(Bloomberg) -- Tunisia’s biggest trade union said police arrested a leader who’d called for a strike, escalating a dispute between President Kais Saied and workers over planned spending cuts needed to secure an International Monetary Fund bailout.

The UGTT labor group hired a lawyer to defend Anis Al-Kaabi, who heads its highway workers chapter, after police took him to “an unknown location over a legal strike,” the union’s mouthpiece newspaper Echaab News reported Wednesday. 

Presidential spokesman Walid El-Hajjam didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

The walkout, which took place earlier this week, sought to press authorities to renegotiate the management contract for the biggest highway link in the North African country, which is mired in economic crisis.

The arrest threatens to ratchet up tensions between Saied and UGTT and may further complicate talks over reforms needed to secure the approval of IMF directors for a $1.9 billion package. Last week, UGTT and three other organizations started a  so-called National Salvation Initiative — seen as the most serious attempt to confront Saied’s takeover of most executive and legislative powers in 2021. 

Saied has appointed a former UGTT official turned opponent of the union’s current leadership to the helm of the education ministry, which has been battling months of protests and strikes by thousands of teachers.

The president has seen his plans to reshape the power-sharing agreement in Tunisia challenged by worsening economic conditions, while the recent election of an assembly recorded one of the world’s lowest turnouts for any national election. 

On the day of Al-Kaabi’s arrest, Saied alluded to the highway strike as being among industrial actions which abuse the constitution for the sake of “political motives.” 

“These people plot against the state and its public facilities and several of its sectors, or cut off the roads on bogus grounds,” he said.

“Those who threaten to cut off the highway” will be held accountable, he added. He later signed a presidential decree that extended for one year a state of emergency that has been place since the end of 2022.

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