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Turkey's street protests get personal

Brash and stubborn, Turkey's leader doesn't shrink from a scrap. His voice booms when he gets on a podium and his folksy zingers enthrall supporters as much as they repulse opponents. That trademark combativeness, though, is fueling protests against his government.

For perhaps the first time in a decade of power, Recep Tayyip Erdogan looks vulnerable.

Turkey has been gripped by street skirmishes since Friday, when a police raid against a peaceful demonstration in an Istanbul park blew the lid off pent-up hostility toward the government. The protests are largely driven by visceral dislike among urban and secular circles for Erdogan, the three-term prime minister with designs on the presidency who helped build a middle class.

His hardheadedness once served him well, helping him project Turkish influence in the region, excise military meddling from politics and build a model for countries struggling to reconcile Islam and democratic impulses.

But his uncompromising style is now working against him, as members of the middle class he helped foster make it clear they've had enough of his rule.

Though many see him as out of touch with his early commitment to individual freedoms and democratic reforms, Erdogan can still count on a powerful support base of conservative Turks. Though some government officials have hinted at disagreement with their leader's approach, Erdogan has so far chosen confrontation over reconciliation, dismissing the demonstrators as rabble.

Erdogan, an ex-football player from a poor neighborhood of Istanbul, has led his ruling party to a string of electoral landslides over the fractured political opposition. But government opponents complain of unilateral decision-making and edicts that appear to be religiously motivated and pose a challenge to Turkey's secular principles.

Protesters vent their displeasure by calling the 59-year-old prime minister by his given name "Tayyip," a way of denigrating Erdogan because of his paternal demeanor, which would ordinarily command respect. A traditional term of address would be "Basbakanim," which means "My Prime Minister."

"Tayyip, winter is coming," warned one piece of protest graffiti. "Tayyip, would you like three kids like us?" read a sign held by a protester who lampooned Erdogan's calls for families to have three children.

Beril Eski, a 27-year-old editor at a television station, was not inclined to protest in the past. But she joined the demonstrations that have swept Istanbul because she felt insulted by police treatment of demonstrators and what she described as an overbearing government led by a man given to provocative rhetoric.

"If he said he was sorry — I'm not sure he's going to do that — if he said he would step back, that would make us feel comfortable," Eski said. "That would make us feel that we have a say in our future."

She said she had had been sympathetic to his years of effort to remove the political influence of military-backed elites, which had sidelined Erdogan's traditional constituency of religiously devout Turks in the past. But now that Erdogan's base is in charge, she said, he has a growing sense of entitlement.

"It's too much about his style, too much about his being the single man in control," Eski said.