TUNIS, (Reuters) – Tunisian police wielding batons and firing teargas scuffled Saturday with hundreds of protesters demanding the departure of the government and angry at a heavy handed response to demonstrations this week.
The new protests in the North African country, where the Arab world’s tide of unrest began, are rooted in fears an interim administration will renege on its commitment to democracy after the ousting of President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in January.
“We now need a revolution to follow the revolution,” said Abdoulrahim Jalouli, holding up his mobile phone to show pictures of police chasing down other youths in the streets near the centre of Tunis.
“You see. The police are the same as before. There is no change,” he said.
Tensions rose this week after a former interior minister warned that Ben Ali loyalists might seize power in a coup if Islamists won elections scheduled in July to draw up a new constitution.
Just as in other parts of the Middle East and North Africa where popular protests are bringing change, many secularists — and Western countries — fear greater freedom could also allow Islamists to take power.
Tunisia’s main Islamist group Ennahda, led by moderate Muslim scholar Rachid Ghannouchi and banned under Ben Ali, says it will contest the elections and does not fear a coup.
It is expected to do well in some parts of the country of 10 million people, particularly the conservative south, where deep frustration over poverty and unemployment helped inspire the revolution.
Tunisia’s interim rulers have condemned the statement by former interior minister Farhat Rajhi that there could be a coup if Islamists won the election, but it has not been enough to calm protesters — further angered by the tough police tactics.
“Things are far from returning to normal,” said cafe owner Hassan Ali as businesses in the city centre hurriedly pulled down metal shutters, losing another day of trade in an economy where the turmoil is set to trim growth to only 1-1.5 percent this year.
Tunisia’s rulers have banned Ben Ali’s aides and top members of the former ruling party from contesting elections. He fled to Saudi Arabia, but some of his entourage are being pursued for crimes during his 23-year rule.
Imed Trabelsi, the nephew of Ben Ali’s influential wife, has been sentenced to two years in prison and a fine of 2,000 dinars (916.14 pounds) for taking drugs, the Tunisian Press Agency reported on Saturday.