To demonstrate against what they see as Tunisian President Kais Saied’s despotic pursuits, protesters breached police barricades shutting off a symbolic avenue in Tunis where Tunisians protested 12 years ago in the early days of the Arab Spring for a change of government.
They are fed up with their president’s power-hoarding and although they are vocal about it chanting “the people demand the fall of the regime”, these are actions that speak the loudest for them on the anniversary of a key date in the 2011 revolution that brought a semblance of democracy.
Defying police instructions to keep separate several parallel protests, the crowd, in a flutter of thousands of Tunisian flags, made it to the central Habib Bourguiba Avenue – the traditional site of rallies, a Reuters reporter in the location said.
“We were on Bourguiba in January 2011 when Saied was not present… today he is closing Bourguiba to us. We will reach it whatever the price,” Chaima Issa, an activist who took part in the 2011 revolution, said before the protesters breached the police barricades and wended their way to the avenue.
The police presence was heavy at Bourguiba. The officers cordoned off the Interior Ministry building and deployed water cannons. Some elbowing and fisticuffs ensued between protesters and the police.
Said Anouar Ali, a 34-year-old demonstrator, said that “Tunisia is going through the most dangerous time in its history. Saied took control of all authority and struck at democracy. The economy is collapsing. We will not be silent.”
There was a separate rally held by another major opposition political party, aligned with the pre-revolution autocracy, in downtown Tunis after it was banned from marching near the presidential palace in Carthage.
Opposition divided but doesn’t want Saied
Under the pretext of reshaping the political system, Saied shut down the elected parliament in 2021. His policies, however, found little acclaim amongst Tunisians – something that was reflected by the low turnout for December’s election of a new, mostly powerless, legislature.
Meanwhile, the economy is staggering, with essential goods vanishing from shelves to the tune of the government’s powerlessness at securing an international bailout with state finances stampeding towards bankruptcy.
Saied’s project has been opposed by the main political forces, including most parties and the labour union, with many branding it an anti-democratic coup.
A common enemy, however, does not seem a strong enough binder to fill gaping ideological and personal rifts that have kept opposition forces apart for years. Many parties do not want the biggest party, the Islamist Ennahda, to hold the reins. Meanwhile, the powerful UGTT labour union seeks a national dialogue but will not invite any party that accuses Saied of a coup.
The days of struggle, the days that could return
It is 12 years after the ousting of former autocrat, Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, on January 14, 2011, that this year’s anniversary protests unfold. While January 14 is regarded by most Tunisian parties and civil society groups as the anniversary of the revolution, President Saied’s take is more bitter. This reflects in his unilaterally changing the official anniversary date and saying he saw January 14 as a moment when the revolution went astray.
Though no major crackdowns on Saied’s opponents have been recorded, with police having allowed most protests to give vent to their grievances and treating them rather leniently, the handling of the January 14 demonstrations last year took on a somewhat more heavy-handed form, prompting condemnation from rights activists.