Tunisians rally to demand release of protesters arrested in nighttime clashes

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Tunisian protesters shout slogans during an anti-government demonstration on the Habib Bourguiba avenue in the capital Tunis on Wednesday. AFP

Tunisians protested on January 20 to demand the release of hundreds of young demonstrators arrested in several nights of disturbances, venting their anger also against the government’s handling of a deepening social crisis.

Around 100 people rallied in the capital of Tunis and a similar number in the city of Sousse, in defiance of gatherings that have been forbidden by authorities following a recent surge in coronavirus cases.

The protesters cried in Sousse: “We want the detainees to be freed.”

In Tunis, protesters – many of them students – shouted slogans from the country’s 2011 revolution, including “freedom, work, national dignity”, as they moved along the capital’s arterial Habib Bourguiba Avenue.

The protests come as the economy is in free-fall, youth unemployment soars and anger rises against a political class that has shown itself incapable of pulling together for the nation – gripes in sharpened focus as the country last week marked 10 years since the fall of dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.

Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi acknowledged Tunisians’ “legitimate” anger in a televised address on January 19 evening, but said violence was “unacceptable” and vowed to “confront it with the force of law”.

Hundreds have been arrested since the nighttime clashes erupted on January 15, amid a four-day lockdown imposed the previous day, the date on which Ben Ali fled into exile in the early days of the Arab Spring. Many of those detained are minors.

Tunisia often sees protests around such key anniversaries in January, but this year’s clashes come as the coronavirus pandemic has deepened socio-economic woes.

Much of the unrest has hit working-class neighbourhoods.

January 19 saw fewer clashes than previous nights, with some disturbances in poorer neighbourhoods of Tunis as well as in the marginalised interior regions of Gafsa and Sidi Bouzid, AFP correspondents reported.

Clashes also took place in the cities of Kasserine, Kairouan and Kef, according to National Guard spokesman Houssemeddine Jebabli, who said a further 41 people had been arrested.

He added that 21 security personnel had been injured since January 16. No figures were available for the number of protesters hurt.

The interior ministry had said on January 18 that more than 600 people had been arrested.

A handful of protesters gathered outside a key Tunis court on January 20 morning to demand justice for detainees.