TUNIS (Reuters) - Tunisian police with teargas and batons scattered protesters demanding the government’s resignation Friday in the most violent confrontation for weeks with pro-democracy demonstrators.
Tension has risen in the North African country, whose ‘Jasmine Revolution’ inspired uprisings across the Arab world, after a former minister warned of a possible coup by loyalists of the ousted regime if Islamists win elections.
Demonstrators said that even though Tunisia’s interim administration had denounced the comments, they raised doubts over whether it was serious about democracy. Elections are promised in July for an assembly to draw up a new constitution.
“The people want a new revolution,” chanted protesters on Avenue Bourguiba, at the heart of the capital Tunis, before police moved in.
Security forces beat photographers and confiscated cameras from some as they covered the protest. They pursued protesters through side streets, swiping at them with batons.
A common thread running through uprisings across the Arab world sparked by the one in Tunisia has been unease among secularists and in the West about whether democracy will open the door to Islamic rule.
“We are here to demand the departure of this government, which is dishonest,” said Sonia Briki, one of the hundreds of protesters in the center of Tunis.
“Everything is clear now. We want them to step down so we can have a government whose members are just at the service of the people,” she said.
The government said it was astonished at the comments of former interior Farhat Rajhi who said Thursday that there could be a coup by loyalists of President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali if Islamists won the election.
But some Tunisians fear the government could use the threat of a coup to derail the steps to democracy after the fall of Ben Ali, who ruled the country of 10 million for 23 years and never held meaningful elections.
Tunisia’s interim rulers have said senior members of Ben Ali’s party and entourage will be barred from the elections, but that has not allayed fears they may still meddle in the political process.
Tunisia’s main Islamist group, Ennahda, led by moderate Muslim scholar Rachid Ghannouchi and banned under Ben Ali, says it will contest the elections and does not fear a coup.
It is expected to do well in parts of Tunisia, particularly the conservative south, where deep frustration over poverty and unemployment helped inspire the revolution.
Tunisia’s turmoil and the war in neighboring Libya have badly knocked an economy that lacks the oil and gas resources of its neighbors, driving thousands more young Tunisians to try to escape to Europe in search of jobs.
The Tunis-based African Development Bank, one of the biggest lenders to Tunisia, said Europe should be doing more to get Tunisia back on its feet.
“If they fail, I think Tunisia will pull through, but they may pull through in a different way,” regional representative Jacob Kolster told Reuters. “Maybe slower, more risky, maybe where there are more risks of reversals than if there were a real firm helping hand across the pond.”
Additional reporting by Tarek Amara in Dehiba; Editing by Matthew Tostevin