Anti-government protests have been raging for a week in Turkey. Credit: Reuters
Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan flew back to a Turkey rocked by days of anti-government unrest on Friday and declared before a sea of flag-waving supporters at Istanbul airport: "These protests must end immediately."
"No power but Allah can stop Turkey's rise," he told thousands who gathered in the early hours to greet him in the first pro-Erdogan rally since demonstrations began a week ago.
At Istanbul's Taksim Square, the center of the protests now occupied by thousands around the clock, some chanted "Tayyip resign" as they watched a broadcast of the address. In the capital Ankara, Kugulu Park echoed with anti-government slogans, while protesters danced or sang the national anthem.
Western governments including the United States, which sees Turkey as a key NATO ally in the Middle East, bordering Iran, Iraq and Syria, have expressed concern about heavy-handed police action. Washington has projected Turkey under Erdogan as an example of a Muslim democracy that could be emulated by other countries in the region, such as Egypt.
Speaking from an open-topped bus at the airport, his wife at his side, Erdogan acknowledged police might have used excessive force in crushing a small demonstration against a building project last Friday — the action that triggered nationwide protests against his 10-year-old rule.
"However, no one has the right to attack us through this. May Allah preserve our fraternity and unity," said Erdogan, who denies accusations that he seeks to replace a 90-year-old secular order with Islamic rule. "The secret to our success is not tension and polarization."
"The police are doing their duty. These protests, which have turned into vandalism and utter lawlessness must end immediately," Erdogan told the crowd to loud cheers.
He gave no indication of any immediate plans to remove the makeshift protest camps that have appeared on Taksim Square and a park in the capital, Ankara. But the gatherings mark a clear challenge to a leader whose authority is built on three successive election victories.
Erdogan has pressed many democratic reforms, taming a military that had toppled four governments in four decades, starting entry talks with the European Union, reining in police rights abuses and forging peace talks with Kurdish rebels to end a three-decades-old war that has cost 40,000 lives.
Per capita income has tripled in nominal terms and business boomed at home and beyond Turkish frontiers.
But in recent years critics say his style, always forceful and emotional, has become authoritarian. Media have come under pressure, and arrests of military and other figures over alleged coup plots as well as moves such as alcohol sale restrictions have unsettled especially secular middle classes sensitive to any encroachment of religion on their daily lives.
Sources close to the AK Party Erdogan founded in 2001, and which only a year later crushed traditional secular parties at elections, suggest a sense of siege within the leadership, with influential if disparate forces keen to remove Erdogan the man irrespective of policies or mandate.
Erdogan has made clear he has no intention of stepping aside, pointing to 50 percent of the vote at the last election.
The key word among Erdogan supporters, on Twitter and on street posters is "Yedirmeyiz" — we will not sacrifice him. One poster shows Erdogan next to former Prime Minister Adnan Menderes, hanged after a 1960 military coup, and Turgut Ozal, a former president some suspect was poisoned.
Erdogan projects himself in the image of Ozal and Menderes.
Erdogan's chief adviser Yalcin Akdogan saw a concurrence of domestic and foreign forces who wanted to see Erdogan humbled.
"In this consortium there are people who want to teach him a lesson and those who want to destroy him," he wrote in the Star newspaper.
Akdogan, harking back to Ottoman times perhaps when European business enjoyed privileged status, suggested the West did not welcome a Turkish leader with 'backbone'. Erdogan, in a similar vein, set his sights also on financial institutions.
"The interest rate lobby think they can threaten us by entering into speculations in the stock exchange," he said. "They should know we won't let them abuse the nation's wealth."
Supporters of Erdogan, who enjoys strong support in Turkey's conservative heartland, chanted "Tayyip" and "Don't test our patience," waving the Turkish flag and the AKP banner, the image of a light bulb.
"Some say the prime minister is the prime minister of 50 percent," Erdogan declared to the crowd, in a speech broadcast live on several Turkish television stations. "We have always said that we are servant of the 76 million."
He was due to meet a senior EU official later.
Erdogan has no clear rivals inside the AKP or outside where the opposition, both on the streets and in parliament, is fragmented. But in his party there are those who counsel more measured public comments than those ventured by Erdogan, who has tended to apply blanket condemnation to the protesters, branding them looters or associating them with terrorists.
Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc apologised for the police violence this week, after Erdogan had left for North Africa.
A protest that began with activists resisting a plan to develop Taksim has ballooned. Among the demonstrators now are nationalists, socialists, students, unionists, radical leftists and middle class professionals, many of whom may have benefited from a booming economy but remain skeptical of Erdogan.
"We were not expecting him to welcome us but we're getting more and more impatient now. People are angry with his speech," said Ozlem Arkun, 27, handing out cake at an impromptu cafe on Taksim Square.
Seven newspapers carried the identical headline, a measure perhaps of the control Erdogan exerts on the media: "We'll lay down our lives for democratic demands", they chimed in chorus, latching onto a comment he made to reporters in Tunisia.
The Leftist Sol declared: "The Deaf Sultan."