TUNIS–Tunisia continues to be rocked by street clashes between riot police and youth in mostly working class neighbourhoods as the government seems unsure of how to address the protests.
As the protests, organised mostly over Facebook, continued for the fourth night in a row, a confused political class seemed helpless, offering few meaningful reactions beyond statements condemning acts of vandalism and calling on “rioters” to end their actions.
More than 600 people had been arrested by Monday over disturbances in which teenagers and children hurled rocks and Molotov cocktails at police, who fired volleys of teargas at them.
The social unrest comes at a time of economic crisis, worsened by the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the tourism-reliant North African country, that has deepened poverty and driven up inflation and unemployment.
In the latest unrest that continued until the early hours of Tuesday, hundreds of youth in the capital battled police in several districts, including the densely-populated Ettadhamen city.
In Sfax, Tunisia’s second largest city, protesters blockaded roads with burning tyres. Clashes were also reported in the towns of Gafsa, Kef, Bizerte, Kasserine, Sousse and Monastir.
Rioting and protests have followed the 10th anniversary of an uprising that brought democracy but little socioeconomic progress for most Tunisians, with anger growing among youth at chronic joblessness and poor state services.
However, with no clear agenda, political leadership or backing from major parties, it is not clear whether the demonstrations will gain momentum or die down, as many previous rounds of protests have since 2011. Authorities appear to be hoping the unrest will somehow die down on its own.
Left on their own
London-based Amnesty International called for restraint. It cited footage showing officers beating and dragging people they had detained and said authorities should immediately release Hamza Nassri Jeridi, a rights activist arrested on Monday.
But live broadcasts by TV stations of the confrontations showed security forces equipped with batons and tear gas left on their own to stop the unrest amid dark streets and relentless young crowds. There was no reported use of lethal force or mass crackdowns.
In response to the unrest, leader of the Islamist Ennahda movement Rached Ghannouchi condemned the recent “acts of looting and vandalism targeting private and public property.”
He called on the young demonstrators to stop “nocturnal riots in order to contain the acts of looting and vandalism.”
“This is your country; you are not foreigners. The burning of institutions, buildings and administrations does not benefit Tunisia and provides neither work nor a better life… You are not tenants and Tunisia is your home. Do not destroy your home,” he said.
In his statements, Ghannouchi did not address the roots of the unrest. He designated protesters as rioters and blamed their demonstrations against the government and the political class for the recent acts of vandalism, in statements reminiscent of the former regime of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s response to protests in its last few weeks.
Over the past eight years, Ennahda has largely controlled Tunisian politics, irrespective of whichever secularist party has appeared to be in charge or allied to it. This has not changed, even after thousands mobilised to bring down “the system.”
Ennahda and Ghannouchi may act as though they are not threatened by the popular mobilisation against the “system,” but they are now part and parcel of the system people are turning against, having played a major role in designing the National Constituent Assembly of 2011 and in establishing priorities of the nine successive governments that have been accused of ineptitude and corruption.
On Monday, President Kais Saied also rushed to appease the tension, visiting his home district of Mnihla, near the capital Tunis, and pleading with the people there not to let others take advantage of their anger and poverty.
“Through you, I want to speak to all the Tunisian people, I know the state of poverty and I also know who is exploiting your poverty. Don’t let anyone exploit your misery, don’t attack private or public property. We live today because of moral values and not because of theft or looting,” Saied told a crowd.
Some of those present during the president’s visit responded to his statements, shouting: “Dissolve the parliament, dissolve the parliament.”
Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi was quoted Tuesday as telling security cadres that, “pillaging, theft and assault on private and public property have nothing to do with social protests and the constitutionally-guaranteed peaceful expressions which we understand and strive to address through serious dialogue and seek to resolve with our social partners in order to meet the aspirations of Tunisian men and women.”
He also denounced the “calls to anarchy” on social media, which need to be dealt with “through implementation of the law”.
Analysts say however Mechichi is unlikely to defuse tensions through appeasement measures he used last year to quell unrest and sit-ins in parts of the country, especially the deep south. He introduced a major cabinet reshuffle last Saturday, including nominating a new interior minister. Until parliament approves the new cabinet, Mechichi oversees the interior ministry, which handles security issues.
In recent years, frustration with the political establishment and Ennahda’s manoeuvres has been building up among Tunisians, who largely believe that political parties have played a detrimental role since the 2011 regime change.
The people, reeling under an unprecedented economic crisis, have been increasingly vocal in their criticism of the fragmented parliament and political parties, which are accused of being focused on partisan interests and political wrangling at the expense of the country’s welfare.
In a blistering accusation against authorities, Tunisian writer Olfa Youssef lamented the participation of children in recent acts of looting and vandalism.
“100,000 children are kicked out of schools every year, who cares? Who thought of them?” Youssef wrote on Facebook. “Who created programmes to protect them and train them to reintegrate into society? Our politicians and their derivatives only think of the next elections, not of the future generations… ,” she added, calling the ruling class “criminals.”