Violent clashes erupted for a fifth night on Tuesday between police and protesters in several Tunisian cities, including the capital Tunis and Sidi Bouzid, the cradle of the Arab Spring uprisings, as anger and frustration mount over economic hardship.
Earlier in the day, protesters rallied in Tunis, reviving the chant that rang a decade ago in a revolution that ushered in democracy: “The people want the fall of the regime.”
In Sidi Bouzid, where the 2011 revolution began, witnesses told Reuters that police fired gas to disperse protesters who were raising slogans against rulers and demanding an end to decades of marginalisation.
Clashes also broke out in poor areas of Tunis, including Ettadamen and Sijoumi, as hundreds of angry youths burned tires and blocked roads.
Daytime protests in recent days demanding jobs, dignity and the release of detainees have been followed by night time violence, with COVID-19 restrictions compounding a wider economic malaise.
“The whole system must go … We will return to the streets and we will regain our rights and our dignity that a corrupt elite seized after the revolution,” said Maher Abid, an unemployed protester.
Shortly before last week’s 10th anniversary of the revolution, Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi’s government ordered a four-day lockdown and a tighter night-time curfew against the coronavirus pandemic, as well as a ban on protests.
However, in cities across the North African country youths have thrown stones and petrol bombs, burnt tyres and looted shops while police have deployed tear gas and batons, arresting hundreds.
In a televised speech on Tuesday, Mechichi said he understood popular anger over the economic situation and the frustration of young people, but that violence was not acceptable.
“Your voice is heard and your anger is legitimate… Do not allow saboteurs among you,” he said, addressing protesters.
The toppling in 2011 of Tunisia’s long-serving autocratic ruler inspired similar uprisings across North Africa and the Middle East dubbed the “Arab Spring”.
On Tuesday, up to 250 people gathered on Bourguiba Avenue in central Tunis while other demonstrations took place in towns near Sidi Bouzid.
Protesters in all three rallies chanted “the people want the fall of the regime”, as well as demands for jobs. Tunisia was suffering economically even before the COVID-19 crisis, with high unemployment and declining state services.
Earlier, the powerful labour union and other rights groups voiced support for peaceful protests against “policies of marginalisation, impoverishment and starvation”, accusing the state of squandering the revolution’s hopes.