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Thousands of people marched through Tunisia’s capital on Saturday, decrying an expanding crackdown on opposition voices and rising inflation as the country’s largest trade union called on President Kais Saied to accept “dialogue”.
The march organised by Tunisia’s powerful central trade union was the latest challenge to Tunisian President Kais Saied, whose leadership of the North African nation is prompting growing international concern.
Since taking office in October 2019, Saied has consolidated his power, dismantled the country’s democratic gains and unleashed repression against migrants from elsewhere in Africa.
In the biggest crackdown since the president’s power grab, police have arrested around 20 prominent political figures over the past two weeks, primarily Saied’s opponents.
“Freedom, freedom, down with the police state,” demonstrators chanted as they marched in Tunis on Saturday, also calling for “a halt to impoverishment” in the North African country.
UGTT chief Noureddine Taboubi accused the president of targeting the powerful union as part of a wider crackdown against critics.
Taboubi condemned the latest wave of arrests and the imprisonment since February of Anis Kaabi, a top UGTT official for highway workers, who had been detained after a strike by toll barrier employees.
“We will never accept such arrests,” Taboubi told the protesters.
The UGTT has around one million members and shared a Nobel Peace Prize in 2015 with three other civil society groups for promoting national dialogue in the country of about 12 million inhabitants.
Saied questioned the motives of the organisers of Saturday’s march and denounced the UGTT’s decision to invite foreign trade union leaders to the protest as “unacceptable.’’
The general secretary of the European Trade Union Confederation was declared persona non grata in Tunisia after taking part in a demonstration last month. On Thursday, Tunisian border police turned away a Spanish trade union leader.
“Tunisia is not a farm, meadow or a land without a master. Whoever wants to demonstrate is free to do so, but he does not have to invite foreigners to participate,” Saied said on the eve of Saturday’s march.
‘No to racism’
Taboubi called on Saied to embrace “dialogue” and “democratic” ways, slamming the president for pursuing a “violent discourse… that is dividing the country”.
The UGTT chief also defended “the rights of migrants, regardless of their nationality or the colour of their skin”.
“Tunisia is a country of tolerance, no to racism,” he told the crowd.
Saied last month ordered officials to take “urgent measures” to tackle irregular migration, claiming without evidence that “a criminal plot” was underway “to change Tunisia’s demographic make-up”.
The rally on Saturday came as some 300 West African migrants in Tunisia prepared to be repatriated, fearful of a wave of attacks against sub-Saharan migrants since Saied’s comments.
Ivory Coast and Guinea sent planes on Saturday to evacuate their citizens being targeted as Tunisian authorities stepped up arrests of migrants. Some sub-Saharan Africans have camped out in tents in front of the UN migration office in Tunis to seek protection.
Taboubi also criticised negotiations between the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and Tunisia, which is struggling under crippling inflation and debt worth around 80 percent of its gross domestic product (GDP).
Tunisia is seeking a bailout package worth nearly $2 billion from the IMF, which conditions any aid on a series of reforms.
Taboubi said the UGTT is unaware of the “details of the proposals” made by the Tunisian authorities but stressed that the union is totally opposed to any lifting of government subsidies on basic goods such as foodstuff and fuel.
Tunisian authorities banned another protest, planned for Sunday by the Islamist National Salvation Front, calling it a “threat to public safety.’’ Islamist leaders called on supporters to take to the streets anyway.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP and AP)