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Prominent opponents of Tunisian president say they are under investigation

Crackdown comes as record-low turnout in elections casts questions about Saied's continuing grip on power
Tunisian President Kais Saied takes the oath of office at the parliament in Tunis, on 23 October 2019 (AFP)

Three prominent opponents of Tunisia's President Kais Saied said on Monday that they were under investigation, just days after the Tunisian leader announced an extension of the country's state of emergency and warned about a crackdown on those who attacked "symbols of the state".

The opponents, former ministers Nejib Chebbi and Ayachi Hammami, and politician Reda Belhaj, said they received notices from prosecutors that they were being investigated on charges that include assaulting public security and insulting the president.

In July 2021, Saied suspended Tunisia's parliament and sidelined political parties in a dramatic power grab. Earlier this year, he pushed through a constitutional referendum that enshrined his one-man rule.

Last month, Tunisia held parliamentary elections that rights groups and Saied’s political opponents widely labelled a sham. Just 11 percent of eligible voters cast ballots in an election marked by widespread apathy and where political parties were banned from participating.

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The record low-turnout has cast questions about Saied's continuing grip on power. Tunisia’s largest opposition, the Salvation Front, called for protests and sit-ins following the vote, saying the low turnout indicated that Saied had lost legitimacy and should resign.

Nejib Chebbi, one of the individuals under investigation, is the leader of the Salvation Front. He called the investigation politically motivated and "a farce".

When Saied took power, he presented himself as an outsider who could cut through the corruption, political gridlock, and economic mismanagement that befell Tunisia following the 2011 Arab Spring.

Tunisia’s economic crisis, however, has worsened. The country is wracked by high inflation and suffering from shortages of basic commodities from fuel to cooking oil, a crisis exacerbated by the war in Ukraine.

Struggling with debts of more than 100 percent of gross domestic product, Tunisia has had to turn to the International Monetary Fund and is currently in talks with the lender of last resort for a  $2bn bailout.

Transport strike

Underscoring Tunisian's mounting economic frustration, on Monday the metro and bus traffic in the capital Tunis ground to a halt after employees of state transport company Transtu held a strike over delays in payments of wages and bonuses.

Staff from state-owned public transport firm Transtu walked out and hundreds demonstrated outside the prime minister's office, responding to a call by the transport section of the powerful UGTT trade union federation. 

The strike froze "the majority" of transport services across the capital of almost three million people, Transtu said.

The union, with one million members, has approved another strike for air, land and sea transport workers that will take place on 25 and 26 January to protest against what it called "the government's marginalisation of public companies”.

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The transport ministry slammed the walkout, stating that a "wildcat strike paralysed transport across Greater Tunis... disrupting the functioning of public services and the interests of the citizen".

As part of its bailout, the IMF has called for the implementation of a string of politically sensitive measures, including gradually removing subsidies on basic goods and the restructuring of public firms. These include Transtu as well as monopolies in water, energy and grains.

The UGTT, which until recently has avoided directly criticising Saied, has become more vocal in its opposition.

Following last month's election, the union said: "We no longer accept the current path because of its ambiguity and individual rule, and the unpleasant surprises it hides for the fate of the country and democracy."

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