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Tunisian opposition defies protest ban, rallies against president

Hundreds of opposition supporters march through the streets to demand the resignation of President Kais Saied.

Hundreds of opposition supporters in Tunisia have defied a ban on protests and demanded the release of more than 20 prominent figures who opposed the president in recent weeks.

Before the protesters broke through a police barrier on Sunday to gather in central Tunis, police warned them over the loudspeaker that their demonstration was illegal but that they would not stop them by force.

Up to 1,000 protesters then pushed through the cordon to reach Habib Bourguiba Avenue, where most of the gatherings take place.

The National Salvation Front coalition combines Tunisia’s largest party, the Ennahdha, the Stop the Coup protest movement and several other political parties demanding that President Kais Saied resign.

Sunday’s protest will look at how much the National Salvation Front and its constituents can publicly mobilize supporters after the arrests and how much force the police are willing to use against them.

Former member of the Tunisian parliament, Saida Ounissi, told Al Jazeera that what makes the recent protests unique from other anti-government rallies that have taken place is “the popularity of the movement”.

“This is the second day of protests and we are amazed at the number of ordinary citizens who are protesting and facing the threat of oppression by taking to the streets and calling for freedom,” she said.

Supporters of the Tunisian Salvation Front coalition gesture during a protest against the arrest of some of its leaders and other prominent critics of the president, in Tunis, Tunisia (Zoubeir Souissi/Reuters)

In recent weeks, several top Front leaders have been arrested as part of a crackdown on prominent critics of Saied and charged with conspiracy against state security. This week, Tunisia’s governor refused permission for Sunday’s protest.

The front accuses Saied of a coup because in 2021 he suddenly seized broad powers, closed the elected parliament and started ruling by decree before drafting a new constitution which he approved in a poorly attended referendum last year.

Saied says his actions were legal and necessary to save Tunisia from chaos, calling his enemies criminals, traitors and “terrorists” and urging authorities to take action against them.

The recent arrests also targeted the head of Tunisia’s main independent media outlet, two judges, a trade union official and a prominent businessman, demonstrating the police’s willingness to attack Saied’s critics across the political spectrum.

However, opposition to Saied is fragmented along ideological and political lines drawn during the period of democratic rule following the 2011 revolution that triggered the Arab Spring.

On Saturday, the powerful UGTT trade union and related parties staged their own protest, leading many thousands of supporters to take to the streets against Saied in what appears to be the largest demonstration against him to date.