x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Ben Ali loyalists threaten coup if Tunisian Islamists take power

As Tunisia's main Islamist group says it will contest an election scheduled for July, country's former interior minister warns that Ben Ali loyalists are 'not disposed to give up power'.

TUNIS // Loyalists of the deposed leader Zine el Abidine Ben Ali will mount a coup if Islamists take power in elections, the country's former interior minister warned yesterday.

Tunisia's main Islamist group, Ennahda, led by the moderate Muslim scholar Rachid Ghannouchi and banned under Mr Ben Ali, says it will contest an election scheduled for July after 23 years of one-man rule.

Experts say it could poll well, particularly in the conservative south, where there is deep frustration over poverty and unemployment.

Farhat Rajhi, who took over as Tunisian interior minister soon after the revolution, said in a video shared on Facebook: "If Ennahda takes power, there will be a coup d'etat.

"The people of the coast are not disposed to give up power and, if the elections go against them, there will be a coup d'etat."

"People of the coast" is a reference to Ben Ali loyalists who have their power base in and around his hometown, the coastal city of Sousse. Mr Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia in January.

His overthrow in January in the first of the uprisings to rock the Arab world has awoken tensions between pro- and anti-Islamists.

A common thread running through the revolts has been unease among secularists and in the West about whether democracy will open the door to Islamic rule. Egypt, where the popular Muslim Brotherhood will contest elections in September, will be watching developments in Tunisia closely.

Mr Rajhi is considered relatively independent, and a shrewd observer of Tunisian politics. But Ennahda officials said they did not believe a coup was likely.

"We do not yet have an official position on the declaration by Mr Rajhi, but I can tell you that we have faith in all the elements of the state and in the people to respect the will of the people," said Nourdine Bhiri, a senior Ennahda official.

The July 23 vote is for an assembly that will draft a new constitution.

Mr Rajhi was made interior minister soon after the revolution and replaced in March in the latest shake-up of a caretaker government struggling to keep Tunisia's shaky transition to democracy on track.

An ominous sign has been a string of mass prison breaks, the latest late on Wednesday when 58 prisoners escaped in Tunisia's second city of Sfax and were met by accomplices armed with metal bars and knives, the official TAP news agency reported.

Tunisian security officials have said in the past they believe the prison breaks to be the work of Ben Ali loyalists trying to sow chaos and undermine the transition.

Algeria plunged into chaos in 1992 when the military-backed government scrapped a legislative election that a radical Islamist party was poised to win. According to independent estimates, 200,000 people were killed in the violence that ensued.