Tunisian streets fall silent under coronavirus curfew

TUNIS (Reuters) - The only sounds at dusk on Wednesday as Tunisia’s first night of a curfew against coronavirus kept traffic from the streets were barking dogs and, faintly in the wind above the scent of orange blossom, Koranic recitations from a mosque.

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Police have set up some checkpoints on highways and the army will also be deployed for two weeks to stop people leaving their homes between 6 p.m. and 6 a.m., except for security and emergency personnel or those seeking urgent medical assistance.

President Kais Saied had announced the measure in a televised broadcast, adding it to earlier decisions to stop foreign travel and close schools, universities, markets and mosques to stop the virus spreading.

Tunisia has confirmed 29 cases of the coronavirus. As the curfew hour approached, people left work early. Others raced to buy groceries before the shops closed and streets fell quiet.

“It is difficult for me to imagine that we will be stopped from moving around because of this virus. It is hard to accept that our lifestyle has changed in this way. But I have to respect the law. All the world has changed,” said Salem Ajmi, a trader rushing home, carrying a bag of food.

Tunisia is a rare democracy among Arab states. Its people rose in 2011 against the autocratic rule of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, ousting him in a revolution that inspired the Arab Spring.

Last year, voters chose Saied, an independent with little political experience or financial backing, in an election that underscored their anger at a governing elite that has failed to bring economic growth.

Now the pandemic threatens a new economic catastrophe. Announcing the curfew on Tuesday, Saied also asked Tunisia’s foreign lenders for patience.

The state imposed a curfew across the nation during the 2011 revolution, but has also used it in some towns since then during protests over the weak economy and poor living standards.

In one Tunis district, five young men stood in the street half an hour after curfew, smoking and chatting. Politicians have urged Tunisians to respect coronavirus measures, and complained that some are ignoring them.

On Wednesday, police arrested several people who had ignored a quarantine order after they arrived from overseas. On Tuesday, they had to disperse a crowd that had gathered to watch a traditional ram fight.

“There is no work for us and now they ask us to stay home. I can’t go home at this time. I need to spend it with friends,” said Mohamed Zribi, one of the five young men.

Reporting By Tarek Amara, writing by Angus McDowall, editing by Nick Macfie