TUNIS, (Reuters) – Thousands of Tunisian police, national guard, firemen and street cleaners thronged central Tunis on Saturday, distancing themselves from deposed president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in the largest demonstration for days.
The protest marks a turning point in the Tunisian uprising, throughout which Ben Ali loyalists in the police force fired on crowds, beat protesters with batons and shot teargas even at relatively small and peaceful gatherings.
“We came out today because we want national reconciliation,” said a policeman who identified himself as Hatem. “Many people in the security forces were wrong… some ignorant people sullied our reputation … People know now.”
Tunisia’s interior minister has said 78 people have been killed since the start of the demonstrations, but the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights put the number at 117, including 70 killed by live fire.
Ben Ali, who was interior minister when he ousted Tunisian independence leader and long-time president Habib Bourguiba in 1987, had long used the police and internal security forces as a blunt tool of repression.
Tunisians interviewed in recent weeks have said repeatedly that they feared the interior ministry’s officers the most.
“We are innocent of the blood of martyrs,” chanted some of the police protesters.
It was police harassment of a young vegetable seller last month which prompted him to burn himself to death in protest at unemployment and corrupt rule, triggering the wave of unrest.
Uniformed policemen kissed the Tunisian flag and firemen climbed atop a red fire truck that moved through crowds filling the tree-lined Bourguiba Avenue and surrounding area.
Many complained they were poorly paid and victims of Ben Ali’s regime themselves. They demanded a union to campaign for their rights. Some tried to pull soldiers, posted at the end of the road, into the crowds. The army has refused to crack down on the demonstrators from the start, a factor that analysts say made it impossible for Ben Ali to remain as leader.
“Citizens have got the wrong idea about the police,” said another protester. “We in the Tunisian police were also oppressed. We have nothing.”