Tunisia’s powerful UGTT labour union rallied in the capital on Saturday in what appeared to be the biggest protest yet against President Kais Saied, staging a show of strength after his recent crackdown on opponents.
Many thousands of protesters filled Habib Bourguiba Avenue, the main street in central Tunis, holding banners that read “No to one-man rule” and chanting “Freedom! End the police state”.
They were marching after weeks of arrests targeting prominent opponents of Saied, who has staged his first major crackdown since he seized wide-ranging powers in 2021, shutting down parliament and moving to rule by decree.
“We will continue to defend freedoms and rights, whatever the cost. We do not fear prisons or arrests,” UGTT leader Noureddine Taboubi told the crowd.
“I salute the jurists and politicians in Mornaguia prison,” he added, referring to recent detainees.
Hamma Hammami, head of the Workers Party, said protests were the answer to what he called Saied’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 powers and his opponents say it is increasingly clear that he has dismantled the democracy won in the 2011 revolution that triggered the Arab Spring and will end the freedoms it brought.
Saied has denied his actions were a coup, saying they were legal and necessary to save Tunisia from chaos.
The UGTT was initially slow to criticise Saied while political parties accused him of staging a coup, but as the president consolidated his grip while ignoring the union and other players, it began to openly challenge him.
A senior union official was detained last month for organising a strike by highway tollbooth operators, prompting the UGTT’s newspaper to accuse Saied of declaring war on the organisation and its million members.
This week authorities barred foreign labour union leaders from entering Tunisia to take part in the rally in solidarity with the UGTT, and Saied said he would not accept foreigners joining protests.
The size of Saturday’s rally underscored that the union remains a powerful adversary that Saied may struggle to bat aside as he moves to sideline other opponents in the wake of a parliamentary election that had very low support.
With Tunisia’s economy in crisis, state finances on the brink of bankruptcy and shortages of key goods, the potential for public anger may grow.
Over recent weeks police have detained more than a dozen prominent opposition figures, mostly tied to the coalition of parties and protesters that is planning to rally on Sunday, accusing them of conspiring against state security.
Those arrested include politicians from the Islamist Ennahda, which was the biggest party in the shuttered parliament, leaders of a protest group, the head of Tunisia’s main independent media outlet and a prominent businessman.
“Saied is threatening everyone here. Parties, civil society, unions. All freedoms … Tunisians are here to say we cannot accept populism and nascent dictatorship,” said Najeh Zidi, a teacher at the protest