Tunisians fill the city center to protest against the president

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Tunisian police used tear gas and water cannons on Friday to disperse hundreds of demonstrators who defied a ban on gatherings to protest President Kais Saied’s takeover of power in July.

As the country celebrates 11 years since late dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled into exile, police deployed heavily in central Tunis to confront anti-Said rallies calling for an end to his “coup”.

Protesters gathered despite restrictions on gatherings on Thursday with a surge in coronavirus cases in the North African country, which Saied’s opponents say is politically motivated.

AFP reporters saw more than 1,000 protesters gathering on Avenue Mohamed V, but they were prevented from accessing the famous Habib Bourguiba Avenue, the center of the widespread protests that toppled Ben Ali in 2011.

Some protesters broke a police cordon before police pushed them back with batons, tear gas and water cannons.

AFP reporters witnessed dozens of arrests.

“It is the heaviest intervention by the security forces we have seen in the past year, both in terms of the methods used and the number of arrests,” said Fathi Jaraei, head of the Independent Authority Against Torture (INPT).

“Down with the coup,” some protesters chanted, referring to Saeed’s July 25 moves in which he sacked the government, froze parliament and seized a range of powers.

He has since effectively ruled by decree, much to the chagrin of his opponents, including the powerful Islamist-inspired Ennahda party.

Some Tunisians, fed up with the incompetent parliamentary system burdened with corruption, welcomed his move.

But to his critics, both on the Ennahda and on the left, they foresaw a possible return to the same kind of authoritarian practices that were common under Ben Ali.

Prominent human rights activist Sihem Bensedrine, who heads the now-defunct Truth and Dignity Commission, accused authorities of withdrawing Tunisians’ right to protest and threatening the country’s “hard-earned freedom”.

“We are here to defend the institutions of the republic,” she said.

This people, who overthrew the 23-year dictatorship, will not let another dictator replace it.

Work for Sisi

One of Said’s steps was to move the official anniversary of the revolution from the date of Ben Ali’s escape to December 17, the day vegetable seller Mohamed Bouazizi burned himself alive in 2010, sparking the first mass protests.

This move was seen to symbolize Said’s view that the revolution had been stolen.

Sofian Farhani, whose sister died in the revolution, said that Said did not have the right to “touch” the memory of January 14.

“We will not let him do that, this day is dear to us,” he said.

Ennahda supporters likened Saeed to Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, whose 2013 crackdown on Islamist protesters left hundreds dead.

One female protester told a policeman on Friday: “You work for Sisi and the UAE!”

The protests took place despite a series of measures, including a nightly curfew and a ban on public gatherings, that were imposed on Thursday evening to address the sharp rise in infections with the Corona virus.

On Thursday, Ennahda, the largest party in the suspended parliament, accused Said of “exploiting the Corona virus crisis for political ends, and targeting what remains of the margin of freedom” in Tunisia.

The standoff comes amid escalating tensions between the party and Saied after plainclothes police officers arrested former justice minister Noureddine Bhairi and another senior Ennahda official on December 31 and were later charged with “terrorist” crimes.



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