TUNIS, Tunisia -- Protestors scuffled with police in Tunisia’s capital on Friday after crowds gathered, in defiance of new COVID-19 restrictions, to mark the 11th anniversary of the revolution that triggered the Arab Spring uprisings.
Police fired water cannon and tear gas at a crowd of several hundred in Tunis. Several protestors were arrested, while some were injured.
On Wednesday, the government re-imposed a nationwide nighttime curfew and announced a ban on public gatherings, citing a spike in coronavirus infections linked to the omicron variant.
Several politicians and civil society activists however have said that the decision was politically motivated, to prevent any commemorative demonstrations of the Jan. 14 anniversary, or anti-government protests.
Last July, Tunisian President Kais Saied abruptly dismissed the government and suspended parliament, taking on sweeping powers. His critics have called the measures a “coup d’etat,” and Saied's subsequent consolidation of power has sparked large demonstrations both for and against him.
A host of new measures included his decision to move the nation’s official revolution day from Jan. 14 to Dec. 17, marking the date when a Tunisian fruit seller set himself alight in 2010, initially sparking the uprising that would inspire a series of movements in several countries that came to be known as the Arab Spring. In Tunisia, the popular movement led to the overthrow of the country’s long-term, autocratic ruler Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who fled on the night of the 14th.
Saied has said that events following Jan. 14 led to the rise to power of “corrupt” politicians who “stole” the revolution.
“The new regime wants to erase this symbol (of Jan. 14) from the collective memory” said politician Issam Chebbi at a recent press conference ahead of the demonstration.
Despite the government’s ban on gatherings, several hundred demonstrators took to the streets of downtown Tunis but were prevented from entering the city’s main thoroughfare by a heavy police presence and barricades.
“Down with the coup” and “Kaïs you are a coward, the people will not be humiliated” were among the chants shouted by the demonstrators, referring to Saied’s power grab.
“We resisted the coup and we are still resisting it with civilized methods, despite the barbaric means that (Saied) uses against us. The citizens went to the streets empty-handed, unafraid of him” said one protestor at Friday’s demonstration, Ali, who did not wish to give his last name.
Another protestor, Sonia, said: “Why is there all this security presence that made the street look like a military barracks? (Is the government) afraid of us because of coronavirus? Why did the scientific committee choose this date to ban demonstrations?"
“It’s a lie like the one before, Mr. President, your lie is very clear today and it is proof that you are afraid. What we saw today is evidence of your fear” she said.
In September Saied partially suspended the country’s 2014 constitution and gave himself the power to rule by decree. Observers have since warned of democratic backsliding, while rights activists have condemned the arrests of several figures in recent months, including most recently the vice-president of Ennahdha — Tunisia's largest Islamist party — and former justice minister, Noureddine Bhiri.
Saied announced a road map out of the country's political crisis last month, starting with a partly-digital national consultation which that will launch Jan. 15. He has said that the consultation will inform the planning of a referendum on political reform, to be held in July, and subsequent parliamentary elections at the end of the year.