TUNIS (Reuters) - Tunisia’s government ordered an overnight curfew on Saturday after three days of forcefully suppressed protests and sacked an influential figure whose comments on a possible coup sparked the demonstrations.
The new troubles in the North African country, where the Arab world’s tide of unrest began, are rooted in fears the interim administration will renege on its commitment to democracy after the ousting of President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in January.
“We now need a revolution to follow the revolution,” said Abdoulrahim Jalouli, holding up his mobile phone to show pictures of police chasing down youths in the streets near the centre of Tunis.
“You see. The police are the same as before. There is no change,” he said.
Protesters threw stones at police and set cars ablaze in streets near the centre of Tunis. Security forces responded with shots in the air and teargas. Residents said thieves and looters were taking advantage of the chaos in parts of the city.
Defence and interior ministries announced a curfew from 9 p.m. (2000 GMT) to 5 a.m. “in order to ensure the safety of citizens and property”, said a statement quoted by the Tunisian Press Agency.
In another sign the government was trying to quell anger, former interior minister Farhat Rajhi was fired from his post as head of the state-sponsored High Commission on Human Rights and Fundamental Liberties, the agency said.
Demonstrations broke out on Thursday after Rajhi warned that Ben Ali loyalists might seize power in a coup if Islamists won elections scheduled in July to draw up a new constitution.
Just as in other parts of the Middle East and North Africa where popular protests are bringing change, many secularists -- and Western countries -- fear greater freedom could also allow Islamists to take power.
Tunisia’s main Islamist group Ennahda, led by moderate Muslim scholar Rachid Ghannouchi and banned under Ben Ali, says it will contest the elections and does not fear a coup.
It is expected to do well in some parts of the country of 10 million people, particularly the conservative south, where deep frustration over poverty and unemployment helped inspire the revolution.
Tunisia’s interim rulers condemned the suggestion that there could be a coup if Islamists won the election, but it was not enough to calm protesters -- further angered by the tough police tactics.
“Things are far from returning to normal,” said cafe owner Hassan Ali as businesses in the city centre hurriedly pulled down metal shutters, losing another day of trade in an economy where the turmoil is set to trim growth to only 1-1.5 percent this year.
Some Tunisians also oppose letting the Islamists take part in the elections.
“Our constitution does not allow religious parties and Ennahda is outside the law,” said Haifa ben Adballah, at an anti-Islamist demonstration by a few dozen people a few blocks from the confrontations in the city centre.
Tunisia’s rulers have banned Ben Ali’s aides and top members of the former ruling party from contesting elections. He fled to Saudi Arabia, but some of his entourage are being pursued for crimes during his 23-year rule.
Imed Trabelsi, the nephew of Ben Ali’s influential wife, has been sentenced to two years in prison and a fine of 2,000 dinars ($1,500) for taking drugs.
Editing by Matthew Jones