ISTANBUL, Turkey (CNN) — The commercial and entertainment heart of Turkey’s largest city again became the scene of clashes between riot police and small groups of protesters Saturday night, after security forces fired tear gas, water cannons and plastic pellets to disperse anti-government demonstrators.
“The police detained one friend who was just sitting at our table,” said Safak Velioglu, the owner of a bar located on an alley in the center of the district.
The unrest is turning into a weekend ritual this summer in the Beyoglu district of downtown Istanbul.
For at least two previous weekends, clouds of tear gas swirled through Istiklal Street, the main pedestrian thoroughfare and shopping street in Istanbul, as police carrying shields and clubs charged down labyrinthine alleys pursuing demonstrators.
Tensions escalated Saturday evening after police began to block access to central Istanbul’s Gezi Park. The police appeared to be trying to stop people from attending the wedding of two opposition activists in the park.
This small patch of green in the center of Istanbul is the focal point of the biggest anti-government protests Turkey has seen in more than a decade.
In late May, demonstrators initially organized a small Occupy Wall Street-style protest against government plans to bulldoze the park and replace it with a shopping mall.
For several days, riot police repeatedly attacked the sit-in with pepper spray, tear gas and water cannons.
On May 31, demonstrators began fighting back, erecting barricades and attacking security forces with stones, bottles and slingshots.
The mass civil disobedience and rioting quickly spread to other cities and towns across the country.
Thousands of people have been wounded in clashes. At least one police officer and five demonstrators have died in the unrest.
Security forces succeeded in driving demonstrators out of Gezi Park and neighboring Taksim Square in central Istanbul last month.
Now municipal authorities have been organizing nightly gatherings in this urban space to celebrate iftar, the fast-breaking dinner eaten at sunset during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
In a square that was the scene of vicious battles in June, Turkish families now gather for evenings of free food and live music.
“Turkey is peaceful, but it’s tense,” warned Mustafa Akyol, a newspaper columnist and author of the book “Islam Without Extremes.”
The writer called the Gezi Park protests a watershed event in Turkish political history, which have left the country dangerously polarized.
“If the current mood goes on, I’m afraid the govermment will be growingly more intolerant of criticism and protests, and this will make criticisms and protests even more furious. And we will get into this vicious cycle which is really not good for anyone in the country,” Akyol said.
Turkey’s prime minister has taken a hard line against people linked to the protest movement.
Earlier this week, police from Istanbul’s Anti-Terror Unit detained at least 30 suspects related to the Gezi Park protests in a series of predawn raids around Istanbul.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has argued that the protests in Turkey are part of a much larger conspiracy aimed at overthrowing his democratically elected government.
“They thought that no one would react, that they could do away with the election results and could usurp people’s rights. They and the forces behind them were wrong,” Erdogan told journalists at an iftar he attended in the Turkish capital, Ankara, this week.
The Turkish leader also claimed the recent military coup in Egypt is somehow linked to the protests in Turkey.
“The Egyptian people did not remain silent. They went public and asked, ‘Where is my vote?’ Those who were present at Gezi Park thought that they represent all of Turkey,” Erdogan said.
Turkey’s prime minister is an outspoken critic of the coup in Cairo, which overthrew Egypt’s democratically elected Islamist president Mohamed Morsy.
Erdogan has repeatedly accused Western governments of having a double standard when it comes to democracy, for refusing to call the Egyptian overthrow a coup.
But the Turkish leader’s tolerance for any form of public criticism directed against him appears to be wearing thin.
He has been quoted by Turkish newspapers and by one of his newly appointed advisers as denouncing the banging of pots and pans. Since the start of the Gezi Park protests, many critics of the Turkish government have taken to banging their cooking utensils in a cacophonous display of defiance.
“Pots and pans, these are a crime,” Erdogan told journalists at another iftar last week in the Turkish city of Kastamonu.
“Nobody has the right to disturb anybody else. … This has nothing to do with freedom. On the contrary this is interfering with somebody else’s freedom,” Erdogan added.
By Ivan Watson