Second round of revolution as protests erupt in Arab Spring birthplace
Hundreds 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 hundreds of members of the political opposition and trade unions, as well as civil society groups and employer organizations to march towards 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.
Offices and shops were shut in the town center, although some butchers stayed open to allow customers to prepare for the iftar evening meal, when Muslims break their day-long fast during Ramadan.
Tunisia's main union, the UGTT, had called the strike in Sidi Bouzid to put pressure on the government to release detained activists, and to develop the marginalized region.
Government spokesman Samir Dilou said the strike was unjustified, and criticized 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" are provoking people to take to the streets and pledged that the government would address those hardships with "understanding."
The demonstrators also denounced authorities for suppressing recent protests and urged them to free activists arrested last week during demonstrations that were dispersed by police firing tear gas and rubber bullets.
By 1100 GMT the activists had gathered outside the court house, which was protected by a heavy deployment of police.
Some protesters 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.
Separately, around 150 Ennahda supporters staged a rival protest in the town center.
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 in several countries of the region ruled by autocratic regimes.
The Tunisian uprising was triggered when a street vendor immolated himself in December 2010 in protest over his own precarious livelihood.
The town is located in a particularly marginalized region, and analysts warn that poor living conditions and high youth unemployment there and elsewhere – driving factors behind the revolution – have improved little since then.
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