By Ben Brumfield and Gul Tuysuz, CNN
A night of tear gas and water cannons was too much for protest leaders set to meet with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Wednesday. Most have bailed out of the talks, a protest leader said.
After Tuesday’s violence, negotiations are fruitless, according to protest leader Eyup Muhcu.
Those attending the meeting at the prime minister’s office in Ankara are friendly with his government, Muhcu said.
Wednesday started off quietly, with rain blanketing the ruins of days of rowdy protests, but it may only be a brief respite.
Protesters have faced off with police on the streets of Istanbul for two weeks, breathed in tear gas, braved water cannons and hoped their downtown protest park is not overtaken.
What began in late May as a demonstration focused on the environment — opposition to a plan to build a mall in Istanbul’s Gezi Park — has evolved into a crusade against Erdogan that’s spread around the country.
Protesters and troublemakers
Not all organizers were invited to the talks to begin with, Muhcu said.
Erdogan’s government discerns between the ecologists who started the protests in an attempt to save the park from bulldozers and Marxist extremists, who have lobbed rocks and Molotov cocktails at police, said Erdogan’s chief adviser, Ibrahim Kalin.
“Troublemakers,” he called the latter.
“Anywhere in the world,they will not be considered peaceful protesters,” he told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour Tuesday. He said some of them were associated with a group that carried out an attack on the U.S. Embassy in Ankara in February.
The police reaction has been no different than security forces’ methods against similar groups at Occupy Wall Street protests in the United States, he said.
“The police obviously have the mandate to establish public order,” Kalin said, just like they do in Spain, Sweden and Britain.
The other protesters
A heavy hand and rhetoric from Erdogan has left very little room for descent, and have long been a thorn in the side of many secular Turks, who voted against the government.
These are the protesters, many of them urban professionals, who have crowded into the park and called for an end to Erdogan’s 10 years at the government’s helm.
They say they have had little place at the table in the government, which is supported mainly by rural religious conservatives. There has been no word so far that they will have one Wednesday.
Human rights record
Experts and human rights groups agree with this large group of Turks that Erdogan’s democratically-elected government lags when it comes to human rights and freedom of expression by his opponents.
“Prosecutors and courts continued to use terrorism laws to prosecute and prolong incarceration of thousands of Kurdish political activists, human rights defenders, students, journalists and trade unionists,” Human Rights Watch wrote in a 2013 report on Turkey.
Turkish journalists are afraid to write anything critical of the current government, and media companies are slapped with huge tax fines for covering uncomfortable topics.
According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, Turkish authorities have targeted journalists with detention for covering the protests.
Erdogan’s dilemma is in how he handles those who did not elect him, said CNN’s Fareed Zakaria. “He has come to believe that he speaks for all of Turkey.”
And this is dangerous.
Those who are against him are handled “too authoritarian,” Zakaria said on Piers Morgan Live Tuesday.
And the prime minister has said he will not back down.
“They say the prime minister is harsh,” Erdogan said Tuesday, referring to his detractors. “I’m sorry,” he told a gathering of his own party. “The prime minister is not going to change.”
Erdogan is tightening his grip on power, and is adding authority to the office of the presidency, which he hopes to hold in coming years.
Former U.S. intelligence chief John Negroponte believes the protests could have something to do with Erdogan’s ambitions for the future.
“There (may) be “forces joining in here, whose aim it is to prevent him from achieving his ambition of becoming the next president of the country,” he told Morgan.
A blanket of gray rain settled over Taksim Square Wednesday morning, perhaps dampening the spirits of raucous protesters who had clashed with police into the previous night.
People wearing rain coats and toting umbrellas mulled the damp aftermath of charred and crumpled makeshift barricades in central Istanbul.
A battalion of police scrunched into a corner of Taksim Square stood quietly behind their armored vehicles. Residents stood around watching them.
With the talks breaking down, protesters and the government seem to be back to square one.
CNN’s Ivan Watson, Nick Paton Walsh, Gul Tuysuz and Arwa Damon reported from Istanbul; Ben Brumfield wrote from Atlanta. CNN’s Greg Botelho contributed to this report.
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