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Protests across Tunisia as COVID-19 surges and economy suffers

·2-min read

TUNIS, July 25 (Reuters) - Hundreds of protesters rallied in the Tunisian capital and other cities on Sunday demanding the government step down after a spike in COVID-19 cases that has aggravated economic troubles.

In Tunis, police used pepper spray against protesters who threw stones and shouted slogans demanding that Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi quit and parliament be dissolved.

Witnesses said rallies numbering several hundred also gathered the cities of Gafsa, Sidi Bouzid, Monastir and Nabeul. Demonstrators in Sousse tried to storm the local headquarters of the biggest party in parliament, the moderate Islamist Ennahda. In Touzeur, protesters set fire to the Ennahda headquarters.

The protests raise pressure on a fragile government that is enmeshed in a political struggle with President Kais Saied, who is trying to avert a looming fiscal crisis amid a weeks-long spike in COVID-19 cases and increased death rates.

The pandemic has hit Tunisia as it struggles to lift an economy that has suffered since its 2011 revolution, undermining public support for democracy as unemployment surged and state services declined.

"Our patience has run out... there are no solutions for the unemployed," said Nourredine Selmi, 28, a jobless protester. "They cannot control the epidemic ... They can't give us vaccines."

Last week, Mechichi sacked the health minister after chaotic scenes at walk-in vaccination centres during the Muslim Eid al-Adha holiday, where large crowds queued for inadequate supplies of vaccine.

After a year of wrangling with Mechichi and the leader of Ennahda, Rached Ghannouchi, who is also parliament speaker, President Saied declared the army would take over the pandemic response.

Some analysts saw the move as an attempt to expand his powers beyond the foreign and military role assigned to the president in the 2014 constitution.

Government paralysis could derail efforts to negotiate an International Monetary Fund loan seen as crucial to stabilising state finances but which could also involve spending cuts that would aggravate economic pain for ordinary people.

(Reporting by Tarek Amara; Writing by Angus McDowall; Editing by Edmund Blair)

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