ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Performance artist Erdem Gunduz became the new symbol of anti-government protests in Turkey on Tuesday after his eight-hour vigil in Taksim Square earned him the nickname “the Standing Man”.
Images of Gunduz standing quietly in the large, open square, the cradle of three weeks of often violent unrest, have struck a chord with sympathizers more used to witnessing stone-throwing youths battling police tear gas and water cannon.
Twitter lit up with messages of support, although Gunduz sought to play down his importance in demonstrations that have shaken Turkey’s image of stability in the volatile Middle East.
“Maybe the media and people will learn something from this silent standing, this resistance,” Gunduz said in an interview with Hurriyet TV. “Maybe they will feel some empathy. I am just an ordinary citizen of this country. We want our voices to be heard.”
Gunduz said he was protesting in solidarity with demonstrators who were evicted at the weekend from Gezi Park adjoining Taksim, an intervention by police that triggered some of the most violent clashes to date.
What began in May as a protest by environmentalists upset over plans to build on Gezi Park has grown into a broader movement against Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, presenting the greatest public challenge to his 10-year leadership.
The prime minister, whose AK Party has won three successive election victories with an ever growing share of the vote over the past decade, rallied hundreds of thousands of supporters at meetings in Istanbul and Ankara over the weekend and has pledged to again crush his opponents in elections next year.
From the early evening on Monday, Gunduz stood silently, facing the Ataturk Cultural Centre which was draped in Turkish flags and a portrait of Turkey’s founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.
Ataturk laid the secular foundations of the republic some 90 years ago, and while Gunduz’s intentions were not clear, some protesters have accused Erdogan of pursuing a new order based on religious principles - something he denies.
By 2 a.m. (2300 GMT) on Tuesday, when the police moved in, about 300 people had joined Gunduz. Ten people, who refused to be moved on by police, were detained.
On Tuesday, hundreds more men and women staged copycat protests in Istanbul, the capital Ankara and the city of Izmir on the Aegean coast.
Interior Minister Muammer Guler indicated on Tuesday that there would be no police swoop against similar “standing man” protests. “If this protest does not harm public order or influence life generally, we will not intervene in such protests,” he told reporters in parliament.
Overnight there were copycat demonstrations in places where people suffered violent deaths both in the latest unrest and further in the past.
Three men stood at the place where Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink was shot dead in 2007, two kilometers north of Taksim Square, photographs posted on social media showed.
A group of women and men also stood facing a former hotel in the central city of Sivas, where 37 people, mostly from the Alevi minority, died in a 1993 fire started during an Islamist protest against the presence at a meeting there of a translator of Salman Rushie’s “The Satanic Verses”.
Official investigations into both the Dink and Sivas cases have attracted considerable criticism in Turkey.
In the province of Hatay on the Syrian border, a man stood with his hands in his pockets beside a makeshift shrine for Abdullah Comert, who was killed during clashes there between police and protesters, another online photograph showed.
Others gathered at the place where a man died during the protests in the capital Ankara and there were similar protests in Izmir.
Editing by Mike Collett-White/Mark Heinrich