Tunisia's National Salvation Front leader vows weekly protests until opposition figures released

Tunisia's National Salvation Front leader vows weekly protests until opposition figures released
Protests against authoritarian leader Kais Saied took place on Sunday despite an official ban, where supporters of the opposition stood in solidarity with detained critics of the president.
4 min read
05 March, 2023
The Tunisian opposition coalition, headed by Ahmed Nejib Chebbi, protested against arrests of prominent Kais Saied critics by the Tunisian state [Getty]

The head of the Tunisian National Salvation Front (NSFT) has vowed weekly protests in Tunis capital until detained opposition figures are released.

Ahmed Nejib Chebbi, the country’s most prominent opposition leader, made the announcement during the large-scale protest by the NSFT on Sunday, according to the Tunisian broadcaster Nessma TV.

Chebbi, who has headed the coalition party since last year, said that the group will hold weekly sit-ins every Wednesday at midday, in solidarity with the detained activists.

Hundreds of opposition supporters took to the streets of central Tunis despite an official ban, demonstrating against President Kais Saied after his administration launched a crackdown on a number of prominent critics, some of whom have been charged with "conspiracy against the state".

The opposition leader addressed the protesters, saying: "We call for the release of all detainees."

"They accuse your brothers of conspiring against state security, and they are not conspirators, but rather peaceful opponents".

Demonstrators also called for freedom of speech and expression.

Many of the arrested critics include lawyers, journalists and politicians – namely ones affiliated with Ennahda such as Said Ferjani, as well as a number of left-leaning political figures, including Jawhar Ben Mbarek.

The chief of private radio station Mosaique FM, Noureddine Boutar, was also arrested last month. The popular station has been critical of the president, as well as his successive governments. Several businessmen have also been apprehended.

Chebbi added that the Salvation Front will expand by adding a number of prominent activists and writers, and that he "seeks dialogue with the powerful UGTT Labor Union, all civil and professional organisations, and all political forces for the sake of one national front," said the Tunisian news website Atessia TV.

The NSFT combines a number of Tunisia’s biggest opposition parties, including the Islamist-inspired Ennahda Party, as well as the Heart of Tunisia and the Amal Movement – among others. The Stop The Coup movement also encompasses the big-tent opposition group.

Despite warnings from police and the placement of security barriers, the demonstration went ahead as the Salvation Front said that protests are "free and can be held without prior authorisation", while referencing Chapter One of Law No. 4 of 1969.

Protesters called for Saied’s resignation, shouting "Leave, leave" and "Down with the coup".

A member of the Salvation Front and the Ennahda Party, Mohamed El-Qomani, told The New Arab’s sister site, Al-Araby Al-Jadeed that "the [prolonged] movements and marches organised by the Salvation Front are a tool for political protest, and a consecration of the right to expression, demonstration, and defence".

The protesters also condemned Saied’s statements against sub-Saharan migrants last month, which were deemed racist and inflammatory. The Tunisian president said that migrants' presence in the north African country was "a criminal project" and peddled the racist theory that migrants were "erasing" Tunisia’s ethnic makeup.

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On Saturday, thousands of supporters of the UGTT union also protested against Saied’s measures, as well as in support of the arrested opposition figures.

Protesters shouted slogans such as "Freedoms, freedoms, the police state is over", "Stop attacks on the union" and "The Union is free and the working class is everything".

UGTT General Secretary, Noureddine Taboubi said during the protest: "The Union is not afraid and does not fear anyone," in defiance of Saied’s clampdowns, according to Al-Araby Al-Jadeed.

Meanwhile, the UGTT said Saturday’s protests is "one of many to come". The Assistant Secretary-General of the Labor Union, Sami Tahiri told that the group will protest more – and even strike – in a "warning to  authorities in light of arrests and fabricated charges".

He also elaborated that the current rallies are "not only of interest to trade unionists, but also the general public, who reject high prices, raise subsidies, and the absence of basic materials in the markets, and reject the taxes that were put in the 2023 budget".

Observers are expecting an escalation of protests in Tunisia, which has witnessed an increase in authoritarianism following Saied’s power grab in July 2021, which saw him grant himself far-reaching, executive powers.

The president also went on to suspend parliament and seize the judiciary, as well as implement a new constitution in July last year, further cementing his powers in the country that was considered a success story of the 2011 Arab Spring.