square

AFP | AFP| Getty Images

Taksim Square erupted in chaos on Tuesday night as the riot police hit protesters with tear gas and water cannons, sending thousands of people fleeing down side streets, and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey struggled to contain a political crisis that has threatened the nation's economy and paralyzed the government.

For nearly two weeks, the prime minister has remained largely defiant, demanding that protesters leave the square, placing armed police officers on standby to sweep the area and insisting that the demonstrations were nothing like the Arab Spring protests that ousted entrenched leaders.

But as homemade firebombs and tear gas wafted in the city center it seemed that Mr. Erdogan and his supporters had miscalculated the opposition's tenacity and conviction.

"Thugs! Thugs!" a protester shouted at the police as she was shrouded in a cloud of tear gas. "Let God bring the end of you!"

(Read More: Turkish Riot Police Fire Tear Gas at Istanbul Protest)

The demonstrations began over a plan to tear out the last green space in the center of the city, Gezi Park in Taksim Square, and to replace it with a mall designed like an Ottoman-era barracks. Mr. Erdogan, who once advised the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, to negotiate and compromise, sent out the police to clear the park.

The tactic backfired, leading to large protests and expressions of frustration at Mr. Erdogan's rising authoritarian streak. Environmentalists and conservationists were joined in the protest by radical leftists and street hooligans.

Mr. Erdogan pulled back the police, but for days Taksim has been a sprawling and eclectic hub of grievance against him and his Justice and Development Party.

On Monday, he offered to talk on Wednesday — but then sent the police back to clear the square Tuesday.

At first, the city center took on the feel of a movie set: fireworks ignited by protesters and nonlethal sound bombs set off by the police punctuated the chants of "Istanbul is ours! Taksim is ours!"

(Slideshow: Turkish Turmoil-Scenes From the Turkey Protests)

For hours, the police would advance, and then retreat to rest, mingle with onlookers, smoke cigarettes or buy snacks from street vendors. The chaos was contained to pockets of the square, and short clashes followed intervals of calm, allowing onlookers and tourists to gather in relatively safe spots and watch the action unfurl, and then run down side streets when the gas became too thick.

By night, though, the scenes turned more violent, as the police moved to decisively clear the square — and some demonstrators fought back while others called for peaceful civil disobedience.

For Mr. Erdogan, the smoldering violence represents his worst political crisis since coming to power a decade ago. It also highlights the kind of class politics that have divided society, with his conservative religious followers strongly supporting his position. But his political base — a majority — has not protected the economy, which is suffering as the currency loses value and the cost of borrowing rises.

(Read More: Turkey Rules Out Early Polls, Thousands Defy Call to End Protest)

Analysts now worry that Mr. Erdogan, instead of finding a way out of the crisis, has only made it worse by hardening divisions among his constituents, and by digging in. Three people have been killed and at least 4,947 injured in the violence.

"The leaders may be searching for a way out of the deadlock," wrote Melih Asik, a columnist in Milliyet, a centrist newspaper. "However, has inciting one half of the people against the other half ever been a remedy for overcoming such a crisis? If limitless anger does not give way to common sense, Turkey will have a very difficult job ahead."

Mr. Erdogan, in rally after rally over the weekend, sought to energize the conservative masses who propelled him to power by invoking his personal history as an Islamist leader opposed to the old secular state and its undemocratic nature. His supporters represent a social class that was previously marginalized, and Mr. Erdogan has used his speeches to play on those class resentments.

"The potato-head bloke, itching his belly — this was how they regarded us for decades," he said in a speech on Tuesday. "They think we do not know anything about politics, arts, theater, cinema, poetry, paintings, aesthetics, architecture."

Though he was democratically elected, unlike the Arab leaders he has counseled, commentators say he appears to have appropriated several tactics of those ousted by popular uprisings. In addition to sending in the police, he has blamed foreigners for stoking the unrest — a refrain also heard in Cairo and Damascus, Syria.

(Read More: Turkey Stalemate Prompts Growing Investor Alarm)

"Those who attempt to sink the bourse, you will collapse," Mr. Erdogan said at one of several speeches he gave on Sunday. "If we catch your speculation, we will choke you. No matter who you are, we will choke you."

But there is a danger, analysts say, because even with a strong majority as his base, he is vulnerable if the crisis drags on. Several columnists for Zaman, a pro-Islamist newspaper linked to Fethullah Gulen, an important spiritual leader in Turkey who is exiled in the United States, have become critical of Mr. Erdogan.

The continuing crisis that has engulfed Mr. Erdogan's government and threatened to tarnish the image of Turkey as a rising power that he has helped create played out in other places simultaneously on Tuesday. At an Istanbul courthouse, several lawyers who had supported the protesters were detained, and as tear gas filled Taksim Square, Mr. Erdogan addressed his party in a speech broadcast to the nation.

Mr. Erdogan, offering no hint of compromise, called the protest movement "an uprising against the democratic administration." He described the banners of leftist groups that had decorated the square as those of "terrorist organizations."

More From The New York Times:

Police Retreat as Protests Expand Through Turkey
Turkish Premier Blames Extremists for Protests as Two AreKilled
Turkish Leader Says Protests Will Not Stop Plans for Park

"When I speak against all that, they say, 'The prime minister speaks very harshly.' If you call this harsh, sorry, Tayyip Erdogan never changes."

The White House called Tuesday for dialogue to resolve differences between the government, a close ally of the United States, and the protesters.

"We continue to follow events in Turkey with concern, and our interest remains supporting freedom of expression and assembly, including the right to peaceful protest," a White House spokeswoman said in a statement.

(Read More: US Investor Cumberland Exits Turkey as Unrest Spirals)

When the day began it appeared that the government had a cautious strategy aimed at reining in the protests by clearing the square, but leaving the demonstrators in the park. A Twitter message from the provincial governor, Huseyin Avni Mutlu, said, "This morning you are in the safe hands of your police brothers."

But there was so much distrust in the park that demonstrators began girding for an attack. Some scribbled their blood types on their arms in ink, in case they needed emergency care. Doctors in a makeshift medical tent were ready to tend to those suffering the effects of tear gas.

On Tuesday night, the police began firing tear gas in the park, where many demonstrators were as critical of the protest violence as of the police. "It started with throwing stones, but now the extremists are sinking to the level of the police by throwing fireworks and firebombs," said Ece Yavuz, 36. "We will not participate in this violence."

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