“No fear, no terror, the power belongs to the people,” hundreds of Tunisians chanted amid sounds of flying teargas canisters on April 9th.
They had taken to the streets to commemorate Martyr’s Day, celebrated by Tunisians every year as a commemoration of the martyrs who died under the French occupation regime in 1938. However, their celebration soon escalated into the most violent confrontation since the Islamist party Ennahda’s victory in last October’s election, the first since Zine el Abidine Ben Ali was ousted from power in January 2011.
The demonstration started early in the morning with hundreds of people defying a ban to rally on Habib Bourguiba Avenue, the thoroughfare that has become the central rallying point since the fall of the former regime. Their courage was countered with teargas and truncheons that got the best of a dozen of protesters and pedestrians who were at the first rows of the demonstration.
The Ministry of the Interior banned rallying on Habib Bourguiba Avenue after recent violent clashes on March 28th between fundamentalists and Tunisian liberals.
“I felt so betrayed,” said youth activist Eya Chebbi. She overheard the policemen suggesting to their colleagues to run the demonstrators down with the vehicles and attack them with their truncheons instead of firing teargas to prevent the possible clash between the two sides.
The Syndicate of Journalists reported the assault of 14 reporters during the demonstration.
“Journalists were attacked by militias who we (journalists) suspect to have an appurtenance with Ennahda party,” said Zied El Hani, member of the executive bureau of the syndicate. “Journalists were attacked under the observance of police agents with no intervention,” he added.
El Hani said such incidents are becoming common and that the syndicate records at least one assault on a journalist every week. The syndicate has started a week-long strike and will abstain from covering the activities of the Ministry of the Interior during that week.
Journalists have been under pressure since the election of Ennahda to power. They are accused of bias against the party and some are even tried in court. Reporters without Borders listed the situation of media in Tunisia in its February 2012 report as ‘difficult.’
As always, youngsters and adults, women and men were present at the demonstration. All were surprised the authorities resorted to violence. Their frustration turned to anger at the government and the Ennahda party which they say hasn’t done much to promote freedom and democracy in the country, and has only reacted with apathy and nonchalance at the ascension of fundamentalists in an ever-moderate Tunisian society.
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Politicians and human rights activists claim that the police have not changed their methods since the collapse of the former regime.
This is the most violent incident since the election of the new Islamist-led interim government last December. Similar incidents took place in other regions, coastal and inland alike.
Sleh Eddine Kchouk, head of the illegal Pirate Party, was recently arrested by the police, detained for nine hours, and beaten. “It is the same Ben Ali police that used to oppress us and beat us up,” he said in a television interview. “They have no respect for citizens.”
Frustration is spreading among young Tunisians who, facing the government’s inability to lift up the economy and improve life conditions in needy areas, are calling for a change. The Ennahda-led government is still to elaborate concrete plans to reduce poverty in rural Tunisia or create more job opportunities.
“They haven’t understood yet that we pay them taxes to serve us but they keep treating us like their servants,” said Chebbi.
The Islamist-dominated government and the Ennahda party have expressed a desire to install a genuine democratic system in the country where the Arab Spring originated, which could be a model for the region. But the ban on rallies along Habib Bourguiba Avenue was considered by many to be a curtailment of freedom that Tunisians have long fought for.
“The decision of abolition of protestation the avenue is the biggest confirmation that the government doesn’t even care about the revolution values,” said Amnesty International activist Ramy Seghayer.
The government lifted the ban on April 11th, motivating its decision by stating its commitment to protect freedoms in Tunisia including the right to peaceful demonstration. The interior ministry did not apologize to the demonstrators, insisting that the protests were not peaceful; hence the use of violence. It has appointed a commission to investigate the incidents.
Police forces have continued to use violence against demonstrators. On Saturday, they clashed with demonstrators in Rades ship port, south of Tunis. Locals reported excessive use of teargas and condemned brutality used against them. The Ministry of Interior did not comment on the latest incidents.
Despite the critique from opposition parties and civil society, Ennahda remains, by far, the most popular political party in Tunisia. According to the Tunisia NGO “I Watch,” Ennahda claims support from 56% of the population versus just 9% for the main opposition secular Progressive Democratic Party.