Tunisian riot police on Tuesday turned water cannon on protesters outside the heavily barricaded parliament as they tried to quell the largest rally yet since demonstrations began this month over inequality and police abuses.
Hundreds of protesters marched from the Ettadhamen district of the capital where young people have clashed nightly with police for more than a week, and were joined by hundreds more near the parliament.
Police blocked the march with barricades to prevent protesters approaching the parliament building where legislators were holding a tense debate on a controversial government reshuffle.
Protesters started trying to come through pushing the barriers & police pushing them back pic.twitter.com/zqxstv77j1
— Ghaya Ben Mbarek غاية بن مبارك (@Ghaya_BM) January 26, 2021
“The government that only uses police to protect itself from the people – it has no more legitimacy,” said one protester, Salem Ben Saleh, who is unemployed.
Protests broke out this month on the 10th anniversary of Tunisia’s 2011 revolution that inspired that Arab Spring and introduced democracy in the North African country. Political paralysis and economic decline have soured many Tunisians on the fruits of the uprising.
In parliament, Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi proposed a new cabinet, a move President Kais Saied had on Monday rejected as unconstitutional.
Mechichi told the assembly that by naming 11 new ministers to the interior, justice, health and other key portfolios, he aimed to create a “more effective” reform team.
The session comes a day after protesters clashed with police in the town of Sbeitla, in Tunisia’s marginalised centre, after a young man hit by a tear gas canister during clashes last week died in hospital.
Politicians criticised a heavy police deployment around the parliament building after calls for a rally there.
More police have joined. Truck with water cannon is moving pic.twitter.com/ErFnIGAn4t
— Fadil Aliriza (@FadilAliriza) January 26, 2021
“A vote of confidence under police siege,” one said. “All that’s missing is to vote under the threat of the baton.”
Calls for restraint
The political impasse in Tunisia since elections in 2019 has paralysed its efforts to address festering economic problems with both foreign lenders and the main labour union demanding reforms.
Last year, as the global pandemic struck, Tunisia’s economy shrank by more than 8 percent, with the fiscal deficit rising above 12 percent of gross domestic product, pushing the public debt to more than 90 percent of GDP.
The nightly clashes between young people and police have been matched by growing daytime protests at which demonstrators have chanted slogans including “the people want the fall of the regime”.
On Tuesday, protesters chanted against the security forces as some opposition lawmakers left parliament to join the protest.
“Mechichi has transformed this into a police state … no work, no development, no investment … just police against the people,” said Imed, another protester who did not want to give his family name.
Mechichi has said his aim is “greater efficiency in the work of the government”.
Amnesty International has already called for restraint from the police after video footage emerged of officers appearing to be beating and dragging protesters during clashes.
“Tunisian security forces must immediately refrain from using unnecessary and excessive force to disperse protesters who have taken to the streets in the capital and several governorates, against marginalization, police violence, poverty and lack of job opportunities,” Amnesty International said in a statement last week.
Meanwhile, mothers in the Tunisian capital have accused authorities of arbitrarily arresting their children in response to the unrest, with rights groups saying at least 1,000 people have been arrested.