ISTANBUL — After days of demonstrations that have presented Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan with his worst political crisis in more than a decade of power, the Turkish leader responded Monday with a supremely confident flourish: He simply turned his back and left, boarding a plane to start a four-day goodwill tour of Northern Africa.
Erdogan’s political rise has been widely seen as the catalyst for a new era of Turkish influence and prosperity, and he has cast his government as a democratic model for nations with Muslim populations rising up against dictators. Domestically, he has the security of a strong power base among Turkish religious conservatives — a majority of the electorate — who were marginalized by the military and the country’s old secular elite.
He alluded to that support Monday, as protests continued across Turkey’s major cities. He said he could “hardly contain” his constituents from leaving their homes to mount a counterprotest on his behalf.
“Be calm; this will all pass,” he added.
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But for his opponents, his harsh dismissal of the protesters gathering in Istanbul and Ankara as “bums,” and in particular his allowing the police to crack down on what began as a peaceful demonstration against the razing of a park in Taksim Square, is public evidence of a longer slide into authoritarianism.
After 10 years of Erdogan (pronounced AIR-doh-wan), a former Islamist activist, many liberal or secular Turks have expressed weariness over what they see as his attempts to impose on their private lives.
He has sought to restrict alcohol and has repeatedly held that women should have at least three children. And sometimes he seems drawn to peculiar topics for pontification: Earlier this year, for example, he declared that the “era of white bread is over,” and that Turks should go whole-grain.
There is an added sting for many who have supported Erdogan. In his speeches, he has been an eloquent defender of inclusiveness and human rights — statements that added to his political draw among Turks who might otherwise have been put off by his Islamist past. Increasingly, however, his actions have seemed at odds with his words.
But in the years since he became prime minister, his government has become a leading jailer of journalists and opposition writers. And over the weekend, he was particularly vocal about protesters’ use of social media, singling out Twitter as a “menace” used to disseminate lies.
Erdogan grew up in a pious, low-income neighborhood in Istanbul at a time when Turkey was ruled by an elite that heavy-handedly banished religious expression from public life. In rising to power, he took that once-peripheral social class to the center of Turkish public life. And analysts say it will be that constituency’s reaction that determines how he weathers the current crisis.
Kasimpasa, the hilltop neighborhood where Erdogan, 59, grew up, is not far from Taksim Square, the epicenter of the protests. There, residents refer to Erdogan as “Baba,” or father, in Turkish, and recall Fridays, after prayers, when neighborhood children would follow him into the shop across from his apartment building and he would buy them candy. He visited the neighborhood last week to open a new sports center, another gift to the supporters who put him in power.
Many in the neighborhood said they could support the protesters’ original goal of saving the park but were put off when the demonstrations grew into a broad-scale rebuke of Erdogan’s government, and as personal insults against him were spray-painted on store facades.
While some experts have suggested that images of excessive police force against protesters may be enough to mobilize the religious against the government, the people of Kasimpasa say they are outraged by the vandalism and violence of the protesters, which they say triggered the harsh police response. In fact, the protests were peaceful until the police attacked the demonstrators.
But many of the Turkish TV news networks, long hounded by Erdogan’s government, did not begin widely covering the events until they had footage depicting vandalism and destruction at the hands of protesters.
And just after Erdogan’s flight left Monday, Turkey’s president, Abdullah Gul, whose power is less than the prime minister’s, spoke to the country and offered a conciliatory tone: “There is nothing more natural than various ways of expressions, other than elections, if there are different views, different situations, and objections. Peaceful protests are surely part of that.”