Tunisian police used water cannons, batons and tear gas to disperse hundreds of protesters trying to reach central Tunis to demonstrate against the president in defiance of COVID-19 restrictions.
A heavy police presence on Friday prevented protesters from congregating on Avenue Habib Bourguiba, the main street in the center of the capital that is the traditional focus of demonstrations, including during the 2011 Tunisian uprising that ushered in democracy.
Police then attempted to disperse several different groups of protesters, at least one of which had hundreds of protesters, witnesses said. Dozens of police cars were in the area and two water cannons were placed outside the Interior Ministry building on the same street.
Opposition parties, including Ennahdha, have protested President Kais Saied’s suspension of parliament, accession to executive power and attempts to rewrite the constitution, which they call a coup.
Other demonstrators gathered on Avenue Mohammed V in downtown Tunis.
“The ban on public gatherings was a political decision to ensure Tunisia remained under Saied’s dictate,” civil society member Hamida Jmili told Al Jazeera.
Some protesters broke through a police cordon before police baton charges and tear gas and water cannons pushed them back.
“This is the most violent intervention by the security forces that we have seen in a year, both in terms of the methods used and the number of arrests,” said Fathi Jarai, president of the independent anti-torture body INPT.
Saied took power at the end of July. He denied the coup allegations and pledged to respect the rights and freedoms acquired during the 2011 Tunisian revolution that sparked the Arab Spring uprisings in the region.
“We Tunisians are here today to exercise our right to commemorate January 14, a day of freedom and democracy, as we have done for 10 years,” a protester told Al Jazeera, under cover of a anonymity.
Gathering outside the Central Bank, Mariam, a young rights activist, compared Saied’s moves to those of former dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who ruled Tunisia with an iron fist for more than two decades.
“As every January 14, we demonstrate here to assert our revolutionary demands. And under Kais Saied, we are vigilant not to allow him to restore dictatorship in Tunisia,” Mariam told Al Jazeera.
Friday’s protest went against a government ban on all indoor or outdoor gatherings, which was announced on Tuesday to stem a wave of COVID-19.
“Today, Saied’s only response to opponents is by force and security forces (…) it’s so sad to see Tunisia as a barracks on the date of our revolution,” said Chayma Issa , an opposition activist.
Ennahdha, the party with the most seats in the suspended Tunisian parliament, and other parties taking part in the protest accused the government of introducing the ban and resuming its nighttime curfew for political reasons instead. that of health in order to prevent manifestations.
Friday falls on what Tunisians previously marked as the anniversary of the 2011 revolution, the day longtime leader Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled the North African country.
However, Saied decreed last year that instead of falling on the anniversary of Ben Ali’s departure into exile, it would be marked on the December anniversary of a street vendor’s self-immolation, which sparked the uprising.
“So just going out today is a big show that people are disobeying his [Saied’s] decrees, ”journalist Elizia Volkmann reported from Tunis on Friday.
“The COVID numbers, and the Omicron variant, are indeed on the rise and there are fears of a very large increase, but opposition politicians accuse Kais Saied of using COVID as an excuse to block protests. »
Although Saied’s action in July seemed very popular at first after years of economic stagnation and political paralysis, analysts say it appears to have since lost some support.
Since Saied’s intervention, several senior politicians and business leaders have been detained or prosecuted, often involving cases of corruption or defamation.
On Tuesday, the country’s press union said Tunisia’s state television had banned all political parties from entering its premises or participating in talk shows, in a serious setback for press freedom. .
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 are here to defend the institutions of the republic,” she said. “These people, who overthrew a 23-year-old dictatorship, are not going to let another dictator take their place.”
Tunisia’s economy remains bogged down by the pandemic, there has been little progress in securing international support for fragile public finances, and the Saied government appointed in September announced an unpopular budget for 2022.
The Tunisian president has started to prepare a new constitution which he has said he will put to a referendum in July.
The vote will take place following an online public consultation that will begin in January. Legislative elections are also due to take place at the end of 2022.
Alessandra Bajec contributed to this report from Tunis