Thousands protest against president’s policies, accusing him of trying to stifle basic freedoms including union rights.
Thousands of Tunisian trade unionists have held protests across the country over worsening economic woes and the arrest of a top union official.
The North African country is in drawn-out talks with the International Monetary Fund for a bailout loan, which the powerful UGTT workers’ federation has warned could entail painful austerity measures.
Demonstrators in Sfax, where the largest protest took place on Saturday, chanted “Tunisia is not for sale!” and “No to removing subsidies!”
Some raised loaves of bread as a symbol of protest at soaring living costs.
The protests in eight cities marked an escalation in the union’s confrontation with Tunisian President Kais Saied and followed its criticism of the recent arrests 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 dissent and prompted the UN Human Rights Office to call for the detainees’ immediate release.
Protesters demanded the release of senior UGTT official Anis Kaabi, who was arrested on January 31 following a strike by toll barrier workers, in what the union has described as “a blow to union work and a violation of union rights”.
Othmane Jallouli, the UGTT’s deputy chief, told demonstrators that “the government has failed to put the country on the path of economic and social reforms. All it has succeeded in is attacking the union”.
The latest protests came a year and a half after Saied sacked the government and seized almost total power in the birthplace of the 2011 pro-democracy uprisings that rocked the Arab world.
Cracking down on dissent
Since those moves, which opponents have called a coup, Saied has been repeatedly accused of dragging the country back into authoritarianism.
“Today, any union member can be sacked simply for expressing an opinion,” Jallouli said.
Following the protest, Tunisia expelled the head of the European Trade Union Confederation after she took part in it.
President Kais Saied declared Esther Lynch, who is Irish, persona non grata and said she must leave Tunisia within 24 hours. Her participation in the protest and remarks she made there were “blatant interference in Tunisian affairs”, the government said.
Earlier, Lynch had addressed the crowd in Sfax, delivering a message of “solidarity from 45 million workers around Europe”.
“We say to governments: hands off our trade unions, free our leaders,” Lynch said.
The government must “sit down and negotiate with the UGTT for a solution” to Tunisia’s woes, she said, adding that the UGTT represented “workers who are struggling to make ends meet”.
Political analyst Tarek Kahlaoui told Al Jazeera from Tunis that at the same time that UGTT is galvanising their base, “They are reaching a point of finalising the political initiative of dialogue.
“They are trying to have a dialogue with the president. Until then, I don’t think that we have a cohesion of Tunisian opposition groups, between civil society and political groups. There are still major divisions within the political landscape in Tunisia,” Kahlaoui said.
Tunisia, heavily indebted and import-dependent, is in the grip of a long-running economic crisis that has worsened since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, with regular shortages of basic goods from sugar to petrol.
UGTT members protested across Tunisia at the same time as the Sfax demonstration, from Tozeur in the south to Bizerte in the north.
More demonstrations are planned in other cities in the coming days, concluding with a rally in the capital, Tunis, early next month.
Kaabi faces trialonm February 23 on charges of “using his position to harm public authorities”.