Powerful Tunisian union defies president with mass protests

By Tarek Amara

SFAX, Tunisia (Reuters) – Thousands of members of the powerful Tunisian UGTT union took to the streets in eight cities on Saturday to protest President Kais Saied’s policies, accusing him of trying to suppress fundamental freedoms, including trade union rights .

The eight-city protests marked an escalation of the union’s confrontation with Saied and followed its criticism of the recent arrest of several anti-government figures, including politicians, a journalist, two judges and a senior UGTT official.

The coordinated arrests have raised fears of a wider crackdown on dissidents, prompting the UN Human Rights Office to call for the immediate release of those arrested.

During Saturday’s demonstrations, thousands of protesters in the southern city of Sfax carried national flags and banners with slogans such as “Stop the attack on trade union freedoms” and “Cowardly said the union is not afraid”.

Senior UGTT official Othman Jalouli told the crowd Saied’s government wanted to “silence the voice of the union”.

Protests also broke out in the cities of Jendouba, Tozeur, Monastir, Bizerte, Kasserine, Kairouan and Nabeul.

More demonstrations are planned in other cities in the coming days and will end with a rally in the capital Tunis early next month.

Commenting on the Sfax protests, Esther Lynch, federal secretary of the European Trade Union Confederation, said she had come to deliver a message of support from 45 million European trade unionists and called for the immediate release of the jailed union officials.

Before the latest wave of arrests, police last month arrested another UGTT official over a toll booth workers’ strike and opened an investigation into 14 other transport union officials over another strike.

The UGTT, which has more than a million members and has brought the country to a virtual standstill during strikes, has denounced such measures, saying the government is trying to suppress freedom of expression to divert attention from the country’s economic woes.

Saied, who closed Parliament in 2021, seized most powers and ruled by decree before writing a new constitution, said this week the authorities are not aiming for freedoms but are trying to hold everyone equally accountable.

In his first statements after the arrests, he accused “traitors” of being responsible for price increases and food shortages and of wanting to stir up a social crisis.

(Reporting by Tarek Amara; Editing by Helen Popper)


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