Tunisian labour union starts major protests against president

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Tunisia’s powerful UGTT labour union rallied in the capital on Saturday, mobilising thousands of supporters against President Kais Saied in a demonstration of its strength after his recent crackdown on opponents.

Protesters rallied before a march through the city centre, raising banners that read “No to one-man rule” and “Stop attacks on the union”, and chanting “Saied is a coward, the union is not afraid” and “Freedom! End the police state”.

They were marching after weeks of arrests targeting prominent opponents of Saied in the first major crackdown since he seized most powers in 2021, shutting down the parliament and moving to rule by decree.

“Saied is threatening everyone here. Parties, civil society, unions. All freedoms… Tunisians are here to say we cannot accept populism and nascent dictatorship,” said Najeh Zidi, a teacher at the protest.

The crackdown is the biggest since Saied’s seizure of powers and his opponents say it is ever more clear that he has dismantled the democracy won in the 2011 revolution that triggered the Arab Spring and will end the freedoms it brought.

Saied has denied his actions were a coup, saying they were legal and necessary to save Tunisia from chaos.

The UGTT was initially slow to criticise Saied’s move while political parties were denouncing it as a coup, but as the president consolidated his grip while ignoring the union and other players, it began to openly challenge him.

A senior union official was detained last month for organising a strike by highway tollbooth operators, prompting the UGTT’s newspaper to say Saied had declared war on the organisation and its million members.

This week authorities barred foreign labour union leaders from entering Tunisia to take part in the rally as a show of solidarity with the UGTT, and Saied said he would not accept foreigners joining protests.

Over recent weeks police have detained more than a dozen prominent opposition figures, mostly tied to the coalition of parties and protesters that is planning to rally on Sunday, accusing them of conspiring against state security.

Those arrested in recent weeks include politicians from the Islamist Ennahda, which was the biggest party in the shuttered parliament, leaders of a protest group, the head of Tunisia’s main independent media outlet and a prominent businessman.

“We say to Saied, ‘we will not give up press freedoms, union freedoms and political freedoms’. We will not accept one-man rule,” said Ibrahim Bourghida, a union member.