Tunisian President Kais Saied ordered Europe’s top trade union official to leave the North African country after she addressed protesters at a demonstration organized by an influential labor union.
Authorities said European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) Irish general secretary Esther Lynch on Saturday made statements that “interfered with Tunisian internal affairs” during a protest against Saied in the port city of Sfax.
The Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT), organized the demonstration to protest a crackdown on the increasingly authoritarian president’s political opponents and his critics in the media, judiciary, business community and trade unions.
In an address to the protesters, Lynch demanded the release of union leader Anis Kaabi, who was arrested by security forces last month.
She called on the Tunisian government to negotiate with UGTT leadership and to improve the economy, which has teetered on the brink of bankruptcy amid political instability that deepened after a parliamentary election last month in which only 11 percent of voters cast ballots.
“By orders of the president, Tunisian authorities ordered Esther Lynch to leave the country within 24 hours, following statements made during the UGTT-led demonstration that interfered with Tunisian internal affairs,” the Tunisian presidency said in a statement that was posted on Twitter on Saturday.
The ETUC confirmed that Lynch left Tunisia on Sunday.
The treatment of Lynch by the Tunisian authorities “is in line with the campaign of intimidation and harassment being waged against trade unions by President Kais Saied,” including “arrests, sacking of union officials [and] malicious lawsuits,” the ETUC said in a statement.
“These tactics are part of a campaign by President Saied to break the union’s resistance to policies which are making ordinary people pay for the country’s economic, social and constitutional crisis,” the statement said.
Saied won the presidency in a 2019 landslide on a promise to improve the country’s economy. Instead, he appears determined to upend the country’s political system, threatening a democracy once seen as a model for the Arab world and sending the economy toward a tailspin.
The IMF in December froze an agreement on a US$1.9 billion loan for Tunisia. The deeply indebted government needs the funds to pay UGTT-represented public sector salaries and to fill budget gaps aggravated by the COVID-19 pandemic and the fallout from Russia’s war in Ukraine.
Tunisians in the past few months have been hit with soaring food prices and shortages of fuel and basic staples such as sugar and vegetable oil.
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