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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 18 December 2018

Tunisia prime minister accused of coup plot and dismisses allegation as 'a joke'

Claims of coup may prolong political crisis and widen rifts

Tunisia's Prime Minister Youssef Chahed attends a news conference in Tunis. Reuters 
Tunisia's Prime Minister Youssef Chahed attends a news conference in Tunis. Reuters 

A senior member of the Tunisian president’s political party has accused the country’s head of government of plotting a coup d’etat, an allegation dismissed as "a joke" by the accused Youssef Chahed.

Slim Riahi, the secretary general of President Beji Caid Essebsi’s Nidaa Tounes Party, has initiated legal proceedings in Tunisia’s military court, accusing Mr Chahed of plotting to overthrow the president.

The allegations, coming shortly after a general strike and controversial cabinet reshuffle, are likely to prolong the country’s long running political crisis. Some analysts suggest it could also distract from corruption charges facing businessman Mr Riahi in connection to his past ownership of a leading football club.

Mr Riahi announced the legal proceedings during an interview with France 24 on Friday, in which he claimed Mr Chahed and a small cadre of loyal senior officials were preparing to overthrow the 91-year-old president and install Ennahda leader Rashid Ghannouchi in his place.

Mr Riahi is a latecomer to the secularist Nidaa Tounes Party, having brought in his Free Patriotic Union in October 2018. He claims to have learned of the plot during his time in opposition when, along with other parties, they had discussed Mr Chahed’s proposed power grab.

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The plan, Mr Riahi claimed, was to unfold in three stages.

Firstly, the plotters intended to assume control of Nidaa Tounes, led by the president's son, Hafedh Essebsi. Secondly, they would form an alliance with moderate Islamists Ennahda, before replacing President Essebsi with Mr Ghannouchi in March. In the event they were unable to accomplish their plan, the plotters intended to rely upon force of arms to seize power, Mr Riahi claimed.

"When I discovered the project of this group, I decided to leave and denounce them, as I am for the continuation of the democratic process and against the seizure of power by force," he said. Mr Riahi claims to have corroborating evidence to present to the investigating judge.

The allegations have taken many by surprise, with Mr Chahed, a technocrat and former agronomist an unlikely plotter. Dismissing the accusations, Mr Chahed told politicians on Saturday: "We will not be affected by the remarks of some who consider the return to constitutional legitimacy and the vote of the deputies as a coup."

Nevertheless, the dramatic nature of the accusations risks derailing any hopes of a political reconciliation between President Essebsi and Mr Chahed, whose membership was suspended in September, forcing him to rely upon Ennahda to maintain his position and the confidence of parliament.

“I think Riahi is contributing to Beji Caid Essebsi's campaign against Ennahda and Chahed, trying to influence public opinion in that direction,” political analyst Youssef Cherif told The National. “Whether they are true or false, the comments are a destabilising factor and they carry very dangerous implications.”

Mr Riahi’s approach to a military, rather than civilian court, has also raised questions. “If there was a military side in the case then it would be handled by the military court,” Kais Saied, a Professor of Law at the University of Tunis, told The National. “But if there was no mention of any military involvement, then the military court has nothing to do with the case.”

Mr Riahi himself is a divisive figure. Raised in Libya, he returned to Tunisia after the country’s 2011 revolution. Forming the UPL, as well as establishing an extensive business network, Mr Riahi went on to assume the presidency of one of Tunisia’s best-known football teams, Club Africain in 2012. However, his involvement with the club proved controversial, with his assets being frozen in 2017 on suspicion of money laundering, with fresh corruption charges being laid in the past few days.

Mr Riahi may “perhaps be trying to protect himself [if] there is a legal case against him,” Mr Cherif said. He wondered whether “his recent accusations were accelerated by that, or if he simply went at full speed to make the case against him look like a political response to his comments.”

The military court will now consider Mr Riahi's complaint and may decide to appoint an investigating judge. While there is no time frame for addressing the accusations, they are likely to further polarise Tunisia's parliament ahead of next year's elections irrespective of their validity.