Tunisian police used tear gas and water cannons on Friday to disperse hundreds of demonstrators who defied a ban on gatherings to protest against President Kais Saied’s July power grab.
As the country marks 11 years since the late dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled into exile, police deployed heavily in central Tunis to counter anti-Saied rallies calling for an end to his “coup”.
The protesters had gathered despite restrictions on gatherings imposed on Thursday as coronavirus cases surge in the North African country, but which Saied’s opponents say are politically motivated.
AFP reporters saw over 1,000 protesters gathered on Mohamed V Avenue, but they were prevented from reaching the iconic Habib Bourguiba Avenue, epicentre of the vast protests that toppled Ben Ali in 2011.
Some demonstrators broke through a police cordon before police baton charges and tear gas and water cannons pushed them back.
AFP reporters saw dozens of arrests.
“It’s the most violent intervention by security forces we’ve seen in the past year, both in terms of the methods used and the number of arrests,” said Fathi Jarai, president of the independent anti-torture body the INPT.
Some protesters had chanted “down with the coup!”, a reference to Saied’s July 25 moves in which he sacked the government, froze parliament and seized a range of powers.
He has since virtually ruled by decree, to the outrage of his opponents, including the powerful Islamist-inspired Ennahdha party.
Some Tunisians, tired of the inept and graft-ridden parliamentary system, welcomed his moves.
But for his critics, both among Ennahdha members and on the left, they foreshadowed a possible return to the same kind of autocratic practices that were common under Ben Ali.
Prominent human rights activist Sihem Bensedrine, who headed the now-defunct Truth and Dignity Commission (IVD), accused authorities of taking away Tunisians’ right to protest and threatening the country’s “hard-won freedom”.
“We’re here to defend the institutions of the republic,” she said.
“This people, which toppled a 23-year dictatorship, is not going to let another dictator take its place.”
‘Working for Sisi’
One of Saied’s moves was to shift the official anniversary of the revolution from the date of Ben Ali’s flight to December 17, the day in 2010 when vegetable seller Mohamed Bouazizi burned himself alive sparking the first mass protests.
The move was seen as symbolising Saied’s view that the revolution had been stolen.
Sofiane Ferhani, whose sister died in the revolution, said Saied had no right to “touch” the January 14 anniversary.
“We won’t let him do it, this day is too dear to us,” he said.
Ennahdha supporters have compared Saied to Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, whose crackdown on Islamist demonstrators in 2013 left hundreds dead.
One woman protester told a policeman on Friday: “You’re working for Sisi and the United Arab Emirates!”
The protests took place despite a string of measures, including a nighttime curfew and a ban on public gatherings, brought in on Thursday evening purportedly to tackle a steep rise in coronavirus infections.
Ennahdha, the biggest party in the suspended parliament, on Thursday accused Saied of “utilising the coronavirus crisis for political ends, targeting what remains of the margin of freedom” in Tunisia.
The showdown comes amid heightened tensions between the party and Saied after former justice minister Noureddine Bhiri and another senior Ennhadha official were arrested by plainclothes police officers on December 31 and later accused of possible “terrorism” offences.
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