Scuffles during a demonstration marking the 2011 Tunisian revolution

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TUNIS, Tunisia (TUSEN) — Protesters clashed with police in the Tunisian capital on Friday after crowds gathered, in defiance of new COVID-19 restrictions, to mark the 11th anniversary of the revolution that sparked the Arab Spring uprisings.

Police fired water cannons and tear gas into a crowd of several hundred people in Tunis. Several protesters were arrested, while some were injured.

The government on Wednesday reimposed a nationwide nighttime curfew and announced a ban on public gatherings, citing a spike in coronavirus infections linked to the omicron variant.

Several politicians and civil society activists, however, said the decision was politically motivated, to prevent any demonstrations commemorating the January 14 anniversary or any anti-government demonstrations.

Last July, Tunisian President Kais Saied abruptly sacked the government and suspended parliament, thereby assuming sweeping powers. His critics called the moves a “coup”, and Saied’s subsequent consolidation of power sparked large protests both for and against him.

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A host of new measures included his decision to move the official National Revolution Day from January 14 to December 17, marking the date a Tunisian fruit vendor set himself on fire in 2010, initially sparking the uprising that would inspire a series movements in several countries known as the Arab Spring. In Tunisia, the popular movement led to the overthrow of the country’s longtime autocratic leader, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who fled on the night of the 14th.

Saied said the events following January 14 led to the rise to power of “corrupt” politicians who “stole” the revolution.

“The new regime wants to erase this symbol (of January 14) from the collective memory,” politician Issam Chebbi said at a recent press conference ahead of the protest.

Despite the government’s ban on gatherings, several hundred protesters took to the streets of downtown Tunis but were prevented from entering the city’s main thoroughfare by a heavy police presence and barricades.

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“Down with the putsch” and “Kaïs you are a coward, the people will not be humiliated” were among the chants chanted by the demonstrators, referring to Saied’s seizure of power.

“We resisted the coup and we are still resisting it with civilized methods, despite the barbaric means that (Saied) is using against us. Citizens took to the streets empty-handed, not afraid of him,” said a protester at Friday’s protest, Ali, who declined to give his last name.

Another protester, Sonia, said: “Why is there all this security presence making the street look like a military barracks? (Is the government) afraid of us because of the coronavirus? Why did the scientific committee choose this date to ban the demonstrations?

“It’s a lie like the previous one, Mr. President, your lie is very clear today and it is proof that you are afraid. What we have seen today is proof of your fear,” she said.

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In September, Saied partially suspended the country’s 2014 constitution and gave himself the power to rule by decree. Observers have since warned of democratic backsliding, while human rights activists have condemned the arrests of several prominent figures in recent months, including most recently the vice-president of Ennahdha – the largest party Islamist from Tunisia – and the former Minister of Justice, Noureddine Bhiri.

Saied last month announced a roadmap to emerge from the country’s political crisis, starting with a partially digital national consultation to be launched on January 15. He said the consultation would inform planning for a referendum on political reform, to be held in July, and subsequent parliamentary elections at the end of the year.

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