Tens of thousands of Tunisians have come out in a show of force for the country’s Islamist-led government, in one of the largest demonstrations since the 2011 revolution.
Shouting, “No to coups, yes to elections”, supporters of the ruling Ennahda party on Saturday crowded into Kasbah Square next to the prime minister’s office in the capital, Tunis.
Ennahda, a moderate Islamist party, called on supporters of the embattled government to join the rally to push back against a week of mass protests calling for the government’s removal.
“We support the legitimacy of the government because we care about Tunisia and we care about democracy, not Ennahda,” said 40-year-old Suad Nasri, a Tunisian flag wrapped around her head. “I’m not an Ennahda backer, but I want our democracy to succeed.”
Kasbah Square was the site of major rallies in the days after autocratic President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali was toppled in 2011, with demonstrators demanding a transitional constituent assembly to draft a new constitution – one of the bodies the opposition is now demanding be dissolved.
Elsewhere in Tunis, several thousand opposition demonstrators gathered outside the parliament building for what has become a nightly protest against the government, witnesses said. A coalition of opposition parties has called for a major protest later this week, to coincide with the six-month anniversary of the killing of secular leftist leader Chokri Belaid.
Call for calm
On Saturday, Tunisia’s prime minister appealed for calm from pro- and anti-government groups planning rival mass rallies this weekend.
The North African country is experiencing increased attacks by fighters at a time when the secularist opposition is trying to topple the government.
“Tunisia is in need of national unity. … I call for calm so that the army and security forces can combat terrorism and not waste its efforts on protests,” Prime Minister Ali Larayedh told a news conference.
On Sunday, the Tunisian interior ministry said that a suspected “terrorist” was killed and another wounded in an intense firefight during a dawn raid by security forces.
The ministry said that six other suspects were arrested in the operation in Tunis’ El Ouardia neighbourhood.
The arrests came a day after authorities said that security forces had foiled an attempted assassination attempt on Friday of a prominent politician in the coastal town of Sousse, a week after assailants gunned down a leftist politician in the capital.
The ministry said two “dangerous terrorists” were arrested for suspected involvement in the attempt. A third suspect was still on the run after trading machinegun fire with security forces, the ministry said.
On Friday, Tunisian forces launched air and artillery strikes to try to rout fighters who killed eight soldiers earlier this week in one of the deadliest attacks on security forces in decades.
Tunisia now faces one of the worst crises since Ben Ali was toppled, the first in a wave of the “Arab Spring” uprisings.
Planned talks on the political and security crises on Saturday failed to produce results, as the main opposition groups declined to attend.
Instead, both the government and the opposition reiterated the positions they have held all week.
The opposition has been angered by the assassination of two of its senior members, and, emboldened by the army-backed removal of its Egypt’s Islamist president, wants to dissolve the government.