After Revolution Anniversary and Arrests, Protests Move to Central Tunis

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Protesters stand amidst fumes as they block a street during clashes with security forces in the Ettadhamen city suburb on the northwestwern outskirts of Tunis, January 17, 2021.
Protesters stand amidst fumes as they block a street during clashes with security forces in the Ettadhamen city suburb on the northwestwern outskirts of Tunis, January 17, 2021.Credit: FETHI BELAID - AFP

Tunisian police said on Monday they had arrested about 1,000 people after several nights of protests as a rights group warned against using excessive force and witnesses said demonstrators clashed with security forces in the city of Kasserine.

Police fired tear gas as young people burned tyres and threw stones, witnesses in the impoverished city said, hours after protesters gathered in the capital Tunis to demand the release of detainees.

The protests and clashes with police follow the 10th anniversary of a revolution that brought democracy but few material gains for most Tunisians, and anger is growing 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.

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.

A decade after throwing off the shackles of autocratic rule, Tunisia was heading towards an economic crisis even before the global coronavirus pandemic struck last year, wrecking the tourism industry and locking down other businesses.

An Interior Ministry spokesman said on Monday that police had detained 632 people on Sunday alone after what it called rioting across the country that included looting and attacks on property. Most of the detainees were aged 15-20, it said.

In Tunis' central Bourguiba Avenue, a tree-lined boulevard flanked by government offices and colonial-era buildings where the biggest protests in 2011 took place, demonstrators on Monday said they wanted people arrested in recent days to be released.

"They call everyone who protests against the system a thief...We have come with exposed faces by day and not by night to say we want jobs...We want dignity," said Sonia, an unemployed graduate who did not want to give her family name.

Demonstrators with her chanted "no fear, no fear! The street belongs to the people!"

In his home Mnihla district of Tunis, President Kais Saied addressed a crowd of dozens of people affirming their right to "jobs, freedom and dignity." He warned that some political forces sought to manipulate the protesters to "sow chaos."

Protesters also gathered on Monday in Manzel Bouzaine, near the interior city of Sidi Bouzid where the self-immolation of a fruit vendor in late 2010 triggered the country's revolution.

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