Tunisia: Cabinet meets to confirm reshuffle as anger flares over protester death

Trade unions, political parties and activists are planning mass rallies on Tuesday as politicians meet to debate reshuffle amid a political crisis

Dozens of boys and young men joined the protests in Ettadhaman on Tuesday. Several protesters brought loaves of bread as a symbol of the poverty and hunger faced by many in Tunisia. Erin Clare Brown for The National
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Hundreds of young protesters gathered outside Tunisia’s parliament on Tuesday, as lawmakers inside prepared to vote on a cabinet reshuffle by Prime Minister Hichem Miechichi.

The meeting took place after more than a week of protests across the country, and just a day after a 20-year-old protester died from injuries he sustained in the clashes.

In the densely populated Ettadhaman neighbourhood, where some of the most violent night protests have occurred, a group of around 100 protesters marched through the narrow warren of streets en route to the parliament building.

Two young residents of Ettadhaman joined the protests Tuesday, January 26th, leading chants of "Work, freedom, national dignity!" Erin Clare Brown for The National

Dozens of young men and boys emerged from houses and side streets to join the throng. Chants alternated between political slogans, including the rallying cry of the 2011 revolution, “Work, freedom, national dignity!” and football booster songs.

Less than a kilometre from Parliament the group met a roadblock and dozens of riot police in full body armour. A tense standoff ensued. Boys filled the pockets of their tracksuit bottoms with rocks, while older activists urged calm. After thirty minutes at a standstill, the crowd dispersed.

“The politicians want you to shut your mouth and live like animals,” said Mohamud, 22.

Despite orders from top brass that police should stop protesters from reaching parliament "at all costs," another group of several hundred other protesters managed to gather near the building.

Police drones flew overhead and water cannons loomed as protesters called for the end to a corrupt system and police brutality.

A tense standoff with riot police ensued when protesters tried to reach the Parliament building Tuesday. Erin Clare Brown for The National

Such was the commotion outside that MPs briefly halted proceedings to demand the anti-riot measures be removed, calling them an impediment to free speech.

Tunisia has been politically deadlocked since two separate elections in 2019 put Kais Saied into office as president but left a deeply fragmented parliament in which no party held more than a quarter of the seats.

The constitution worked out in 2014 after the 2011 revolution that introduced democracy gave parliament the main voice in forming a government. But the president also has a role in a complex system of approvals and vetoes.

In a major blow to Mr Mechichi, President Kais Saied on Monday indicated he would oppose the cabinet reshuffle, claiming it was unconstitutional on procedural grounds. He also condemned the absence of women among the prospective new ministers and said some potential new Cabinet members may have conflicts of interest.

The move escalates a dispute with the prime minister as a political logjam undermines efforts to tackle the pandemic and its economic fallout.

Hundreds of protesters pressed towards Tunisia's parliament building on Tuesday. Erin Clare Brown for The National

Mr Saied then proposed Mr Mechichi as prime minister, but soon fell out with him despite the successful formation of the government, which narrowly won parliamentary backing.

Mr Mechichi is still expected to win Tuesday’s confidence vote in his new administration, in part due to broader unease in parliament at the prospect of a forced national election during the pandemic and anger at the government.

Thousands had been expected to join the protests today in front of the Bardo Palace “in rejection of the government’s approach in dealing with popular protests in which hundreds of youths arrested,” a joint statement released on Monday by Tunisia’s civil society organisations said. But the tight police presence greatly restricted the crowds.

More than 1200 protesters, largely young men and boys between the ages of 14 and 25, have been arrested over the course of the last 10 days. Many face up to two years in prison for their involvement in the protests.

Police have been particularly brutal during the curfew-defying protests in poorer neighbourhoods, shooting teargas canisters into residential streets and beating the young men who fall into their grasp.

The family of Haykel Rachdi, the young protester who died on Monday, told local media he was struck with a tear-gas canister after joining protests in his home town of Sbeitla that erupted this month on the anniversary of Tunisia’s 2011 revolution.

The Public Prosecutor’s office in nearby Kasserine, about three hours south of the capital, ordered a post mortem to determine the cause of Rachdi’s death, the state news agency, TAP reported.

After news of his death, a group of young men tried to storm and torch the local police station, leading to more clashes, TAP reported.