The main boulevard of the Tunisian capital and adjoining side streets became a battleground on Saturday, as protesters hurling paving tiles confronted police firing teargas canisters.
The clashes started after about 300 mainly young people took part in a largely peaceful demonstration outside the interior ministry building in Habib Bourguiba Avenue. They called for the resignation of Beji Qaid Sebsi, the prime minister, and protested against police violence against demonstrators at a marches on Thursday and Friday.
A 24-year-old IT technician, giving his name only as Nizar, explained that he had decided to come to Saturday’s protest after seeing a video on Facebook that apparently showed police violence against a young woman demonstrator the previous day.
“I was one of the protesters against [former president Zein al-Abidine] Ben Ali,” before he was ousted from office in January, he said. “I’m one of those people who said we would let the new government work and give it a chance.” But he had been disillusioned by the actions of the transitory government, such as failure to bring criminal charges over the deaths of demonstrators in the lead-up to the January 14 revolution, he said.
Other protesters carried signs declaring “The revolution has gone sour. The police ‘protect’ us with blows,’and ‘Yes to defending the revolution. No to the RCD big guys,’ referring to the former ruling party.
After some protesters threw stones at the police, the police fired teargas canisters. Vans packed with black-balaclava clad policemen hurtled along side streets, firing tear gas at retreating demonstrators.
The clashes continued for more than two hours, as protesters repeatedly tried to return to Habib Bourguiba Avenue. Some set fire to a wooden barricade they had erected in a side street alongside the French embassy.
The latest marches are in response to revelations this week by Judge Farhat Rajhi, who was interior minister from January to March. In a video posted on Facebook, Mr Rajhi claimed that the army high command was prepared to step in with a coup d’état if Nahda, the country’s main Islamist party, emerged with the strongest showing in a nationwide election due to be held in July. He also alleged that individuals from Mr Ben Ali’s home region near Sousse still had political influence over Mr Sebsi’s interim government.
While some bystanders expressed concern at the fast degenerating situation on the streets, others sympathised with the demonstrators. Smaoui Raouf, a 50-year-old architectural draughtsman, said, “Eighty-per cent of what Rajhi said was true. They’re preparing a coup to install a military regime. As for the police, the Tunisian police have never stopped being violent.”
The main front-page story of a leading national newspaper, La Presse, deplored police violence against reporters covering Friday’s demonstration. Abdelfattah Belaid, a photojournalist working for La Presse and for the French news agency AFP, had been pursued into the newspaper’s offices by a police officer, who then attacked him over the head with a metal bar, causing significant injuries, La Presse reported.
The interior ministry said it “apologised” to Tunisian journalists attacked by police during the previous day’s demonstrations, and was carrying out an internal investigation.