TUNIS, Tunisia (AP) — Tunisian president Kais Saied ordered Europe’s top trade union official to leave the country after she addressed protesters at a demonstration organized by the North African country’s influential labor union.
Authorities in Tunis accused Esther Lynch, the Irish general secretary of the European Trade Union Confederation, of making statements that “interfered with Tunisian internal affairs” during a protest against the country’s increasingly authoritarian president in the port city of Sfax on Saturday.
The demonstration was organized by Tunisia’s General Labor Union, or UGTT, to protest a crackdown on the president’s political opponents and his critics in the media, judiciary, business community and trade unions. Lynch in her address to protesters 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 the UGTT leadership and help improve the economy that has been teetering on the brink of bankruptcy amid political instability that deepened after a disastrous parliamentary election last month in which only 11% of voters cast their 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,” said a statement by the Tunisian presidency that was posted on Twitter late Saturday.
The European Trade Union Confederation has not commented on the expulsion order.
Tunisia is going through a major economic crisis, with rising inflation and unemployment. In recent months, Tunisians have been hit with soaring food prices and shortages of fuel and basic staples like sugar and vegetable oil.
Saied won the presidency in a 2019 landslide on a promise to improve the country’s economy. Instead, the president appears determined to upend the country’s political system — threatening Tunisia’s democracy once seen as a model for the Arab world and sending the economy toward a tailspin.
In December, the International Monetary Fund froze an agreement on a $1.9 billion loan for Tunisia — funds the deeply indebted government needs to pay UGTT-represented public sector salaries and fill budget gaps aggravated by the COVID-19 pandemic and the fallout from Russia’s war in Ukraine.
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