Thousands protest in Tunisia as calls grow for president to resign

Supporters of the influential UGTT labour union rally in Tunis in defiance of crackdown by Kais Saied against critics

Demonstrators during an anti-government rally called by the UGTT trade union in Tunis, on Saturday.  AFP
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Thousands of people gathered in Tunisia’s capital on Saturday for a rally organised by the country's most powerful labour union, to demonstrate against the government under President Kais Saied.

The protest called by the UGTT ― one of the largest since Mr Saied dismissed the previous government and suspended parliament in July 2021 ― comes after a spate of arrests of the president's political opponents in recent weeks.

Starting at the Mohamed Ali Hammi plaza, which is dedicated to one of the founders of the Tunisian labour movement before independence, thousands marched along the capital’s main Habib Bourguiba avenue shouting, “Freedom, the police state is over”, “Saied, your time is over” and “IMF government, the people are invincible”.

Noureddine Tabboubi, the head of the Tunisian General Labour Union told the crowd before the march that "no matter how costly it is, we will not fear prisons and assassinations and we will always stand on the side of equality and justice”.

“I salute all the activists and politicians in Mornaguia prison,” Mr Tabboubi said, referring to the recent arrests.

Most of those arrested have been accused of "conspiracy against state security".

Mr Tabboubi said the UGTT would not remain silent in the face of a systematic targeting of rights and freedoms in the country.

“Tunisia will not be a land of tyranny and oppression,” he said.

Several other Tunisian organisations and political parties also participated in Saturday’s rally.

Hamma Hammami, secretary general of the Workers Party, called on Mr Saied to resign, saying it was the only feasible option for the country.

“He is seeking to intimidate us, but we were never afraid and we will never be afraid of Saied,” Mr Hammami told reporters at the rally.

Tensions between the UGTT and Mr Saied have escalated following the recent arrest of a member of its transport sector federation and the President's rejection of a national dialogue that the labour union has been attempting to organise together with the Lawyers Bar, the Tunisian League for Human Rights and the Tunisian Forum for Social and Economic Rights.

"The national dialogue initiative is in its final stages and will be announced in the coming few days," Mr Tabboubi said on Saturday.

Mr Saied accused the UGTT of trying to involve foreign parties in Tunisian affairs after it invited representatives of international trade unions to join Saturday's protest.

"Tunisia is not a farm or a park for them to invite whoever they want," the President told Social Affairs Minister Malek Zahi on Friday.

Tunisian authorities turned back Spanish trade unionist Marco Perez Molina upon his arrival in Tunis on Thursday and also banned representatives from the International Trade Union Confederation from entering the country.

The UGTT called the moves "unnecessary" and part of a wider clampdown on trade unions.

The union said it would hold a meeting of its executive bureau on Tuesday, which would set a date for a meeting of its national administrative authority, which brings together representatives of all the union federations.

Updated: March 05, 2023, 9:19 AM