Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan returned to his country overnight Thursday from a North African tour, facing thousands of supporters who welcomed him back at the airport, a show of strength after a week of violent anti-government demonstrations across the country.
Addressing the crowds at the airport in a speech also broadcast live on television, Erdogan remained defiant, saying, "We stood strong, but we were never stubborn ... We are together, we are unified, we are brothers.”
He added, "These protests that are bordering on illegality must come to an end immediately."
The wave of protests broke out last Friday after police tear-gassed demonstrators at a peaceful rally against plans to build on an Istanbul park and have continued all week.
Erdogan, whose Justice and Development Party (AKP) first took power in 2002, has accused the main opposition Republican People's Party of having a hand in the protests.
Meanwhile, anti-government protesters gathered in their thousands in central Istanbul and Ankara, with some of the demonstrators in Istanbul's Taksim Square chanting "Tayyip resign", according to reports in news agencies. In Ankara's Kugulu Park, thousands chanted anti-government slogans, sang the national anthem and swigged on beer.
Speaking in Tunisia earlier Thursday, Erdogan said that his government has expressed its sorrow for those hurt by repeated police attacks in the early stages of the Istanbul protests, but vowed to go ahead with his plans to destroy the park in Taksim Square.
“The sensitivities of people for environmental issues have been abused. We already expressed our sorrow for the excessive use of force,” he was quoted by the Hurriyet daily as having said at a joint press conference with his Tunisian counterpart, Ali al-Urayyid.
He was referring to a speech by Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc on June 4, in which Arinc had said, “In that first event, the excessive demonstration of violence against those acting with environmental sensitivity was wrong and unfair. I apologize to those citizens. I can easily say that, but I do not think we owe an apology to those who destroyed the streets.”
At the same time, Erdogan said, “Our Taksim project is a plant that unites history and nature. And this project will produce a very beautiful environment in Istanbul.”
The government also will build a “beautiful and strong” opera house, replacing the existing cultural center in Taksim Square, said Erdogan.
He then claimed that those who caused damage as part of the Taksim protests were the same as those who staged the attack on the U.S. Embassy in Ankara, in which one security guard and one attacker were killed and a journalist was wounded.
On Sunday, Erdogan rejected claims that he is a “dictator” and pointed to the opposition and social media as being responsible for the protests against his government.
Middle East expert Dr. Mordechai Kedar predicted on Tuesday that despite the large scale protests, Erdogan was not facing an “Arab Spring” type rebellion.
Dr. Kedar told Arutz Sheva that the events in Turkey “are far from being what happened in Egypt, Libya or Syria.”
The primary difference, he said, is the character of the groups currently protesting against Erdogan. The protesters are “greens,” leftists and others who are not motivated by extremist Islam, he said.