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Tunisia expels European Trade Union chief for 'interference'

February 18, 2023

Esther Lynch, who is Irish, has been expelled from Tunisia for participating in a protest organized by the country's trade union.

Hundreds take to the streets of Sfax, raising banners and chanting slogans, February 18
Union supporters protested what they say are attacks on freedoms and union rightsImage: JIHED ABIDELLAOUI/REUTERS

Tunisia on Saturday expelled the head of the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) for taking part in a protest organized by the country's labor union.

The protest was organized by the powerful Tunisian General Labor Union or UGTT.

President Kais Saied declared Esther Lynch, who is Irish, persona non grata and ordered her to leave the country within 24 hours.

The government said Lynch's participation in the protest and remarks she made there amounted to a "blatant interference in Tunisian affairs." 

Thousands protest against Saied

Thousands of people protested Saturday across several cities in Tunisia against Saied's policies, including accusing him of trying to stifle union rights.

The protests marked an escalation in the union's confrontation with Saied and follow criticisms of the recent arrests of anti-government figures including a senior UGTT official.

The UN Human Rights Office has called for the immediate release of all detainees as well.

Lynch spoke at one of the largest demonstrations in Tunisia's southern city of Sfax, telling crowds, "We say to governments: hands off our trade unions, free our leaders."

She delivered the remarks with the help of an interpreter and said that the government must "sit down and negotiate with the UGTT for a solution."

In Sfax, protesters carried national flags and banners with slogans including "Stop the attack on union freedoms" and "Cowardly Saied, the union is not afraid."

The protests come as the Tunisian president grows increasingly authoritarian, having curbed the independence of the judiciary and weakened parliament's powers.

Tunisians, once proud of their relative prosperity, are worried about the faltering economy. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has frozen an agreement to help the government get loans to pay public sector salaries.

The UGTT has warned people about painful austerity measures as Tunisia talks out a bailout loan with the IMF. People at the protests on Saturday chanted slogans like "Tunisia is not for sale!" 

rm/sms (Reuters, AFP)