Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan demanded on Friday an immediate end to a week of anti-government unrest, saying the protests which erupted over the redevelopment of an Istanbul park had been founded on a "campaign of lies".
Defending the wide use of tear gas in a police crackdown, Erdogan said similar action had been taken during protests in European countries such as Greece, as well as in the United States.
Erdogan flew back to a country rocked by its worst unrest for decades in the early hours and declared before a sea of flag-waving supporters at Istanbul airport: "These protests must end immediately."
"No power but Allah can stop Turkey's rise," he told thousands who gathered to greet him after a visit to North Africa, in the first pro-Erdogan rally since the demonstrations began.
Western governments including the United States, which sees Turkey as a vital NATO ally in the Middle East, have expressed concern about heavy-handed police action. Washington has long projected Turkey under Erdogan as an example of a Muslim democracy that could be emulated by other countries in the region, such as Egypt.
Speaking from an open-topped bus at the airport, his wife at his side, Erdogan acknowledged police might have used excessive force in crushing a small demonstration against the building project in an Istanbul park last Friday - the action that triggered nationwide protests against his 10-year-old rule. However, he said they were doing their duty.
European Union enlargement commissioner Stefan Fuele expressed his concern about the developments in Turkey, which is a candidate to join the bloc. "Peaceful demonstrations constitute a legitimate way for ... groups to express their views in a democratic society," Fuele said at a conference attended by Erdogan later on Friday.
"Excessive use of force by police against these demonstrations has no place in such a democracy," he said, adding those responsible needed to be swiftly held to account.
Erdogan countered by saying an investigation was underway but that an intervention by a European government in such circumstances would have been much more violent.
Foreign criticism of his handling of domestic affairs makes Erdogan bristle. His chief adviser Yalcin Akdogan said Turkey's allies struggled to accept his leadership style of forging new alliances and building diplomatic bridges, while at the same time fiercely asserting Turkey's independence.
"The West is not used to such a stance and leadership," he wrote in a column in the Star newspaper. "They don't want a leader with backbone and self-confidence, they want to create a leader who is feeble, hung up, weak-willed, afraid of his own shadow and caught between two sides."
Erdogan gave no indication of any immediate plans to remove the makeshift protest camps that have appeared on Istanbul's Taksim Square and a park in the capital, Ankara. But the gatherings mark a challenge to a leader whose authority is built on three successive election victories.
He said the protests against plans to build on the park in Taksim Square, which campaigners say were forced through without consultation, were based on "terrible disinformation" and "a campaign of lies".
"We have been talking to every segment of the society since we took power. I announced our project on Gezi Park before the 2011 elections with an animated video, and nobody reacted until today," he said.
Erdogan has made many democratic reforms, taming a military that toppled four governments in four decades, starting entry talks with the European Union, reining in rights abuses by police and forging peace talks with Kurdish rebels to end a three-decades-old war that has cost 40,000 lives. Per capita income has tripled in nominal terms and business boomed,
Erdogan takes the protests as a personal affront. In recent years critics say his style, always forceful and emotional, has become authoritarian.
Media have come under pressure, and arrests of military and other figures over alleged coup plots as well as moves such as restrictions on alcohol sales have unsettled especially secular middle class Turks who are sensitive to any encroachment of religion on their daily lives.
"These protests are partly a result of his success in economic and social transformation. There's a new generation who doesn't want to be bullied by the prime minister and who is afraid their lifestyle is in danger," said Joost Lagendijk, a former European parliamentarian and Istanbul-based academic.
Sources close to the Islamist-rooted AK Party that Erdogan founded in 2001, and which only a year later crushed traditional secular parties at elections, suggest a sense of siege within the leadership, with influential if disparate forces keen to remove Erdogan.
Citing a party source, the Radikal newspaper said an AK Party executive meeting on Saturday may discuss the possibility of calling early elections, although it could also change party rules to enable Erdogan to stand for a fourth term as prime minister rather than running for the presidency.
Erdogan has made clear he has no intention of stepping aside - pointing to AK's 50 percent of the vote at the last election - and has no clear rivals inside the party or outside where the opposition, on the streets and in parliament, is fragmented.
But in his party there are those who counsel more measured public comments than those made by Erdogan, who has tended to apply blanket condemnation to the protesters, branding them looters or associating them with terrorists.
Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc apologised for the police violence this week while Erdogan was away in North Africa.
Among the demonstrators are now nationalists, socialists, students, trade unionists, radical leftists and middle class professionals, many of whom may have benefited from a booming economy but remain sceptical of Erdogan.
"We were not expecting him to welcome us but we're getting more and more impatient now. People are angry," said Ozlem Arkun, 27, handing out cake at an impromptu cafe on Taksim.
Seven newspapers carried the identical headline, a measure perhaps of the control Erdogan exerts on the media: "We'll lay down our lives for democratic demands", they chimed in chorus, latching onto a comment he made to reporters in Tunisia.
The Leftist Sol declared: "The Deaf Sultan."