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Witnessing the Largest Protest: Union Gatherings in Tunisia Against the President

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More than 3,000 people demonstrated against the Tunisian government on Saturday at a rally organized by the powerful UGTT in what appears to be the largest protest yet against President Kais Saied, in a show of force after his latest crackdown on dissidents.

Thousands of demonstrators filled Avenue Habib Bourguiba, the main avenue in central Tunis, holding signs reading “No to autocracy” and chanting “Freedom! End the police state.”

They were walking after weeks of arrests targeting high-profile opponents of Saied, who has launched his first major crackdown since seizing sweeping powers in 2021, shutting down parliament and moving to power by decree.

“We will continue to defend freedoms and rights, whatever the cost. We are not afraid of prisons or arrests,” Noureddine Taboubi, leader of the UGTT, told the crowd.

“I salute the jurists and politicians in Mornaguia prison,” he added, referring to the new detainees.

Hama Hammami, head of the Workers’ Party, said the protests were the response to what he called Said’s “creeping dictatorship”.

“He wants to spread fear, but we are not afraid,” he said.

The crackdown is the biggest since Saied’s seizure of power and his opponents say it is increasingly clear that he has dismantled the democracy that triumphed in the 2011 revolution that sparked the Arab Spring and will end the freedoms that brought it.

Saied denied that his actions were putschist, saying they were legal and necessary to save Tunisia from chaos.

oppression

The UGTT was slow at first to criticize Said while the political parties accused him of orchestrating a coup, but when the president tightened his grip, ignoring the UGTT and other players, he began to publicly challenge him.

A senior union official was arrested last month for organizing a strike by highway kiosk operators, prompting the UGTT newspaper to accuse Saied of declaring war on the organization and its one-million members.

This week, authorities banned foreign trade union leaders from entering Tunisia to take part in the rally in solidarity with the UGTT, and Said said he would not accept foreigners joining the protests.

The size of Saturday’s rally underscored that the Union remains a potent opponent that Saied may struggle to brush aside as he moves to sideline other opponents in the wake of parliamentary elections with very low support.

In light of the crisis in the Tunisian economy, and state finances on the verge of bankruptcy and a shortage of basic commodities, the possibilities of public anger may increase.

In recent weeks, police have arrested more than a dozen prominent opposition figures, most of them linked to the coalition of parties and protesters planning to gather on Sunday, accusing them of plotting against state security.

Those arrested included politicians from the conservative Ennahda party, which was the largest party in the closed parliament, leaders of a protest group, the head of Tunisia’s main independent media and a prominent businessman.

Najeh Zaidi, a teacher at the protest, said “Said threatens everyone here. Parties, civil society, trade unions. All freedoms… Tunisians are here to say we don’t accept nascent populism and dictatorship.”

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