The Protesters Who May Have Helped Bring Down a Government

Demonstrators outside of Parliament in the Bardo neighborhood in Tunis on Sunday, July 25, 2021. Photo by Ghaya Ben Mbarek.

Sunday’s protests are now better known by the Presidential decisions they seemingly helped prompt: a freezing of Parliament, a dismissal of Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi, and the lifting of Parliamentary immunity in what critics of President Kais Saied have called a coup.

But the protests themselves featured desperate people, many of whom felt they had nothing left to hope for from the political system.

“I cannot live anymore. I feel like crying as I am talking to you. I went out because I am fed up. We’re hungry” said Ali Ayari, 57 years old, a father of three who was visibly in tears as he was talking to Meshkal/Nawaat in Bardo.

Demonstrators outside of Parliament in the Bardo neighborhood in Tunis on Sunday, July 25, 2021. Photo by Ghaya Ben Mbarek.

Ayari was one of more than a 1000 people who gathered near Parliament around midday in almost 40 degree weather.

“Why would one go out in this scorching sun?” Ayari said. “I was a merchant but now I am unemployed…I have been unemployed for five years. I am an old man, what is my fate with no job or social coverage for health care?”

Ayari told Meshkal/Nawaat that he is frustrated and just wants the situation to be over so that he can work again.

Mohamed Aymen, a 17 year old from the working class neighborhood of Sidi Hassine—recently the site of deadly police violence—said he can’t bear conditions in the country anymore and was planning to emigrate next week with friends.

“I have managed to collect 5000 dinars and next week I am planning to go out with my neighborhood boys,” Aymen told Meshkal/Nawaat, saying he would go by Mediterranean to try and reach Europe, like many Tunisians do every year despite the deadly risks of overfull and rickety boats. This type of clandestine migration is called “harka.”

Aymen told Meshkal/Nawaat that young people have lost hope that the situation will get better in Tunisia  and all he or other people his age could think about is harka.

“My heart is dead in this country, how would I be afraid of the sea?” Aymen said. “One would die here or in the middle of sea, it does not matter”

Aymen also expressed frustration over the constant profiling and discrimination of people from working class neighborhoods by police.

“They always ask for our ID, and when they see we’re from Sidi Hassine, they start insulting us,” Aymen said.

Protest Demands Match What President Later Gave Them

Many protesters in Bardo made demands and appeals directly to President Kais Saied that corresponded almost exactly to what Saied would announce later that night: the dismissal of the Tunisian government, invoking Article 80 of the Tunisian constitution, dissolving the parliament, and taking power on his own.

Some chants and slogans at the protest included: “The system is corrupt, both government and opposition;” “The people want the dissolution of parliament;” “Mechichi Dégage, Ghannouchi Dégage,” and “Every neighborhood came for you, no parliament, no government.”

The protest came in response to a mobilization and an event on Facebook calling for a “revolution,” launched by a number of individuals with no clear affiliation. But many protesters at the event also mentioned a Facebook group called “NON aux indemnisations des Nahdhaouis,” meaning “No to Reparations for Nahdhaouis,” which was created only two weeks ago and counted about 700,000 members by the time this article went to publication.

While demonstrators on Sunday were diverse, young football team supporters from the politically active “ultras” clubs and anti-police activists who have previously participated in the January protests were well represented. No apparent political parties were present except youth from Democratic Current party.

But not everyone at the protest agreed with demands that the president take emergency powers under article 80 of the constitution. Mohamed, a 30 year old who presented himself as a political activist, said he didn’t agree with it.

“The decision to dissolve the parliament is going to be unconstitutional,” Mohamed told Meshkal/Nawaat.

At the same time, Mohamed seemed at a loss for another direction his country could go and believed that there needed to be fundamental changes in the political system.

“I want to ask people who are calling for this, what is the alternative? I personally don’t see any alternative. This parliament has been the hand of a corrupt system. We have removed Ben Ali, the head of the pyramid, but we kept the pyramid which is the system,” he added.

Police Repress Protests Violently

Police kicked protesters, used truncheons, and tear gassed protesters. Meanwhile some demonstrators threw rocks and flares at police. Several people were injured as police in riot gear rushed protesters.

Meshkal/Nawaat witnessed several arrests taking place and police officers trying to run over fleeing protestors with their motorcycles.

Police block demonstrators outside of Parliament in the Bardo neighborhood in Tunis on Sunday, July 25, 2021. Photo by Ghaya Ben Mbarek.

The demonstration was dispersed and ended when police chased demonstrators through the neighborhood alleyways. 

Other Protests Across Tunisia

Demonstrations took place in many other cities across Tunisia on Sunday as well, including Tozeur, Sousse, Monastir, El Kef, Sfax, Siliana Kairouan, Nabeul, Sidi Bouzid, and Gafsa, with many demonstrators putting forward similar demands. Some of these demonstrations targeted the local headquarters of the Ennahdha party.

In Sfax, people gathered near the Municipality in Bab Bhar, which later turned into a march throughout the city. Demonstrators there chanted: “The people want the fall of the regime” and “Dissolving Parliament is a necessity,” according to videos from there shared with Meshkal/Nawaat by Mohamed Sallemi, a 32 year old who participated.

“I went out because I want those who committed crimes against the Tunisian people to pay the price,” Sallemi said. “After 10 years of assassinations, poverty and hunger, it’s now or never to delete and start over.”

This article was produced as part of a reporting partnership between Meshkal and Nawaat.