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The New Arab Staff

Tunisia Defence Minister pressed by lawmakers on riots after breaking government silence

Al-Bartaji claimed "extremists" had been among those arrested in the riots [AFP]

Date of publication: 20 January, 2021

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Ibrahim Al-Bartaji appeared to break the silence of Tunisia’s divided political leadership on the protests in a formal statement to parliament.

Tunisia's Defence Minister addressed parliament after five nights of nationwide protests on Tuesday, as lawmakers attacked the government on issues including the heavy-handedness of security forces and the neglected demands of ordinary Tunisians which have fueled the unrest.

In a statement on behalf of Tunisia's technocratic government, Defence Minister Ibrahim Al-Bartaji claimed that evidence pointed to the involvement of terrorist groups in the riots, accusing them of "exploiting acts of incitement and looting to strike at the pillar of the country’s security and stability".

Al-Bartraji told parliamentarians that security forces found "Islamist extremists" among the "agitators" it had detained, seizing hand weapons and Molotov cocktails.

Al-Bartaji qualified his statement by saying that while acts of violence and rioting should be condemned, not all protesters should be considered criminals.

He praised Tunisian security forces for showing restraint towards protesters and rejected reports of protesters being met with excessive force, despite the existence of online footage showing police beating and dragging protesters.

Read more: Tunisia seeks to stem wave of night-time street riots

Al-Bartaji conceded that bleak prospects for economic growth - manifest in rampant unemployment and the effects of the Covid-19 crisis - had driven protesters to acts of violence.

But he also suggested that boredom among youth was a motivational factor, charging that the absence of "familial and disciplinary frameworks" left gaping holes that "civil society" needed to fill.

Lawmakers attack minister, defend protesters

However, many lawmakers were left unimpressed with Al-Bartaji's words.

Al-Munji al-Rahwi, an MP for the leftist Tunisian Popular Front, passionately defended the protesters, saying their rights weren't enshrined in any constitution, but in the "law of popular consensus".

Ziyad Al-Ghinai, an MP for Tunisia’s Democratic Current party, said that the reports of violence towards protesters set a "dangerous precedent", decrying what he characterized as the government's inaction over social unrest.

Adnan Al-Haji, another opposition lawmaker, attacked the government for not listening to the political demands of ordinary Tunisians, something which he said had led to the large-scale riots.

Marwan Filfal, an MP for the secular Tayha Tounes party, said the prevailing mood in the country was one of "decay and suffocation which could spark mass social upheaval", slamming what he described as the well-rehearsed government line performed by the Defence Minister.

Hatem Al-Maliki, an independent MP, said that there were "a thousand reasons" driving youth on to the streets and described the government as "deficient" in "distinguishing between protests and riots".

More than 600 people, mainly aged between 14 and 15, have been arrested after five nights of clashes. The riots have taken place mostly in densely populated and deprived areas, the sites of historic unrest between the people and the government.

Tunisia is mired in economic problems and a third of its youth are unemployed. The riotes came amid a four-day national lockdown to stem the spread of Covid-19.

In a televised statement on Tuesday, Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi appeared to acknowledge the anger of protesters and appealed for public faith in his government.

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