More than 1,000 people defied the ban on demonstrations in Tunis on Friday to protest against the seizure of power by President Kaïs Saïed since his July 25, 2021 coup. The gatherings were violently dispersed by the police, with the use tear gas and water cannons.
Darkness falls on Avenue Bourguiba on the evening of January 14, and the main artery of the Tunisian capital slowly comes back to life. The cafes are reopening and a few pedestrians are crowding between the metal barriers and the dozens of police vans positioned right next to this high place of the Tunisian revolution.
In his palace in Carthage, President Kaïs Saïed can breathe: the opponents who wanted to denounce the autocratic drift of his regime have not succeeded in mobilizing enough people to overwhelm the imposing security apparatus.
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More than a thousand demonstrators were dispersed in the middle of the afternoon by police using tear gas and water cannons.
A small group of determined demonstrators, however, remained mobilized at the start of the evening, kept away from Avenue Bourguiba by a police roadblock.
“We will wait here until all our comrades are released!”, told France 24 Khelil Ezzaouia, the president of the social-democratic party Ettakatol. Seven demonstrators were arrested here by the police during the demonstration, and one of them was still detained at the end of the day.
“We demonstrated to mark the symbolism of January 14 [jour de la chute de l’ancien dictateur Ben Ali en 2011], a date that Kaïs Saïed wants to erase by rewriting history […]. We also wanted to mark our opposition to his tendency to personal power, nepotism, and disconcerting autism – the president does not even listen to the parties that support him,” adds the politician.
Ban on demonstrations for health reasons
The former Minister of Social Affairs believes that the mobilization of opponents has suffered from the ban on all gatherings announced two days earlier, for health reasons.
“It was a pretext to prevent the demonstrations of January 14. Look in the cafes, you will see people smoking hookah while they watch the CAN… The authorities also wanted to scare people with this important deployment policeman”, explains Khelil Ezzaouia.
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A few hundred meters away, supporters of the Islamo-conservative Ennahda party also mobilized. The two groups did not demonstrate together, Ettakatol rejecting any return to the former parliament suspended by Kaïs Saïed in July 2021.
“We were more than 3,000 people before the police sent us water cannons to prevent us from moving forward. We hoped that there would be even more people and that we could go and celebrate the revolution on the avenue Bourguiba”, confides to France 24 Sarra Hamdaoui, an activist of the Ennahda party. “Kaïs Saïed is even worse than Ben Ali. He suspended parliament, dismissed all the other political parties and no dialogue is possible with him”, adds the young woman, who lost her job in international freight because of the Covid-19 crisis.
The relatively weak mobilization of January 14 did not surprise Romdhane Ben Amor, the spokesperson for the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights (FTDES).
“This date is primarily an opportunity for political parties to mobilize their activists in the street, but young people are not very interested in it”, deciphers the human rights activist.
“The worst in Tunisia is yet to come”
A respite that does not mean, however, that President Kaïs Saïed is off the hook. More than 1,000 social movements shook the country in December, according to the FDTES, while economic indicators – GDP, unemployment, debt, inflation – continue to deteriorate.
“The worst is yet to come according to the roadmap of negotiations with the IMF which leaked on the iwatch site, with very unpopular measures such as the freezing of hiring and salaries in the public service”, fears Romdhane Ben Amor.
This document stamped “confidential” clearly indicates that the Tunisian government is aware of the resistance that this austerity cure could provoke.
“This situation is going to go from bad to worse and I believe that dark days await us”, told France 24 Saïda Ounissi, Ennahda MP and former Minister of Employment and Vocational Training, who participated in the demonstration of this January 14.
“We were already, since 2011, in a very complicated situation […], but the country still managed to reassure, to sell the idea that it was necessary to be particularly patient with Tunisia, because it was a democracy under construction”, advances the political leader. “Today, this patience is exhausted on the part of all our partners and our creditors”, she concludes.