Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 20 November 2019

Tunisian election in turmoil as frontrunner arrested but remains in the running

Media mogul and presidential candidate Nabil Karoui is charged with money laundering and tax evasion, but has remained in the running

Tunisian businessman Nabil Karoui, owner of the private channel Nessma TV, was arrested last Friday. Reuters
Tunisian businessman Nabil Karoui, owner of the private channel Nessma TV, was arrested last Friday. Reuters

The fallout from the Friday arrest of Nessma TV boss and presidential frontrunner Nabil Karoui continues to roil Tunisia’s political sphere, sharply exposing the fractured nature of the country’s political life, with all sides claiming to be fighting for the future of the country.

Media mogul Mr Karoui, candidate for the secular Heart of Tunisia party, was arrested on Friday on charges of money laundering and tax evasion. The charges stem from a 2016 accusation by the anti-corruption watchdog, IWatch.

As part of the trial, which has run concurrent to much of the campaigning period, Mr Karoui and his brother, Ghazi, had their assets frozen and were ordered to remain in Tunisia.

Ghazi’s whereabouts are currently unknown, but he is rumoured to have fled the country.

Despite his arrest, Mr Karoui’s presidential ambitions remain undimmed. Speaking through his lawyers on Monday, he urged his supporters to maintain momentum and make their intentions known at the ballot box on September 15.

Should he win, Mr Karoui could theoretically be elected President of Tunisia from one of the country's prisons.

Mr Karoui’s supporters, and the television network he owns, accuse his bitterest rival, Prime Minister Youssef Chahed, of complicity in the arrest.

Some of his political rivals agreed with this assessment. Abdelfattah Mourou, the candidate for moderate Islamists Ennahda and Mr Karoui’s most formidable rival in the Presidential race, termed the arrest “dangerous.”

Likewise, Tunisia’s former acting Prime Minister, Mehdi Jomaa - also a candidate - criticised the arrest, warning against the judiciary becoming instrumentalised in the service of government, a sentiment echoed across much of Tunisia’s political spectrum, from the general trade union to the League for Human Rights.

It wasn’t until Tuesday that Mr Chahed, who has temporarily relinquished his Prime Ministerial duties as he campaigns for President, responded to the accusations against him.

Speaking to Mosaique FM, he stressed both the independence of Tunisia’s judiciary and denied any involvement in Mr Karoui’s detention.

Instead, he told the radio station that he had been targeted as a result of his “open war” against corruption. Mr Chahed's campaign against corruption has seen his administration take a number of high profile scalps. However, corruption remains an endemic problem for the North African country, undermining any claim of the campaign having shifted a long standing culture of kick backs and bribes.

Responding to longstanding accusations of his dictatorial ambitions levelled at him by Mr Karoui and others, Mr Chahed said, “It's true, Tunisia is threatened by a dictatorship, but that of the mafia, the media and the political mafia,” in an apparent reference to Mr Karoui’s television networks and the closely knit network of former political bedmates now lined up against him, not least the those from his former party Nidaa Tounes.

Voters have a wide field of candidates to choose from on September 15. Twenty-six candidates are running for president following the death of Nidaa Jounes leader Beji Caid Essebsi last month aged 92. Mr Essebsi was the first head of state to be democratically elected in Tunisia following the popular uprising of 2011.

Despite his current status as the leader of Heart of Tunisia, Mr Karoui, along with President Essebsi, had previously helped found Mr Chahed’s former party, Nidaa Tounes. Mr Karoui later left Nidaa Tounes in 2017 in protest over the dynastic ambitions of the deceased President’s son, Hafedh Caid Essebsi. Nevertheless, a lukewarm reconciliation appears to be underway, with both Mr Essebsi and Mr Karoui forming a tentative united front against their common enemy, Mr Chahed.

Mr Chahed has a storied history with Nidaa Tounes. After being appointed Prime Minister in 2016, he was suspended from the party in September 2018 after gaining enough support from the party’s former partners in government, Ennahda, to steer a course independent of his political masters and, in so doing, earning their long standing enmity.

“I think that the acrimony is about personal and power ambitions,” Dr Hamza Meddeb a specialist in Tunisian affairs from the European University Institute explained, citing the absence of any philosophical or political divide between Mr Karoui and Mr Chahed.

“Both are political entrepreneurs aiming at playing a primary role in the political sphere. What served Chahed well was being head of government and using the state to protect himself from attacks of [Hafedh Caid Essebsi] and other entrepreneurs and to build his own party,” Mr Meddeb said.

“Karoui took another path: building a populist movement based on charity and using the media to get a large outreach. Now, the imprisonment of Karoui might benefit him. He will be depicted as a victim of the system,” Dr Meddeb concluded.

Irrespective of the differences between the two men, the rift that began within the ranks of Nidaa Tounes continues to fuel headlines and may ultimately serve the ends of the secular parties’ principal ideological opponents, Ennahda.

Updated: August 29, 2019 07:14 PM

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