Tunisia’s parliament on Tuesday approved a Cabinet reshuffle that deepened the conflict between the prime minister and the president, as hundreds protested outside the heavily barricaded parliament over social inequality and police abuses.
Riot police turned water cannon on protesters outside the parliament earlier on Tuesday, trying to quell the largest rally since demonstrations began this month.
Hundreds of protesters had marched from the Ettadhamen district of the capital, Tunis, where young people have clashed with police several nights this month, and were joined by hundreds more near the parliament.
Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi named 11 new ministers and said he hoped it would inject new blood into his government.
”Young people protesting outside parliament reminds us of our priorities. Their protests are legitimate and the government will listen to the angry youth,” he said.
But President Kais Saied indicated on Monday he would reject the Cabinet reshuffle, condemned the absence of women among the new ministers and said some likely new Cabinet members may have conflicts of interest.
Saied, who appointed Mechichi last year but has taken issue with some of his moves, said he would not swear in any ministers suspected of corruption.
Police blocked the march with barricades to prevent protesters approaching the parliament building where lawmakers were debating the government reshuffle.
“The government that only uses police to protect itself from the people – it has no more legitimacy,” said one protester, Salem Ben Saleh, who is unemployed.
Later, police also blocked Avenue Habib Bourguiba, the broad tree-lined boulevard that is home to the Interior Ministry and where major protests have traditionally taken place, as demonstrators tried to gather there.
ARAB SPRING ANNIVERSARY
Protests flared earlier this month on the 10th anniversary of Tunisia’s 2011 revolution that inspired that Arab Spring and introduced democracy in the North African country.
Political paralysis and economic decline have soured many Tunisians on the fruits of the uprising.
The political deadlock in Tunisia since elections in 2019 has stymied efforts to address festering economic problems, with both foreign lenders and the main labour union demanding reforms.
Last year, as the global coronavirus pandemic struck, Tunisia’s economy shrank by more than 8%. The fiscal deficit rose above 12% of gross domestic product, ballooning public debt to more than 90% of GDP.
The nightly clashes between young people and police have been matched by growing daytime protests at which demonstrators have chanted slogans including: “The people want the fall of the regime” – echoing Arab Spring uprisings.
On Tuesday, with anger high over the death on Monday of a young man whose family said had been hit by a tear gas canister, protesters chanted against the security forces.
In Sbeitla, the hometown of Haykel Rachdi, who was buried on Tuesday, mourners later clashed with police, witnesses said.
As parliamentary debate on the reshuffle paused, some opposition lawmakers left parliament to join the protest outside.
“Mechichi has transformed this into a police state. … No work, no development, no investment… just police against the people,” said Imed, another protester who did not want to give his family name.