Tunisian Police Fire Water Cannons as Protesters March on Parliament

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A demonstrator holds up a sign during an anti-government protest in Tunis, Tunisia January 26, 2021
A demonstrator holds up a sign during an anti-government protest in Tunis, Tunisia January 26, 2021Credit: ZOUBEIR SOUISSI/ REUTERS

Tunisian riot police on Tuesday turned water cannons on protesters outside the heavily barricaded parliament as they tried to quell the largest rally yet since demonstrations began this month over inequality and police abuses.

Hundreds of protesters had marched from the Ettadhamen district of the capital where young people have clashed nightly with police for more than a week, and were joined by hundreds more near the parliament.

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Police blocked the march with barricades to prevent protesters approaching the parliament building where lawmakers were holding a tense debate on a controversial government reshuffle.

"The government that only uses police to protect itself from the people - it has no more legitimacy," said one protester, Salem Ben Saleh, who is unemployed.

Protests broke out this month on the 10th anniversary of Tunisia's 2011 revolution that inspired that Arab Spring and introduced democracy. Political paralysis and economic decline have soured many Tunisians on the fruits of the uprising.

In parliament, Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi proposed a new cabinet, a move President Kais Saied had on Monday rejected as unconstitutional.

The political deadlock in Tunisia since elections in 2019 has paralyzed its efforts to address festering economic problems with both foreign lenders and the main labor union demanding reforms.

A demonstrator gestures near policemen during an anti-government protest in Tunis, Tunisia January 26, 2021. Credit: ZOUBEIR SOUISSI/ REUTERS

Last year, as the global pandemic struck, Tunisia's economy shrank by more than 8 percent, with the fiscal deficit rising above 12 percent of gross domestic product pushing the public debt to more than 90 percent of GDP.

The nightly clashes between young people and police have been matched by growing daytime protests at which demonstrators have chanted slogans including "the people want the fall of the regime".

On Tuesday, with anger high over the death on Monday of a young man whose family said he had been hit by a tear gas canister, protesters chanted against the security forces.

Some opposition lawmakers left parliament to join the protest.

"Mechichi has transformed this into a police state... no work, no development, no investment... just police against the people," said Imed, another protester who did not want to give his family name.

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