Hundreds of people marched in the Tunisian capital on Saturday to protest police repression, corruption and poverty, following several nights of unrest marked by clashes and arrests.
Protesters in Tunis chanted “No more fear, the streets belong to the people” and “the people want the fall of the regime” – a slogan popularised during the Arab Spring a decade ago. They also held up banners calling for the release of hundreds of protesters detained since January 14.
The police say more than 700 people have been arrested following last week’s clashes, in which young people hurled rocks and petrol bombs at security forces, who responded with tear gas and water cannon.
Human rights groups say at least 1,000 people had been detained.
“We can’t accept a police state in Tunisia 10 years after the revolution … it is shameful,” said Mahmoud, a young cafe worker who did not give his family name.
Much of the unrest has been in disenfranchised and marginalised areas, where anger is boiling over soaring unemployment and a political class accused of having failed to deliver good governance, a decade after the 2011 revolution that toppled long-time President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
Although the youths clashing with riot police after dark in poor districts of Tunisian cities have voiced few clear political aims, daytime protests have focused on the lack of jobs and on the police response to demonstrations.
“The situation is catastrophic,” said Omar Jawadi, 33, a hotel sales manager, who has been paid only half his salary for months amid the coronavirus pandemic.
“The politicians are corrupt, we want to change the government and the system.”
Saturday’s protests came as Tunisia struggled to stem the novel coronavirus pandemic, which has crippled the economy and threatened to overwhelm hospitals. More than 6,000 people have died from COVID-19 in Tunisia, with a record 103 deaths reported on Thursday.
The government on Saturday extended a night-time curfew from 8pm to 5am (19:00 to 04:00 GMT) and banned gatherings until February 14.
Starting Monday, the government is also forbidding travel between regions and ordering all people over 65 to stay at home as part of stricter virus measures announced Saturday by the Tunisian Health Ministry spokesperson, Nissaf Ben Alaya Ben Alaya.
Restaurants and bars will remain closed except for takeout food. Schools and universities can resume studies Monday but many classes will be transferred online. Ben Alaya threatened “drastic measures” against violators, saying the country is “at a critical juncture” in its battle against COVID-19.
In the capital, police placed barricades along Habib Bourguiba Avenue, the stately tree-lined thoroughfare running from the sea up to the old city of Tunis, in a bid to stop the protesters gathering.
Demonstrators instead rallied outside the central bank building and marched through the city, with plain-clothes police moving on each side with two-way radios.
Though protesters later managed to reach Habib Bourguiba, a symbolic focal point of the 2011 uprising, the attempt to close off the avenue underscored government unease at the momentum of the protests. The demonstration had been authorised for two hours, and police fired tear gas to disperse the crowds when the two hours were up.
Tunisia last week marked one decade since Ben Ali fled the country amid mass protests, ending 23 years in power.
Tunisia’s political leadership is divided, with Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi waiting for parliament to confirm a major cabinet reshuffle announced last Saturday.