TUNIS, Tunisia (AP) — Supporters of the Tunisian Islamist movement Ennahda demonstrated on Friday in front of the Justice Ministry in the capital to denounce the arrest of one of its senior leaders, suspected of being involved in sending Tunisians to fight with extremists in Syria.
Protesters demanded the release of former Prime Minister Ali Larayedh, vice president of Ennahda, saying the arrest earlier this week was politically motivated. They called it part of efforts by President Kais Saied to marginalize the popular movement and distract the public from his political troubles.
The protest came amid heightened political tensions in Tunisia. Just 11% of voters turned out for the first round of legislative elections on Sunday as many parties and voters boycotted an effort by Saied to reshape the political system.
Ennahda was the biggest party in Tunisia’s last parliament when Saied dissolved it last year. The president called the elections to create a new legislature with weaker powers, saying it would solve the North African country’s protracted economic and political crisis.
The day after the vote, an anti-terrorism judge ordered the imprisonment of former Prime Minister Ali Larayedh, vice president of Ennahdha. The decision was linked to a broader case involving other Ennahdha officials.
At Saturday’s demonstration in Tunis, protesters chanted for Larayedh’s release and the president’s resignation. Police kept them behind metal barriers.
“The fact that 90% of voters abstain from going to the polls signifies a disavowal of the political process initiated by President Saied. This is the beginning of the end of this process,” Ennahda leader Noureddine Bhiri told The Associated Press.
He said that “Saied now has no other alternative but to resign and call for early presidential elections in order to protect the country against instability that can affect the entire region.”
Ennahda officials pledged to hold further demonstrations in January.
Saied rejected criticism over the low turnout in Sunday’s election, saying the most important measure will be what happens in the second round of voting on Jan. 19.
Tunisia was seen as a model of democracy in the region after protesters overthrew their autocratic leader in 2011, unleashing the Arab Spring uprisings.