While scenes of mayhem and chaos captured in videos zipped across social media, there were also peaceful demonstrations. Hundreds have been arrested, triggering calls for restraint from human rights activists and civil society groups.
By Tuesday morning, the military had been dispatched to protect public buildings and conduct joint patrols with police units in several cities to quell the protests.
The vast majority of those detained over the past four days were 5 to 10 years old during the 2011 uprisings that toppled the nation's longtime autocrat, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, according to Tunisia's Interior Ministry.
"It's a new generation," said Ons Ben Abdelkarim, Tunisia representative for Expectation State, an emerging-nations development aid group. "They didn't know anything about the dictatorship. They really grew up hearing about democracy and the revolution and change, but they didn't see an impact on their daily life."
The explosion of anger follows Tunisia’s commemoration Thursday of the 10th anniversary of the uprising. It touched off revolts across the Arab world, now commonly referred to as the Arab Spring, that led to the ouster of dictators in Egypt, Libya and Yemen.
Since then, Tunisia has been lauded as the only nation to have emerged from the Arab Spring revolts as a democracy. But despite its unique standing, the country has remained fragile, struggling with economic woes, political infighting and the threat of Islamist extremism.
“Tunisia is free enough to allow such massive protests without much bloodshed, but its people are unhappy with the political leadership and state leadership and are still looking for change,” said Youssef Cherif, a North Africa political analyst affiliated with Columbia University.
Tension and frustration have grown over high unemployment rates, falling living standards, poor state services and public spending cuts mandated by an International Monetary Fund-backed loan program. The coronavirus pandemic has added to the economic and social woes, further shattering an economy highly dependent on tourism. Last week, a new pandemic lockdown added to the grievances of the protesters.
In the first 10 months of last year, more than 6,500 protests were recorded, mostly against economic and social policies, according to the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights. The political class is viewed by many Tunisians as inefficient and corrupt, and police are despised in poorer, neglected areas and are often accused of violent tactics, analysts said.
“There is a big gap between what this young generation is expecting and the overall ruling leadership within the government” and in national organizations and the media, said Ben Abdelkarim, who formerly worked for a Tunisian nonprofit seeking to improve governance and government accountability. “There is a real gap in understanding them and responding to their needs.”
In a November report, the forum warned of “systemic sabotage” due to the failure of successive governments since 2011 to fulfill the aspirations of Tunisians after the revolution, including achieving social justice, combating corruption and aiding long-marginalized areas.
“Gradually, the experience of democratic transition in Tunisia is heading toward a social tragedy,” the group wrote.
The most recent spate of protests ignited Friday in Siliana, a farming town roughly 80 miles southwest of the capital, Tunis. It followed a video that showed a police officer assaulting a shepherd whose sheep had entered the courtyard of a local government building, according to Amnesty International, a human rights watchdog group.
Adding to the frustration was the government’s imposition of a four-day national lockdown that started Thursday, the revolution’s anniversary, in response to a rise in coronavirus infections.
The protests swiftly spread to the capital and as many as 14 other cities, including regions in the center and south with extremely high levels of youth unemployment and poverty.
In some instances, the protests quickly turned to violence. Youths threw molotov cocktails at police in bulletproof vests, vandalized buildings and looted stores.
By Sunday, an Interior Ministry spokesman, Khaled Hayouni, announced that police had arrested 632 demonstrators. Most were between the ages of 15 and 20, he said.
Amnesty International called Monday for calm and restraint. The group cited videos that circulated on social media that showed police officers beating and dragging detainees, as well as eyewitness accounts of people ill-treated in police custody. On Monday, Amnesty said police attacked a peaceful protest with batons and tear gas and arrested a human rights activist, Hamza Nassri Jeridi.
“If there is something that didn’t change in the past 10 years, it’s how security forces are dealing with demonstrations,” said Ben Abdelkarim. “There are still the same reflexes on using violence against this type of demonstrations.”
The mass arrests of teenagers and youths “are adding to the general discontent,” said Cherif. So far, however, it doesn’t appear to be heading toward a 2011-like revolt against the political and security establishment, he said.
“But another police blunder, an unexpected event, more political bickering and maneuvering could trigger a bigger movement,” said Cherif. “For sure, there is enough anger in the street for another revolution to emerge.”