The face of the protest movement that has shaken Turkey and shocked Recep Tayyip Erdogan, its powerful prime minister, is youthful and energetic. The question is whether it has the staying power to pose a threat to Mr Erdogan’s grip on power.
In the sun of an early summer afternoon on Monday, students and high school children broke up paving stones to fend off a possible police advance into Istanbul’s main square. They erected barricade after barricade on the road leading up from the Bosphorus to Taksim Square, surgical masks tucked in their pockets in case of tear gas attacks.
In Taksim itself, where people sipped cappuccinos at outside tables beside a burnt-out police van, the demonstrators kept arriving, cheered on by older people, who leaned out of windows clapping or honked their car horns in support. No police were anywhere to be seen.
This leaderless movement could yet benefit Mr Erdogan’s political opponents – perhaps his rivals within the Islamist-rooted tradition from which he comes rather than the formal opposition.
In previous years, Mr Erdogan and his Justice and Development party (AKP) have seen off the country’s once coup-prone army and vanquished all opponents at the ballot box. Yet he, like the rest of the country, has been taken aback by demonstrators who have few clear goals, beyond the salvation of Gezi Park, the green space adjoining Taksim Square that sparked off the protests – and the overarching, probably unrealisable, ambition of Mr Erdogan’s departure.
“This is about freedom,” said Can, a protester who works in a travel agency, voicing the concerns of many protesters who say Mr Erdogan has become too heavy-handed and threatened their often-secular way of life.
“They are passing laws that stop you buying alcohol later at night and on television news no one tells the truth.”
In Gezi Park, as young people waved Turkish flags, donned Guy Fawkes masks and danced, Semih Erturk, an urban planning student who had come with his mother and an aunt, added: “This is public resistance to the government . . . People don’t like to be forbidden from doing things, they don’t like to be pushed around.”
Nor is such discontent limited to secular Turks. In Uskudar, the socially conservative district in which Mr Erdogan lives, some residents banged pots and pans on Sunday night in protest at the prime minister. Many followers of Fethullah Gulen, a Muslim cleric with considerable influence over parts of Turkish society, have also increasingly signalled their discontent with his allegedly heavy-handed approach.
Nonetheless, facing no effective political opposition and with recent polls showing the support of half of the population or more, Mr Erdogan has every expectation of staying in power for years.
Sedat Ergin, a columnist, said the country’s presidency, up for election next year, was Mr Erdogan’s for the asking and added he was unsure that the spontaneous protest was organised enough even to be called a movement.
But he noted: “What this has done is to have removed people’s fear. People were frightened of tear gas before, now they are not. Mr Erdogan had never really given in on a big issue before, now he has, pulling police out of Taksim.”
Mr Ergin suggested that the chaotic situation might yet produce one big winner – Turkey’s president Abdullah Gul, Mr Erdogan’s fellow ruling party founder, but a more emollient figure than the prime minister. Mr Gul has at times come close to presenting an alternative prospectus for government to Mr Erdogan, emphasising the EU and striking a less fervent note on issues such as Syria.
In the wake of the protests, Mr Gul has sharpened the contrast, proclaiming that the protesters’ message had been understood, even as Mr Erdogan suggested that extremists and foreign countries were to blame.
In signs that the events have boosted his public profile, it was also Mr Gul who urged restraint just before Mr Erdogan pulled the police from Taksim Square; it was the president, not the prime minister, who met Kemal Kilicdaroglu, Turkey’s main opposition leader, in talks about the protests on Monday evening.
Meanwhile, Mr Kilicdaroglu’s Republican People’s party, which governed Turkey in the first decades of the republic, holds out hope that the demonstrations may change its own luck in repeatedly losing elections.
“The effects of all of this will not be over when the demonstrations are over. This is accumulated anger,” said Faruk Logoglu, a party deputy chairman. “The most concrete political result is that the AKP’s magic is broken – now people see the facts and see better.”
But in a sign of the dilemma the opposition party faces in linking itself with the movement, party leaders stayed away from Taksim on the biggest day of protests on Saturday, in order to make it more difficult for Mr Erdogan to depict the demonstrations as the work of his failed political opponents.