TUNIS – The leader of Tunisia’s main leftist party said on Thursday that Prime Minister Youssef Chahed is trying to evade his responsibility by falsely accusing the opposition of being behind riots that have led to 600 arrests.
Speaking to EFE, Popular Front (FP) head Hamma Hammami denied that his party orchestrated the disturbances that followed the death on Monday of a 55-year-old man as police broke up a demonstration in Tebourna, 40 kilometers (25 miles) east of the capital.
He added, however, that the FP, like other progressive opposition groups and civic organizations, planned to intensify peaceful marches to force the government to roll back austerity policies.
The accusations by the Tunisian prime minister that the FP instigated the riots are laughable, according to Hammami, who said that his party has become used to being attacked unjustly under successive governments.
He recalled that in 2011, current President Beji Caid Essebsi accused the FP, and specifically its then-leader, Chokri Belaid, of instigating disturbances, while 2012 and 2013 saw claims from the government that Belaid – then out of the country – was paying rioters.
Authorities in Tunisia have yet to charge anyone in the 2013 assassination of Belaid, who was gunned down in the doorway of his home by two assailants on a motorcycle.
Hammami stressed that the FP stands with the constitutional right to protest, though he urged people to demonstrate during daylight hours rather than after dark as a way of making it more difficult for criminals and others with bad intentions to exploit the situation for their own ends.
He also said that the debate over freedom of expression and the right to protest should not be allowed to divert attention from the “truly crucial issue” of soaring prices and declining purchasing power.
Disturbance continued Wednesday for a third consecutive night, with protests spreading to areas such as Hammam Lif, where young people tried to block the passage of a train.
There were also attempts to damage public buildings and to set tires and trash containers on fire in northern coastal cities including Beja, Nabeul, Kebili and Bizerte, even in the face of growing police and military presence.
Sources in the interior and defense ministries denied to EFE on Thursday that a curfew has been imposed, but acknowledged an increase in the deployment of security personnel.
The interior ministry reported 565 arrests nationwide and said that some 60 members of the security forces have been injured.
A large demonstration is scheduled for Sunday to coincide with the seventh anniversary of the “Jasmine Revolution,” which ended the long rule of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia on Jan. 14, 2011, after a month of demonstrations and turmoil that marked the start of what came to be called the Arab Spring.