Thousands protest in birthplace of Tunisia uprising

AFP , Tuesday 14 Aug 2012

Thousands take to the streets against Tunisia's ruling Islamist party during a general strike in Sidi Bouzid

Thousands of protesters demonstrated against Tunisia's ruling Islamist party during a general strike Tuesday in Sidi Bouzid, hub of the 2011 uprising, an AFP journalist reported.

Residents of Sidi Bouzid were among up to 2,000 members of the political opposition and trade unions, as well as civil society groups and employer organisations, to march on the court house on the outskirts of the town.

They shouted slogans including: "The people want the fall of the regime!" and "Justice, woe to you, Ennahda has power over you!" in reference to the moderate Islamist party that heads Tunisia's ruling coalition after winning elections last October.

After gathering at around 1100 GMT outside the heavily-protected court house, they dispersed peacefully.

In the town centre, offices and shops were shut, with only the butchers staying open to allow customers to prepare for the iftar evening meal, in which observant Muslims break their daytime fast during the holy month of Ramadan.

The strike in Sidi Bouzid had been called by Tunisia's main trade union confederation, the UGTT, to pressure the government to release dozens of activists detained since July, and to develop the marginalised region, where water and power cuts are common.

"The general strike has had a following of more than 90 percent," said Ali Kahouli, spokesman for the December 17 Front, one of the organising groups.

The protesters had denounced the authorities for suppressing recent protests and called for the release of activists who were arrested last week during demonstrations that were dispersed by police firing tear gas and rubber bullets.

According to a group of defence lawyers, ten of those arrested were freed on Tuesday.

And in the Sfax region, around 260 kilometres (160 miles) south of Tunis, another 12 activists arrested at a protest late last week were discharged on Monday and Tuesday, according to their lawyers.

Four trade unionists were also freed, after being detained in the same region for a month.

But Kahouli insisted that was not enough.

"We demand the immediate release of all those detained... and the opening of the file on regional development and employment," he said.

Government spokesman Samir Dilou said the strike was unjustified, and criticised the opposition for exploiting legitimate social grievances.

"I don't think the call for a general strike is justified... I think there are only political considerations here, with political parties involved," Dilou, who is also human rights minister, told private radio Mosaique FM.

Dilou acknowledged that "difficult living conditions in certain regions" pushed people to take to the streets, and pledged that the government would address those hardships with "understanding."

Some protesters had smashed the window of a car belonging to an Al-Jazeera TV crew -- the Qatar-based satellite news channel is accused by government critics of supporting Ennahda -- but otherwise no violence was reported on Tuesday.

Tunisia's Islamist-led government has faced growing dissent in recent weeks.

On Monday thousands of people demonstrated in the capital Tunis for women's rights, in the biggest show of force by the opposition since April.

The central town of Sidi Bouzid is the birthplace of the 2011 uprising that toppled strongman Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and touched off the Arab Spring revolts that rocked autocratic regimes across the region.

The Tunisian uprising was triggered when a street vendor torched himself in December 2010 in protest over his precarious livelihood.

The town is located in a particularly marginalised region, and analysts warn that poor living conditions and high youth unemployment there and elsewhere -- driving factors behind the revolution -- have improved little since.

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