Tunisian police used tear gas and water cannons on Friday to disperse hundreds of protesters who defied the ban on rallies to protest President Kais Saied’s takeover in July.
As the country celebrates 11 years since the death of the late dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the police were deployed heavily in central Tunis to counter anti-Saied meetings demanding an end to his “coup”.
The protesters had gathered despite restrictions on gatherings imposed on Thursday when cases of coronavirus increased in the North African country, but which Saied’s opponents say are politically motivated.
AFP reporters saw over 1,000 protesters gather on Mohamed V Avenue, but they were prevented from reaching the iconic Habib Bourguiba Avenue, the epicenter of the huge protests that overthrew Ben Ali in 2011.
Some protesters broke through a police barricade before police baton charges and tear gas and water cannons pushed them back.
AFP reporters saw dozens of arrests.
“It is the most violent intervention by security forces we have seen in the last year, both in terms of the methods used and the number of arrests,” said Fathi Jarai, president of the independent anti-torture body INPT.
Some protesters had chanted “Down with the coup!”, A reference to Saied’s move on July 25, in which he looted the government, froze parliament and seized power.
He has since practically ruled by decree, to the outrage of his opponents, including the powerful Islamist-inspired Ennahdha party.
Some Tunisians, tired of the incompetent and plentiful parliamentary system, welcomed his move.
But for his critics, both among Ennahdha members and on the left, they foreshadowed a possible return to the same kind of autocratic customs that were common under Ben Ali.
Prominent human rights activist Sihem Bensedrine, who led the now defunct Commission of Truth and Dignity (IVD), accused the authorities of taking the 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, will not let another dictator take their place.”
“Working for Sisi”
One of Saied’s moves was to move the official anniversary of the revolution from the date of Ben Ali’s flight to December 17, 2010, when vegetable seller Mohamed Bouazizi burned himself alive and sparked the first mass protests.
The move was seen as a symbol of Saied’s view that the revolution had been stolen.
Sofiane Ferhani, whose sister died in the revolution, said that Saied did not have the right to “touch” the anniversary on January 14.
“We will not let him do that, this day is too much for us,” he said.
Ennahdha supporters have compared Saied to Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, whose crackdown on Islamist protesters in 2013 killed hundreds.
A female protester told a police officer on Friday: “You work for Sisi and the United Arab Emirates!”
The protests took place despite a series of measures, including a curfew at night and a ban on public gatherings, which were lifted on Thursday night, allegedly addressing a sharp increase in coronavirus infections.
Ennahdha, the largest party in the closed parliament, on Thursday accused Saied of “using the coronavirus crisis for political purposes, targeting what remains of the margin of freedom” in Tunisia.
The deal comes amid heightened tensions between the party and Saied after former Justice Minister Noureddine Bhiri and another senior official from Ennhadha were arrested by plainclothes police on December 31 and later charged with possible “terrorism” crimes.