Tunisia’s interior minister is to face questions in parliament after Monday’s police crackdown on protesters prompted a public outcry and raised pressure on the Islamist-led government.
Police used tear gas and batons to disperse stone-throwing protesters who stormed Tunis’ Habib Bourguiba Avenue on Monday, in defiance of a ban on rallies in a street that was a focal point of protests that ousted Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali last year
“Black Monday”, “fascist behavior” and “savagery” were among the harsh comments after some of the worst violence since last year's revolution.
At least 15 civilians and eight policemen were hurt as riot police on Monday fired tear gas and baton-charged protesters who had turned out in their hundreds on a main avenue in Tunis despite a ban on demonstrations there.
The fallout has presented the government, led by the moderate Islamist Ennahda in coalition with two secular groups, one of the biggest challenges of its four-month rule.
Politicians and activists from the secular opposition have compared the police tactics to Ben Ali’s police state, when freedom was severely curtailed. Some labeled it “Black Monday”.
Even the president and the parliament speaker, both coalition allies of Ennahda, have called for an inquiry, a demand echoed by the Islamist party itself on Tuesday.
Parliament Speaker Mustafa Ben Jafar set a session for Thursday to discuss the “acts of violence” that he said had also seen members of parliament get physically hurt.
“We condemn the use of violence against peaceful protests and regard this as a dangerous breach of human rights and a violation of public and individual liberties,” the Tunisian League of Human Rights, which took part in the protest, said in a statement.
The protesters had used the April 9 anniversary of the 1938 repression of pro-independence protests by French colonial troops to challenge the ban on demonstrations in Habib Bourguiba Avenue.
Tunisia has changed enormously since the revolution, with a democratic system now in place and ordinary people able to speak and demonstrate freely for the first time in memory.
But the interior ministry decided to ban rallies on Habib Bourguiba Avenue in late March after locals complained that repeated protests were snarling traffic and disrupting business.
The ban infuriated opponents of the government.
While the crackdown caused an outcry, many Tunisians support efforts to return life to normal on the central street, which is packed with hotels and cafes and leads to Tunis’ old quarter.
“We suffered a lot during the revolution... We are trying to build a state now. We must respect government decisions even if we disagree with them and for us Habib Bourguiba Avenue is a lifeline and source of tourists,” said Habib Sweid, who represents the handicraft shops in the picturesque old medina.
“What we need now is to bring back the tourists and return life to the cafes and shops. Then we can say our revolution has succeeded. Not everyone following their own narrow agenda can do so at the expense of people trying to do business.”
Monday’s protest, led by secular opponents of the government and unions, saw some calling for the “fall of the regime”.
Ennahda, which won 42 percent of seats in Tunisia’s first elections after the revolt, has faced pressure from the outset from secular opponents who fared poorly in the vote and fear it will impose religious values on a hitherto liberal country.
Ennahda has promised not to imposed the veil or ban alcohol but has also faced pressure from Salafi Islamists, who are not represented by any parties, demanding a greater role for Islam.
The head of Ennahda said opponents of an elected government should try to bring it down through democratic means not by trying to provoke political standoffs and undermine the economy, which had begun to show signs of recovery from the revolution.
“No one will remove this government except by legal means such as the parliament or the ballot box. Protests will not remove this government,” Rached Ghannouchi told journalists.
“There are people who failed at the ballot box and cannot wait 9 months to try again but are trying through chaos... to take through the street what they failed to take at the ballot box.”