Tunisia – Police have arrested a leading gay rights activist who used violence against young people during a rally against the forthcoming referendum on the Tunisian President’s newly proposed constitution.
Police violently shoved protesters marching in a noisy but peaceful demonstration on Friday as they went to the interior ministry in central Tunis to demonstrate against President Kais Saied’s newly drafted constitution and to demand an end to the referendum process.
Al Jazeera witnessed beatings and other violent attacks on protesters, including police use of pepper spray.
President Saied released his new draft constitution late last month ahead of a referendum scheduled for July 25 in which Tunisians will vote to accept or reject the document.
On July 25, a year has passed since Saied sacked Tunisia’s prime minister, suspended parliament and seized executive power, citing a national emergency in a move critics have called a coup.
Two months later, he announced he would rule by decree and dissolved many of the country’s democratic state institutions, including the Supreme Judicial Council. In June he sacked dozens of judges accused of corruption and “terrorism”, further consolidating his power.
Saied says he has taken a period of extraordinary measures to save the country from any imminent danger, but his critics say his actions have only exacerbated the political and economic crises Tunisians are facing, which include high inflation and are struggling with unemployment and declining public services.
‘I am so angry’
On Friday, police pressed a series of aggressive charges against a relatively small, if vocal, group of protesters.
When they moved against protesters, they attacked the leader of the left-wing Popular Front, Hama Hemami. A journalist was beaten while attempting to photograph police arresting a protester, and Al Jazeera saw many people suffering from the painful effects of gas and pepper spray.
Police dragged protesters to the ground as they arrested them and held them in stress holds while they marched some away.
Among those arrested was a leading LGBTQ+ activist Saif Ayadi. Avocats Sans Frontiers told Al Jazeera that he is currently being held at the Gorjani detention center but is concerned for his safety as he was previously arrested and beaten by the police.
Riot police pushed back the crowd with their shields before other officers used force against the crowd and chased protesters down side streets.
Khalil Ayari, a 23-year-old nursing student, told Al Jazeera: “I saw 10 people being arrested and (they) were just protesting peacefully. I saw them attack a girl, they pulled on her arm so hard I could see the bruises rising up.”
Ayari said he took to the streets because he was angry at the president’s actions.
“I’m so angry,” he said. “I read the constitution, it’s all about the president, it’s all for him, he’ll make all the decisions and take everything.”
He added: “After today I no longer feel safe in Tunisia.”
Under the new constitution, Saied could continue to rule by decree until a new parliament is formed after an election scheduled for December. He would also have ultimate authority over the government and the judiciary, with the government answerable to the President, not Parliament.
Ayla Salemi, who works in civil society, had a bright red face after being caught in the pepper spray.
“The police screamed and insisted we go home, then attacked us,” she told Al Jazeera. “They beat activist Waen Nawal with a stick and pepper sprayed me and others.”
The 35-year-old tried to catch her breath. “I was against what happened in Parliament last year, but I am also against this President, things are much worse now than before.”
For many young people, Saied’s actions are a betrayal.
“We are against the constitution of Saied because it will lead us to a dictatorship, we cannot tolerate that; we are here to say no,” law student Malak Ben Amane, 23, told Al Jazeera.
Halfway through the interview, a police officer came to scold Ben Amane, but she stood still and refused to move. As the officer walked away, she said, “This violence is not uncommon, it happens every day, this is a police state.”
Until Friday, it was mainly middle-aged people who took part in protests against the president, now the young are also taking part in protests against him.
“Yes, we are depressed, but we are here to defend our revolution and our democracy, so I will march again tomorrow,” Ben Amane said.