Tunisian opposition defies protest ban with rally
TUNIS, March 5 (Reuters) - Hundreds of opposition supporters in Tunisia defied an official ban on their protest against the president on Sunday after some of their leaders were arrested, breaking through a police barrier in central Tunis to rally in the city's main street.
Before the protesters broke through the barrier, police warned them by loudspeaker that their demonstration was illegal but added that they would not stop them by force.
Up to a thousand protesters then pushed through the cordon to reach Habib Bourguiba Avenue where most rallies take place, chanting "Shut down the coup" and "We want the release of the arrested".
The National Salvation Front coalition combines Tunisia's biggest party, the Islamist Ennahda, the Stop the Coup protest movement and some other political parties, demanding that President Kais Saied step down.
The protest was one of the coalition's smallest against Saied, but still showed it could mobilise on the streets in the teeth of a crackdown on its leaders, while the police showed they were not yet willing to forcefully halt demonstrations.
"We are here again despite the campaign of arrests targeting opposition figures. We will continue to resist to release the detainees but also to confront the coup," said Nejib Chebbi, a National Salvation Front leader whose brother has been arrested.
In recent weeks, several of the front's top leaders have been detained as part of a crackdown on prominent critics of Saied, and charged with conspiring against state security. This week, the Tunis governor refused permission for Sunday's protest.
The coordinated arrests have prompted the U.S. to raise its concerns, spurred fear of a wider crackdown on dissent and prompted the U.N. Human Rights Office to call for the immediate release of those detained.
The front accuses Saied of a coup for suddenly seizing broad powers in 2021, shutting down the elected parliament and moving to rule by decree before writing a new constitution that he passed in a referendum with low turnout last year.
Saied says his actions were legal and necessary to save Tunisia from chaos, and has called his enemies criminals, traitors and terrorists, urging the authorities to take action against them.
The recent arrests also targeted the head of Tunisia's main independent media outlet, two judges, a labour union official and a prominent businessman, showing police were ready to target critics of Saied from across the political spectrum.
However, opposition to Saied is fragmented along ideological and political lines that were drawn during a period of democratic government after the 2011 revolution which triggered the Arab spring.
On Saturday, the powerful UGTT labour union and allied parties staged their own protest, bringing many thousands of supporters onto the streets against Saied in what appeared to be the biggest demonstration against him so far.
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