Hundreds of opposition supporters in Tunisia have defied a protest ban and demanded the release of more than 20 prominent figures opposed to the president who have been arrested in recent weeks.
Before the protesters broke through a police barrier to rally on Sunday in central Tunis, police warned them by loudspeaker that their demonstration was illegal but that they would not stop them by force.
Up to 1,000 protesters then pushed through the cordon to reach Habib Bourguiba Avenue, where most rallies take place.
The National Salvation Front coalition combines Tunisia’s biggest party, the Ennahdha, the Stop the Coup protest movement and some other political parties demanding that President Kais Saied step down.
Sunday’s protest is being watched to see how far the National Salvation Front and its constituent parts can mobilise supporters in public after the arrests, and how much force the police are willing to use against them.
Former member of the Tunisian parliament, Saida Ounissi, said that what makes the recent protests unique to other anti-government rallies that have taken place is “the popularity of the movement”.
“This is the second day of protests and we are surprised at the number of average citizens who are protesting and facing the threat of oppression by going out to the streets and calling for freedom,” she said.
In recent weeks, several of the Front’s top leaders have been arrested, as part of a crackdown on prominent critics of Saied, and charged with conspiring against state security. This week, the Tunis governor refused permission for Sunday’s protest.
The Front accuses Saied of a coup for suddenly seizing broad powers in 2021, shutting down the elected parliament and moving to rule by decree before writing a new constitution that he passed in a poorly attended referendum last year.
Saied says his actions were legal and necessary to save Tunisia from chaos, and has called his enemies criminals, traitors and “terrorists”, urging the authorities to take action against them.
The recent arrests also targeted the head of Tunisia’s main independent media outlet, two judges, a labour union official and a prominent businessman, showing that the police were ready to target critics of Saied from across the political spectrum.
However, opposition to Saied is fragmented along ideological and political lines that were drawn during the period of democratic government after the 2011 revolution which triggered the Arab Spring.
On Saturday, the powerful UGTT labour union and allied parties staged their own protest, bringing many thousands of supporters onto the streets against Saied in what appeared to be the biggest demonstration against him so far.