Hundreds of people marched in central Tunis on Saturday against inequality and police brutality, in defiance of a ban on demonstrations and as security forces tried to block off the city’s main central avenue.
Protesters chanted “the people want the fall of the regime” – a chant popularized during the so-call Arab Spring a decade ago – and held up banners and slogans decrying the security response to more than a week of demonstrations and nightly clashes between youths and police in cities across Tunisia.
The protests, 10 years after a popular revolt against the rule of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali introduced democracy in Tunisia, represent the biggest bout of political unrest in several years, with police detaining hundreds of people.
“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.
While 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 COVID-19 pandemic has aggravated an already dire economy in Tunisia, where many young people seek only to emigrate to Europe and see few opportunities at home.
At Habib Bourguiba Avenue, the stately tree-lined thoroughfare running from the sea up to the old city of Tunis, police placed barricades to stop protesters gathering.
Demonstrators instead rallied outside the central bank building and marched through the city, plainclothes police moving on each side with two-way radios.
The government banned protests last week in what it said was an attempt to reduce the spread of COVID-19.
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.