Tunisia: Govt expels ETUC chief for participating in protests against president’s policies

Thousands of members of Tunisia’s leading political force, Union Générale Tunisienne du Travail (UGTT) also known as the Tunisian General Labour Union took to the streets across eight cities in the country in protest against President Kais Saied’s policies, on Saturday (February 18). Subsequently, the country’s government expelled the head of the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) for taking part in these demonstrations. This comes as the trade union has accused Saied’s government of stifling freedoms including union rights.

The recent protests also come days after dozens of journalists and rights activists protested in the Tunisian capital Tunis which was organised by the SNJT journalists’ union following the arrest of the director of popular private radio station Mosaique FM, Noureddine Boutar. At the time, protesters had accused the government of “repression” and intimidation of the media. 

The demonstrations on Saturday also marked an escalation of growing opposition against Saied’s government and criticised the recent arrests of several anti-government figures which included politicians, a journalist, two judges, and a senior UGTT official. 

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Addressing the expulsion of ETUC’s Esther Lynch, the UGTT senior official Sami Tahri told Reuters, “We condemn this shocking decision…it not only contains a confrontation against UGTT, but rather with the international union movement.” He added that the ETUC official was also harassed and prevented from leaving her hotel for dinner. 

Following her participation in the protests, the Tunisian president in a statement, late Saturday, declared Lynch as “persona non grata” and asked the Irish citizen to leave the country within 24 hours. The government reportedly also called her participation in the protests a “blatant interference” in the country’s affairs. 

The recent wave of arrests has also prompted the United Nations Human Rights Office to call for the immediate release of those detained while the move has raised concerns about the Tunisian government conducting a wider crackdown on dissent. The journalists’ union which held a protest on Thursday in this context, raised slogans like “No to repression of journalists” and “We demand an independent free press,” reported AFP.

Similarly, thousands of protesters in the southern city of Sfax carried national flags and raised slogans like “Stop the attack on union freedoms” and “Cowardly Saied, the union is not afraid”, reported Reuters. The other seven cities where demonstrations were held are Jendouba, Tozeur, Monastir, Bizerte, Kasserine, Kairouan and Nabeul. 

Furthermore, as per media reports, additional protests are planned in the upcoming days with the concluding rally in the capital city early next month. While addressing the demonstration in Sfax, Lynch had said, she was there on behalf of 45 million European trade unionists who also support the Tunisian trade union while also calling for the immediate release of the detained union officials. 

Notably, the aforementioned private radio station has reportedly been critical of Saied who two years ago sacked the government, froze parliament, and seized almost total power of the country after writing a new constitution, a move that many have termed a power grab and rivals called a coup. As of last week, Boutar’s arrest took the total number of public figures detained to 10, most of whom are said to be critical of Saied’s government. 

Meanwhile, the Tunisian president in his first comments after the wave of arrests called those detained “traitors” and accused them of being responsible for fueling a social crisis, price increases, and food shortages. This week he also said that the authorities do not target freedoms, but seek to hold everyone equally accountable, reported Reuters. 

(With inputs from agencies)

 

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