Tunisian police fire water cannon as protesters march on parliament

Security forces confront protesters on the northwestwern outskirts of Tunisia's capital Tunis on Jan 26, 2021, as they head for Parliament. PHOTO: AFP
Tunisian police block protesters from accessing the parliament building on Jan 26, 2021 in Tunis. PHOTO: AFP
Tunisian anti-government protesters shout slogans during a demonstration next to the Tunisian parliament, Jan 26, 2021. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

TUNIS (REUTERS) - Tunisian riot police turned water cannon on protesters outside the heavily barricaded parliament on Tuesday (Jan 26), trying to quell the largest rally since demonstrations began this month over inequality and police abuses.

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.

Police blocked the march with barricades to prevent protesters approaching the parliament building where lawmakers were holding a tense debate on a disputed 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 barred 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.

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.

In parliament, Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi proposed a new Cabinet, a move President Kais Saied had on Monday rejected as unconstitutional.

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 per cent. The fiscal deficit rose above 12 per cent of gross domestic product, ballooning public debt to more than 90 per cent 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 he 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 in the afternoon before a vote expected in the evening, some opposition lawmakers left parliament to join the protest outside.

If parliament endorses Mechichi's new government, it could put him on course for a major showdown with President Saied, complicating any government efforts to overhaul the economy.

"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.

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