When protesters took to Taksim Square in Istanbul last week, the initial focus of their concern was the plan to cut down 600 trees for a big development project in the one of the few green spaces remaining in the congested, pulsating core of the historic Turkish city.

Since then, however, the demonstrations have rapidly escalated, riot police have fired tear gas and water cannons and the unrest is now widely seen as a visible display of pent-up frustration with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

To his critics, the leader of the Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) is seen as increasingly authoritarian, and presiding over what many secular-minded Turks fear is a creeping conservative social agenda.

That's not the image of Turkey that many Westerners have. They tend to see Turkey as a new-found but strong NATO ally that tries to be a bridge to the Arab world while also speaking out criticaly against its warring neighbour, Syria's Bashar al-Assad.

And Erdogan himself will have none of the dictator talk. He says he is not a "master, but a servant" of the people, and dismisses the 10,000 or so protesters who gathered in the square on the weekend as part of an extremist fringe.

Here's a look at the unrest that has seen thousands congregating, hundreds arrested and hundreds reportedly injured. It has become the largest anti-government disturbance to hit Turkey in many years.

When and why?

On May 28, a small group of mostly young protesters gathered in Taksim Square, a frequent and historic political rallying point, to try to block the removal of trees in the adjacent Gezi park.

The trees in that popular green space in the very un-green heart of Istanbul were to be cut to make way for a development that reportedly includes a shopping mall, a mosque and a rebuilt Ottoman-era military barracks.

People were already "seething" at the development plan, says Ariel Salzmann, an associate professor of Islamic and world history at Queen's University, Kingston, Ont. But when crews went to start the constuction, "which would involve cutting down the trees, that touched off everything."

The demonstration started as an "environmentalist-driven protest," says Reva Bhalla, vice-president of global analysis for Stratfor, a Texas-based geopolitical intelligence firm.

But the situation turned violent on Thursday evening, May 30, when police moved in and attempted to dismantle the sit-in. The situation escalated the next day when, Bhalla says, the main opposition party saw a political opportunity to exploit the demonstrations. High-level representatives of the Republican People's Party joined the protest.

"Even though the demonstration started out as a kind of save-the-trees campaign, a historical preservation campaign against the AKP because they didn’t want this park to be converted to a big multi-use shopping centre, it very quickly just mushroomed into this very vitriolic anti-AKP, anti-Erdogan campaign where they were calling him a fascist, calling for the overthrow of the government and so on."

On May 31, protests spread elsewhere in Turkey, including the capital, Ankara.

A Stratfor analysis says the size of the protests needs to be kept in perspective.

"Many of the areas where protests were reported are also areas where the Republican People's Party would be expected to bring out a large number of supporters," the firm said in a written report. "The protests would be highly significant if they grow to the hundreds of thousands, include a wider demographic and geographically extend to areas with traditionally strong support for the ruling party."

Who's protesting?

The protest has drawn together groups and individuals who would otherwise rarely join forces.

"What's so interesting is the groups across the spectrum, and that's why it's very dangerous to say this is secular versus Islamist," says Salzmann.

She points to videos popping up on YouTube from Istanbul that show women in headscarves sitting on city buses cheering loudly for the young people trying to keep the park green.

And young people, who Salzmann says might otherwise be called "soccer hooligans," are sitting next to representatives of Istanbul’s LGBT community working for gay rights.

"You have nationalist … Turks sitting next to Kurds, so it is producing on the ground this unity of people who would otherwise be actually very splintered."

Bhalla says amid the “real motley crew” of supporters, there are the traditional people one might expect to see.

"They come from that more staunchly secular camp that has deep-rooted grievances against the AKP and they've been increasinginlly sidelined in the past decade as the AKP has increasingly consolidated its power."

Other groups include liberal youth — many of them university students — and representatives of the moderate Islamist Gulen movenment, who Bhalla says have a complex relationship with the AKP but have also openly rebuked Erdogan.

Stratfor's analysis also notes that the growing dissent is not a simple Islamist-secular divide.

"A perception has developed among a growing number of Turks that [the AKP] is pursuing an aggressive form of capitalism that defies environmental considerations as well as Islamic values," it says.

This diversity, however, might not set this group up for a long future as a fortified protest.

"Because this is such a disparate group of opposition, that doesn't really bode well for its ability to cohere and unite behind a single personality or a single message," says Bhalla.

Why the frustration with Erdogan?

Erdogan has been prime minister for a decade, and last won re-election in 2011.

Salzmann says anger and discontent at the Erdogan's AKP government have been "going on for a long time now."

Erdogan, she says, "has become increasingly authoriatian and has used and abused his powers in a variety of ways … to repress his critics." She points, for example, to hundreds of people — including journalists — who have been jailed.

And then there are social policies that have also proved unpopular in some quarters.

Bhalla notes there are people who come from the secular camp who are very concerned with the gradual social transformation taking place "where laws are being passed like banning alcohol sales after 10 p.m., changing the attire of Turkish Airlines flight attendants and things like that that they feel are infringing on the kind of core secularist … principles of the state."

Will this become another Arab Spring?

Images of protesters in a central city square conjure memories of the Arab Spring and particularly the unrest that grew in Cairo's Tahrir Square two years ago.

Erdogan flatly rejects any suggestion of a "Tahrir Square" moment in Turkey, and most observers appear to feel that he is correct in that assessment.

"While you do see this gradual dissent that has been building against the AKP, this should not be couched in some sort of Turkish Spring context or anything like that. This is not Tahrir Square," says Bhalla.

"There is a very important, [and] so far, silent majority in play here where the AKP has substantial support in the country.

"If you just look at the 2011 election results, they still have roughly more than half of the country that are still deeply committed to the party and who lack a credible political alternative to the AKP."

Salzmann considers the protests to be a "summer of discontent against the so-called Turkish model" —the example of a Islamist-rooted government but with a moderate, business-friendly and secular outlook .

But while the AKP has pushed the democratization agenda forward since the 1980s, Salzmann says it has now become a force against it with its unregulated zest for development.

Bhalla says while the current unrest won't likely put Erdogan at risk of "some sort of popular overthrow," it will become more difficult for him to silence his opposition and push forward with his presidential ambitions.

He has been looking for Kurdish support for a referendum that would clear the way to transform Turkey from a parliamentary system to a purely presidential one, with him presumably in that head-of-state role beyond next year, when elections are planned.

"The sight of protesters from the pro-Kurdish Pace and Democracy Party (known as the BDP) joining Republican People's Party supporters for the June 1 protests does not bode well for Erdogan's plan to rely on those votes in the constitutional referendum,” Stratfor said in its analysis of the Turkish protests.

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  • Turkish protesters clash with Turkish riot policemen on Taksim square in Istanbul on June 22, 2013. Turkish police used water cannon today to disperse thousands of demonstrators who had gathered anew in Istanbul's Taksim Square, calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. (BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images)

  • Protesters hold up their hands as they gather on Taksim square before clashes with Turkish riot police in Istanbul on June 22, 2013 during a wave of new protests. (BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images)

  • Protesters hold up their hands as they gather on Taksim square before clashing with Turkish riot police in Istanbul on June 22, 2013. (BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images)

  • A man bleeds from a head wound as Turkish police clash with anti-government protestors while they clear Taksim Square and push them down the Istikhlal shopping avenue on June 22, 2013 in Istanbul, Turkey. (Photo by Scott Peterson/Getty Images)

  • A man braces against a shield as Turkish police clash with anti-government protestors while they clear Taksim Square and push them down the Istikhlal shopping avenue on June 22, 2013 in Istanbul, Turkey. (Photo by Scott Peterson/Getty Images)

  • An anti goverment protestor waves a Turkish flag with a portrait of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of modern Turkey on Taksim square during the clash between riot Police and protestors in Istanbul on June 22, 2013. (OZAN KOSE/AFP/Getty Images)

  • Protesters raise their hands as they gather on Taksim square during the clash between riot police and protestors in Istanbul on June 22, 2013. (OZAN KOSE/AFP/Getty Images)

  • Cyclists ride bikes during the silent protest at Taksim Square on June 23, 2013 in Istanbul, Turkey. Performance artist Erdem Gunduz, nicknamed 'The Standing Man,' became a new symbol of the anti-government protests after a eight-hour vigil in Taksim Square. (Photo by Burak Kara/Getty Images)

  • Turkish anti-government protestors gather in Taksim Square carrying carnations to mark the four people killed in weeks of protest on June 22, 2013 in Istanbul, Turkey. (Photo by Scott Peterson/Getty Images)

  • Turkish anti-government protestors push back on a police car, carnations sitting to mark the four people killed in weeks of protest, as police move into clear Taksim Square in Istanbul, on June 22, 2013 in Istanbul, Turkey. (Photo by Scott Peterson/Getty Images)

  • Turkish anti-government protestors gather in Taksim Square carrying carnations to mark the four people killed in weeks of protest on June 22, 2013 in Istanbul, Turkey. (Photo by Scott Peterson/Getty Images)

  • Turkish riot police argue with anti-government protestors as they begin moving in to clear Taksim Square, on June 22, 2013 in Istanbul, Turkey. (Photo by Scott Peterson/Getty Images)

  • People stand during a silent protest at Taksim Square on June 23, 2013 in Istanbul, Turkey. Performance artist Erdem Gunduz, nicknamed 'The Standing Man,' became a new symbol of the anti-government protests after a eight-hour vigil in Taksim Square. (Photo by Burak Kara/Getty Images)

  • People stand during a silent protest at Taksim Square on June 23, 2013 in Istanbul, Turkey. Performance artist Erdem Gunduz, nicknamed 'The Standing Man,' became a new symbol of the anti-government protests after a eight-hour vigil in Taksim Square. (Photo by Burak Kara/Getty Images)

  • A protester reacts in pain to a salvo of tear gas fired by Turkish riot police officers to chase out demonstrators and to dismantle the tent camp set up by demonstrators in Gezi Park in Istanbul on June 15, 2013. (MARCO LONGARI/AFP/Getty Images)

  • People light candles for the victims of the protests at Taksim square, in Istanbul, early Saturday, June 15, 2013. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)

  • Protesters try to resist the advance of riot police in Gezi park in Istanbul, Turkey, Saturday, June 15, 2013. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)

  • A protester reacts as police throw tear gas among tents during an operation to evacuate the Gezi Park of Taksim Square in Istanbul, Saturday, June 15, 2013. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)

  • Police enter to evacuate the Gezi Park in Istanbul, Saturday, June 15, 2013. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)

  • Protesters try to resist the advance of riot police in Gezi park in Istanbul, Turkey, Saturday, June 15, 2013. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)

  • People march from Anatolian side to European side to Taksim square in Istanbul, on June 16, 2013. (BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images)

  • Protesters take cover from a water cannon during clashes with riot police at a demonstration in Ankara on June 16, 2013. (ADEM ALTAN/AFP/Getty Images)

  • A pretzel vendor walks in front of a line of Turkish police cordoning off Taksim Square, in Istanbul, Turkey, Sunday, June 16, 2013. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)

  • A protester reacts as Turkish riot police spray water cannon at demonstrators who remained defiant after authorities evicted activists from an Istanbul park, making clear they are taking a hardline against attempts to rekindle protests that have shaken the country, in city's main Kizilay Square in Ankara, Turkey, Sunday, June 16, 2013. (AP Photo/Burhan Ozbilici)

  • As police vehicles rolled into Kizilay Square, one woman approached a lightly armored truck bearing the logo of the police anti-terrorism department and grabbed a side window to ask those inside: "What is this oppression? Have you no fear of God? I have no children, but all of these (demonstrators) are my children!" she said, motioning to the young protesters nearby, in Ankara, Turkey, Sunday, June 16, 2013. (AP Photo/Burhan Ozbilici)

  • A protester reacts as Turkish riot police spray water cannon at demonstrators who remained defiant after authorities evicted activists from an Istanbul park, making clear they are taking a hardline against attempts to rekindle protests that have shaken the country, in city's main Kizilay Square in Ankara, Turkey, Sunday, June 16, 2013. (AP Photo/Burhan Ozbilici)

  • In this Saturday, June 15, 2013, file photo, protesters try to resist the advance of riot police in Gezi park in Istanbul, Turkey. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda, File)

  • Turkish protesters hold a massive rally on John F. Kennedy street near the U.S. Embassy, shouting slogans such as "government, resign!" in Ankara, Turkey, early Sunday, June 16, 2013. (AP Photo/Burhan Ozbilici)

  • In this Tuesday, June 11, 2013, file photo, a protester tries to remain standing as a police water cannon fires water during clashes in Taksim square in Istanbul. (AP Photo/Kostas Tsironis, File)

  • In this Tuesday, June 11, 2013, file photo, a protester tries protect from water projected by a water canon from police during clashes in Taksim square in Istanbul. (AP Photo/Kostas Tsironis)

  • People carry the coffin of Ethem Sarisuluk, one of five people killed during the recent protests in Turkey, as Turkish riot police spray water cannon at demonstrators who remained defiant after authorities evicted activists from an Istanbul park, making clear they are taking a hardline against attempts to rekindle protests that have shaken the country, in city's main Kizilay Square in Ankara, Turkey, Sunday, June 16, 2013. (AP Photo )

  • Police fire tear gas as riot police spray water cannon at demonstrators who remained defiant after authorities evicted activists from an Istanbul park, making clear they are taking a hardline against attempts to rekindle protests that have shaken the country, near city's main Taksim Square in Istanbul, Turkey, Sunday, June 16, 2013.(AP Photo )

  • Anti-government protesters demonstrate in central Ankara on June 17, 2013. (ADEM ALTAN/AFP/Getty Images)

  • Anti-government protesters demonstrate in central Ankara on June 17, 2013. (ADEM ALTAN/AFP/Getty Images)

  • People walk during a rally by the labor unions in Istanbul, Turkey, Monday, June 17, 2013. (AP Photo)

  • People shout anti-government slogans during a rally by the labor unions in Istanbul, Turkey, Monday, June 17, 2013. (AP Photo)

  • Erdem Gunduz, right, stands silently on Taksim Square in Istanbul, Turkey, early Tuesday, June 18, 2013. (AP Photo)

  • A protester stands in a silent protest at Taksim Square in, Istanbul, Turkey, Tuesday, June 18, 2013. After weeks of sometimes-violent confrontation with police, Turkish protesters have found a new form of resistance: standing still and silent. (AP Photo/Petr David Josek)

  • Mert Solkiran, centre, stands in a silent protest at Taksim Square in, Istanbul, Turkey, Tuesday, June 18, 2013. After weeks of sometimes-violent confrontation with police, Turkish protesters have found a new form of resistance: standing still and silent. (AP Photo/Petr David Josek)

  • Erdem Gunduz, left, and dozens of people stand silently on Taksim Square in Istanbul, Turkey, early Tuesday, June 18, 2013. After weeks of confrontation with police, sometimes violent, Turkish protesters are using a new form of resistance: standing silently. The development started late Monday when a solitary man began standing in passive defiance against Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's authority at Istanbul's central Taksim Square. The square has been sealed off from mass protests since police cleared it over the weekend. The man has identified himself as Erdem Gunduz, a performance artist. His act has sparked imitation by others in Istanbul and other cities. It has provoked widespread comment on social media. (AP Photo)

  • Protestors stand in a silent protest at Taksim Square in, Istanbul, Turkey, Tuesday, June 18, 2013. After weeks of sometimes-violent confrontation with police, Turkish protesters have found a new form of resistance: standing still and silent. (AP Photo/Petr David Josek)

  • A man sleeps at Taksim's Gezi Park early on June 12, 2013 in Istanbul, hours after riot police invated the square. (ANGELOS TZORTZINIS/AFP/Getty Images)

  • Demonstrators wait at the entrance of Taksim Gezi park on June 12, 2013. (GURCAN OZTURK/AFP/Getty Images)

  • Turkish lawyers march in support of anti-government protests in Ankara, on June 12, 2013. (AFP/Getty Images)

  • Demonstrators wait at the entrance of the Taksim Gezi park on June 12, 2013 after a night of running battles with riot police as Turkish Prime Minister moved to crush mass demos against his Islamic-rooted government. (GURCAN OZTURK/AFP/Getty Images)

  • Lawyers and members of the Turkish bar association shout slogans as they march in support of anti-government protests in Ankara, on June 12, 2013. (STRINGER/AFP/Getty Images)

  • Turkish lawyers march in support of anti-government protests in Ankara, on June 12, 2013. (AFP/Getty Images)

  • Riot police fire tear gas to disperse the crowd during a demonstration near Taksim Square on June 11, 2013 in Istanbul, Turkey. (Photo by Lam Yik Fei/Getty Images)

  • Protesters clash with riot police at Taksim square in Istanbul on June 11, 2013. (ARIS MESSINIS/AFP/Getty Images)

  • Riot police fire tear gas to disperse the crowd during a demonstration near Taksim Square on June 11, 2013 in Istanbul, Turkey. (Photo by Lam Yik Fei/Getty Images)

  • An injured person is helped by fellow protesters during clashes with police on Taksim square in Istanbul, on June 11, 2013. (BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images)