Tens of thousands of Tunisians have held massive rallies in eight different cities across the North African country to protest the policies adopted by President Kais Saied’s government.
The protesters, who were members of Tunisia’s powerful UGTT trade union, held rallies in the cities of Sfax, Jendouba, Tozeur, Monastir, Bizerte, Kasserine, Kairouan, and Nabeul on Saturday, accusing Saied of trying to stifle basic freedoms, including union rights.
In the southern city of Sfax, demonstrators held up placards reading, “Stop the attack on union freedoms,” and “Cowardly Saied, the union is not afraid.”
Senior UGTT official, Othman Jalouli, told the crowd that Saied’s government “wants to silence the voice of the union.”
Esther Lynch, head of the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC), also took part in Saturday protests against Saied.
Addressing the Sfax protest, Lynch said she had come to convey a message of support from 45 million European trade unionists, calling for the immediate release of detained union officials.
The rallies followed the arrest of many well-known anti-government figures, including politicians, a journalist, two judges, and a senior UGTT official.
Critics have warned that the arrests may be linked to the government’s efforts to stifle dissent. The United Nations Human Rights Office has also called for the detainees’ immediate release.
Saied, a former law professor, was elected in 2019 amid public anger against the political class.
On July 25, 2021, he launched a power grab, sacking the government, freezing the country’s parliament — known as the Assembly of the Representatives of the People — and seizing wide-ranging powers.
He later gave himself powers to rule and legislate by decree and seized control over the judiciary, in what rivals saw as, further blows to democracy in the birthplace of the 2011 popular uprisings.
The Tunisian president insists that his measures are meant to save the country from a civil war. Critics, however, have accused him of orchestrating a coup.
Tunisia expels ETUC head for taking part in anti-government rallies
Later on Saturday, the Tunisian government expelled the head of the European Trade Union Confederation after she took part in an anti-government protest organized by the UGTT union.
Saied declared the ETUC’s Lynch “persona non grata,” saying that the Irish citizen must leave the country within 24 hours.
The government added that Lynch’s participation in the protests and remarks were a “blatant interference in Tunisian affairs.”
The UGTT said the expulsion was “shocking” and opened up a confrontation with labor unions around the world.
“We condemn this shocking decision … it not only contains a confrontation against UGTT, but rather with the international union movement,” Sami Tahri, a senior official in the UGTT, was quoted by Reuters as saying.
He added that Lynch was being harassed and even prevented from leaving her hotel for dinner.