TUNIS - Riot police on Monday fired tear gas and baton-charged protesters in central Tunis who defied a ban on demonstrations, in some of the worst violence in the city in months.
As hundreds of demonstrators took to the streets, the head of the Ennahda Islamist party which dominates parliament called on Tunisians to “be patient” and give the new government a chance to bring in reforms.
“Give the current government a chance. One has to be patient, it’s the first elected government, they must be helped,” Rached Ghannouchi told supporters at a rally outside the city centre.
Hundreds of demonstrators marking Martyrs’ Day and protesting against a ban on demonstrations on Habib Bourguiba Avenue, a main thoroughfare in Tunis , were brutally dispersed by riot police who detained a number of them.
Wrapped in Tunisian flags and shouting “We’re not afraid, the people are here”, the demonstrators sought shelter in neighbouring streets and shops after police in trucks and on motorbikes repeatedly charged them.
“I’m here to honour our martyrs, and to protest against the ban on demonstrating here. We’re the ones who freed Tunisia, they don’t have the right to ban our peaceful marches,” said septuagenarian protester Mohsen Ben Henda.
Other demonstrators said they were protesting against Ennahda, which emerged as the biggest party after an October election, the first democratic vote since the Arab spring uprising that ousted ex-strongman Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. “We came here today to demand our freedoms, to denounce the repression that Ennahda militias inflict on us every day,” said Raed Korbi, a young doctor who had taken refuge in a cafe.
“What’s happening today is terrible,” said a woman who gave her name only as Yamina and said she was a lawyer, tears welling in her eyes.
“We are peaceful people and they bar us from using Habib Bourguiba Avenue, but they gave it to the Salafists,” she said, referring to a fundamentalist group.
Tunisia banned demonstrations on Bourguiba Avenue, a symbol of the poplar uprising and a common site for rallies, after Islamist protesters demanding sharia law attacked a group of actors last month.
On Saturday, police forcefully dispersed a protest by thousands of unemployed graduates who tried to march on the avenue, wounding about 20, according to organisers.
“I’m shocked,” former Tunisian Human Rights League chief Mokhtar Trifi told AFP. “The people whom the revolution swept to power are now those who stop us from demonstrating. This is a really sad day.”
“Look, this is the free Tunisia, the Tunisia of Ennahda,” shouted another demonstrator.
A correspondent for French news weekly Le Point and the editor of Tunisian online news service Kapitalis were roughed up by police.
The leftist Ettakatol party which is allied with Ennahda in parliament, called for a probe.
“We have called for an investigation into abuse to be carried out without delay,” party spokesman Mohamed Bennour told AFP.
Interior ministry spokesman Khaled Tarrouche defended the demonstration ban, saying: “We will not let chaos take over.”
He said police fired tear gas to avoid worse violence after demonstrators pelted them with objects, adding that a firebomb had destroyed a police car.
Martyrs’ Day commemorates the bloody crackdown by French colonial troops on a protest in Tunis on April 9, 1938.
Addressing Ennahda supporters at a former prison site outside the city centre, Ghannouchi said the government had its work cut out to help Tunisia recover from the rule of ex-strongman Ben Ali, who fled in January 2011.
“It’s impossible to correct in just a year what was destroyed in 50. The state we inherited is like a rotten hut which needs to be pulled down and cleaned up,” he said.