Thousands gather in Tunisia in largest protest for years

Thousands gather in Tunisia in largest protest for years
2 min read
06 February, 2021
While protesters are commemorating the 2013 killing of a prominent activist, worsening living conditions and police brutality are fuelling marches in the capital
Protesters breach police restrictions in downtown Tunis [Getty]
Thousands of protesters have taken to the streets in downtown Tunis, in Tunisia's biggest demonstration for years, defying a police lockdown that blocked roads in a large area of the capital.

The demonstration was held on Saturday to mark the anniversary of the 2013 killing of activist Chokri Belaid and to protest police abuses that demonstrators say have threatened freedoms won in the 2011 Jasmine Revolution.

"We won't accept Tunisia becoming a barracks. We ask the president to intervene and protect freedoms," Naima Selmi, a woman in the protest, told Reuters.

The protests merged with anger over rising prices of goods, growing unemployment, and feelings that the political class is disconnected from ordinary peoples' woes. 

There have been almost daily demonstrations in the capital since mid-January, but rallies have normally numbered a few hundred at most. Last month, police arrested over a thousand protestors.

In a sign of police forces stepping up their control, riot police deployed cordons around the city centre, stopping both cars and people from entering parts of Habib Bourguiba avenue where the protestors gathered.

"I lived 10 years in freedom ... I am not ready to lose it," said Haytem Ouslati, a 24-year-old demonstrator. Protesters raised placards condemning police violence and chanted "No fear. The street belongs to the people."

UGTT, Tunisia’s largest union with over with a million members, backed Saturday’s rally. Samir Cheffi, a senior UGTT official, said: "Today is a cry of alarm to defend the revolution, to protect freedoms under threat."

Protesters also chanted against the moderate Islamist Ennahda party, one of Tunis’ largest political parties and a member of successive government coalitions.

Read more: A gradual return to dictatorship in Tunisia?

Human Rights Watch on Friday called for an urgent investigation into the death of Haykel Rachdi, who suffered a serious head injury following police intervention during a protest in January, and investigate alleged beatings of protesters. 

The NGO highlighted that police forces have used excessive force in several governorates across the country.

Though Prime Minister Hichem Machichi in a January 19 speech acknowledged the economic hardships driving the protests, he claimed that police were "acting professionally".

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