Nation & World

With Recep Tayyip Erdogan away, Turkey’s acting prime minister apologizes

With the country’s combative prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, out of the country, Turkey’s acting prime minister apologized to the country Tuesday for what he cited as a heavy-handed use of force against youthful protesters in Istanbul, which led to four days of clashes across the country.

Bulent Arinc, Erdogan’s deputy, also ordered security authorities to stop using tear gas except in self-defense and, acting on the instructions of Turkish President Abdullah Gul, took responsibility on behalf of the government for the calamitous handling of a peaceful protest.

The reaction of the protesters to the destruction of Gezi Park near Istanbul’s Taksim Square in order to build a shopping mall was “legitimate, logical and justified,” Arinc said. “Excessive use of violence against people who were acting out of environmental concerns was wrong and unjust.”

“I apologize to those citizens,” he added, and promised to meet the organizers of the original protest Wednesday and to support a referendum by the Istanbul municipality on the future of the project.

Arinc’s remarks were in startling contrast with Erdogan’s, who’d denounced the protesters a day earlier as looters and extremists who were operating “arm in arm with terrorists.” It was unknown whether the prime minister, who left Monday on a three-day tour of North Africa, had been consulted beforehand.

Arinc also made it clear that the government was aware that many of the policies Erdogan’s Islamist Justice and Development Party had championed during his 10 years as prime minister, including recent restrictions on the sale of alcohol, were unpopular in the country’s large cities.

"I would like to express this in all sincerity: Everyone’s lifestyle is important to us, and we are sensitive to them," he said.

Arinc’s speech came as two major trade unions launched nationwide sympathy strikes with the demonstrators.

The Confederation of Public Workers’ Unions, which represents workers in education, health, municipal services, energy, mining and transport, began its two-day strike with a march up the Istiklal, Istanbul’s main pedestrian street, toward Taksim Square, the main venue for political rallies in the country. Members chanted, “Taksim is ours, Istanbul is ours,” and “Government, resign.”

The Confederation of Progressive Workers Unions announced a walkout in solidarity with its sister union beginning Wednesday.

The two unions have goals that are completely different from those of the organizers of the Gezi Park protest, with the Confederation of Public Workers’ Unions primarily concerned about job security.

Ergin Bedr, 35, who teaches geography in a public school, cited concerns about new rules governing teacher assignment and hiring in explaining his disenchantment with Erdogan. He said that under a new law, teachers not only would lose tenure but also could be assigned to non-teaching government positions.

But it was clear in interviews with Bedr and three other teachers that those concerns pale against worries that Erdogan is intent on trying to alter the lifestyles of secular Turks, their alcohol consumption in particular.

Under Erdogan’s leadership, which has swung the pendulum back from the strong secularism of modern Turkey’s founder, Kemal Ataturk, schools must offer optional instruction in Islam, the dominant religion in Turkey. The teachers all acknowledged that religion classes are popular, however, and that more than 70 percent of the students opt to take them.

At Gezi Park, one of the few green spots in Istanbul’s commercial district, young people by the thousands continued the festive occupation that began Saturday afternoon when the government withdrew the police.

Pushcart vendors appeared with simits, Turkey’s answer to pretzels, and grilled meatballs. At a stand set up in front of a shuttered cafe at the edge of the square, volunteers handed out snacks, bottles of water and even baklava, the sweet pastry made of nuts, honey and phyllo dough.

Violence ebbed nearly everywhere, including Ankara, the scene of some of the fiercest clashes, after police stopped using tear gas.

The question that couldn’t be answered Tuesday night was whether Erdogan was on board when his deputy apologized on his behalf. In an attempt to avert Erdogan’s wrath, and a tendency to contradict even key subordinates, Arinc clearly sought cover by going first to Gul, who’s won wide public respect for his common-sense approach to major political issues.

Erdogan had been in scrappy form when he arrived in Morocco on Monday – and publicly contradicted Gul. Gul had said that “there is nothing more natural than for those with differing views and objections to express these in various ways. Peaceful protests are a part of this.” He’d told protesters to act sensibly, and assured them that their “messages” had been received in good faith.

But Erdogan characterized the protesters as a product of political manipulation. As for Gul, he said: “I do not know what the president means when he says ‘the message has been received’ or what it contains.” He said he’d asked reporters whether they could explain it, but “friends in the media could not tell me or explain what the message is.”

As a matter of fact, some in the press received the message: that they’d failed to report the demonstrations fully or comprehensively. The head of the Dogus media group, which owns the NTV all-news station, issued a statement apologizing to demonstrators and others who’d charged the station with kowtowing to Erdogan’s political point of view.

“The criticisms are largely correct,” Cem Aydin said. “I am not saying this for any other reason except my conscience. It falls to us as our professional responsibility to present what is happening as it is. . . . Our viewers feel betrayed, and it is not possible to fault them for that.”

On the other hand, the state Anatolian News Agency’s English-language website reported the day’s events as if the apology hadn’t happened.

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