— On his return home Friday from a tour of North Africa, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan reiterated his tough stance towards the ongoing nationwide protests sparked by last week's violent police crackdown on a demonstration against the destruction of a park in central Istanbul.
Prime Minister Erdogan was greeted early Friday morning at Istanbul’s Ataturk airport by thousands of AKP supporters chanting “we will crush the protests against you” and “Istanbul will defend its leader.” It was the biggest show of public support for the prime minister since nationwide anti-government protests erupted last week. Addressing the crowd, Erdogan promised a firm response.
These protests are bordering on illegality and must end immediately, he said.
On Thursday, he said he would never allow a minority to impose its views on the majority and reiterated that the demolition of a park in central Istanbul, which sparked the protests, would go forward.
Istanbul's Uskudar district has always been an AKP stronghold. Its numerous mosques, some of the city’s most beautiful and important, are a testament to the district's religious sensibilities. The pious prime minister is a popular figure here.
Mehmet, a retired telephone engineer, sits chatting with a friend following noon prayers. He has voted for the AKP for the last decade and says he and the country have done well under Erdogan’s leadership. But Mehmet has reservations about the initial police crackdown on environmentalists trying to protect an Istanbul park.
The ruling AKP party has made mistakes over the park that is about to be demolished, he said. "They could have asked those who are trying to protect it, 'Come let us talk, what do you want? What's the meaning of this? What are you trying to say?'"
Mehmet adds that there was no reason to harm people with pepper gas. Look where the events started and where the prime minister has taken it, he says.
A short walk from the mosque is a string of small businesses - or, as they are called here, esnaflar. Small businessmen are among the prime minister's most loyal supporters. 28-year-old Bulent, who also votes AKP, runs a small luggage shop. He thinks the protests are out of control. He said the first demonstrations for the trees were good for 2-3 days.
But he added that later, provocateurs came to the scene. He said these provocateurs harmed the demonstration. And what started out as something good turned bad; these attacks on the police and clashes are wrong. There shouldn't be any clashes. Provocateurs from different political groups escalated the situation.
But Bulent adds that the prime minister reacted harshly, and that it would be much better if he could join the people and talk with them.
Photo Gallery: Turkey Protests
Riot police officers gather in central Ankara, Turkey, June 10, 2013.
An anti-government protester gestures during a demonstration in central Ankara, June 9, 2013.
Anti-government protesters remove bricks from a sidewalk to build a barricade in central Ankara, June 9, 2013.
Riot police chase protesters at Kizilay Square in central Ankara, June 9, 2013.
Supporters of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan listen to his speech at the Ankara airport, June 9, 2013.
Supporters of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan cheer upon his arrival at Istanbul's Ataturk airport, June 7, 2013.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan waves to supporters after arriving at Istanbul's Ataturk airport, June 7, 2013.
Pedestrians walk among tents set up by protesters in Gezi park, Taksim Square, Istanbul, June 6, 2013.
People observe a destroyed urban bus with a destination sign that reads ''This bus goes to Dictator'' at Taksim Square, Istanbul, June 6, 2013.
Thousands of protesters gather for another rally at Taksim Square in Istanbul, Turkey, June 3, 2013.
Protesters carry the Turkish flag and shout anti-government slogans during a demonstration at Gezi Park near Taksim Squar, Istanbul, June 3, 2013.
For some, however, Erdogan can do no wrong - like fish seller Ahmet Kalkan, who shouted that Erdogan is the greatest prime minister since Ataturk, the founder of the Republic of Turkey. Kalkan doesn’t feel the country or the prime minister is under threat and laughs off comparisons of Turkey's unrest to the Arab Spring.
"I believe these protests harm peace in society, but it will be all fine soon," he said. It will calm down after 2-3 days. "Turkey won't be like the Arabs, this won't break us - the Turkish people are different. Because in Turkey, race, nation, religion don't matter, because we have our flag."
This government has been in power for 10 years and they’ve done a good job, Kalkan adds. Everybody knows that. Our prime minister doesn't make any mistakes. The only threats come from outside the country.
For now, support for Erdogan appears to be solid in this AKP electoral stronghold. But people here do not appear to share his concerns about the protests being a threat to democracy. Instead, many seem to be more interested in seeing the prime minister strike a more conciliatory tone rather than risk further confrontation.