Tunis, Tunisia – Police have arrested a leading gay rights campaigner in a violent crackdown on young people during a rally against the upcoming referendum on the Tunisian president’s newly proposed constitution.
Police pushed back protesters who marched on Friday in a vocal but peaceful demonstration as they headed towards the interior ministry in central Tunis to demonstrate against President Kais Saied’s newly written constitution and demand an end to the referendum process.
Al Jazeera witnessed beatings and other violent abuses against protesters, and also saw police use pepper spray.
President Saied published 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.
July 25 marks a year 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 that he would rule by decree, dismantling many of the country’s democratic state institutions including the Supreme Judicial Council. In June, he fired dozens of judges accusing them of corruption and “terrorism,” further consolidating his power.
Saied says he has implemented a period of exceptional measures to save the country from any imminent danger, but his critics say his actions have only exacerbated the political and economic crises facing Tunisians struggling with high inflation and unemployment, and falling public services.
“I’m So Angry”
On Friday, police launched a series of aggressive charges against what was a relatively small but vocal group of protesters.
As they charged protesters, they attacked the leader of the left-wing Popular Front, Hama Hemami, a female journalist was beaten while trying to photograph police arresting a protester, and Al Jazeera saw many people suffering the painful effects of gas and pepper spray.
Police dragged protesters to the ground as they arrested them, and held them in stress holds as they marched some of them away.
Among those arrested was a leading LGBTQ+ activist Saif Ayadi. Avocats Sans Frontiers told Al Jazeera that he is currently being held in the Gorjani detention center, but said it is concerned for his safety, as he has previously been arrested and beaten by police.
Riot police pushed the crowd back with their shields before other officers took heavy aim at the crowd and chased protesters down side streets.
Khalil Ayari, a 23-year-old nursing student, told Al Jazeera: “I saw 10 people arrested, and (they) were just protesting peacefully. I saw them attack a girl, they pulled her arm so hard I could see the bruises rising.”
Ayari said he took to the streets because he was outraged by the president’s actions.
“I’m so angry,” he said. “I read the constitution, it’s only about the president, everything is for him, he’s going to make all the decisions and take everything.”
He added: “After today I no longer feel safe in Tunisia.”
Under the new constitution, Saied will be able to continue to rule by decree until a new parliament is formed after an election set for December. He would also have ultimate authority over the government and the judiciary, with the government answering to the president and not to parliament.
The face of Ayla Salemi, who works in civil society, was bright red after being caught in the pepper spray.
“The police shouted and insisted that we go home, then they targeted us,” she told Al Jazeera. “They beat the female activist Waen Nawal with a stick and they used pepper spray on me and others.”
The 35-year-old tried to catch his breath. “I was against what happened in parliament last year, but I’m also against this president, things are much worse now than they were before.”
For many young people, Saied’s actions are a betrayal.
“We are against Saied’s constitution because this will bring us to dictatorship, we cannot tolerate this; we are here to say no,” 23-year-old law student Malak Ben Amane told Al Jazeera.
Halfway through the interview, a policeman came to apologize to Ben Amane, but she stood coolly and refused to move. As the officer walked away, she said: “This violence is not unusual, it happens every day, this is a police state.”
Until Friday, protests against the president had mainly involved middle-aged people, but the young are now coming out against him as well.
“Yes, we are depressed, but we are here to defend our revolution and our democracy, so I will march again tomorrow,” said Ben Amane.