Tunisia prepares for polls after death of president

Parliament Speaker Mohamed Ennaceur, 3rd from the left, was sworn as an interim president as per the Tunisian constitution. (File/AFP)
Updated 26 July 2019

Tunisia prepares for polls after death of president

  • The government declared a state of mourning which will last for 7 days
  • Electoral commission says presidential polls will “probably” be held on September 15

TUNIS: Tunisia has less than two months to organize snap elections following the death of president Beji Caid Essebsi, amid uncertainty over who could step forward to run the North African country.

Essebsi, the country’s first head of state elected in nationwide polls, died Thursday at the age of 92, triggering fears of political unrest in a country seen as a rare success story following the Arab Spring uprisings.

Newspapers on Friday paid tribute to “the father of consensus,” while festivals were canceled and the government declared seven days of mourning.

“Our pain is great, our sorrow is immense,” read an editorial in French language daily Le Temps.

Essebsi’s body was set to be taken from the military hospital of Tunis on Friday to the presidential palace in nearby Carthage for a private burial.

Within hours of Essebsi’s death, parliament speaker Mohamed Ennaceur was sworn in as interim president, who under the constitution has 90 days to organize a presidential election.

The electoral commission said the poll would “probably” be held on September 15, two months earlier than planned.

Foreign governments including that of former colonial power France have hailed Essebsi’s role in Tunisia’s democratic transition, with nearby Algeria and Mauritania declaring three days of mourning.

The main funeral ceremony is to take place on Saturday in the presence of several foreign heads of state, according to Prime Minister Youssef Chahed.

The birthplace of the Arab Spring revolts, Tunisia is the only country affected by the uprisings to have pushed through democratic reforms — despite political unrest, a sluggish economy and extremist attacks.

Extremists have staged repeated deadly attacks since the overthrow of Ben Ali, raising fears for the country’s fragile democracy and throttling its tourism industry.

Following Ben Ali’s departure, Essebsi founded the secularist Nidaa Tounes (Call of Tunis) party, which he led to victory at the polls in 2014.

The party formed a coalition with the Islamist-inspired Ennahdha, which lasted four years before the two parties split.

But Nidaa Tounes has struggled to overcome bitter internal divisions between premier Chahed and the president’s son, Hafedh Caid Essebsi, leading to the premier being sidelined from Nidaa Tounes and forming his own rival party, Tahia Tounes.

The president’s death also comes amid a debate over who will be able to run in the next presidential elections.

Essebsi neither rejected nor enacted an amended electoral code passed by parliament in June that would bar the way for several strong candidates including media magnate Nabil Karoui.

Karoui, who has formed a political party, was charged with money laundering this month after he stated his intention to stand.

The presidential election, along with a parliamentary vote that had been set for October, also comes despite the fact that eight years after the Arab Spring, Tunisia has yet to set up a constitutional court.

Despite the uncertainty, Chahed hailed a “peaceful transfer of power,” while interim leader Ennaceur vowed that “the state will continue to function.”

“The people are pleased to know that their country is a democratic state, not an emirate,” former parliament speaker Adel Bsili wrote on Twitter.

An editorial in French-language daily La Presse agreed.

“Tunisians... have passed the test to prove to the entire world that Tunisia is a democratic country.”


Never insulted Erdogan? You’re eligible to stay in a Turkish student dormitory

Updated 10 April 2021

Never insulted Erdogan? You’re eligible to stay in a Turkish student dormitory

  • Students who have been convicted for a prison term of more than six months — or for insulting Erdogan— will be unable to stay in dormitories
  • The move was criticized by rights groups as politically motivated

JEDDAH: A surprise amendment to the regulation of dormitory services under the Youth and Sports Ministry was adopted and published in the Official Gazette on Friday.
Under the amendment, students who have been convicted for a prison term of more than six months — or for insulting the Turkish president — will be unable to stay in student dormitories.
The move was criticized by rights groups as politically motivated.
Between 2014 and 2019, 128,872 investigations were launched into cases of insults against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and prosecutors launched 27,717 criminal cases about these alleged insults.
Turkish courts sentenced 9,556 of those charged with insulting the president, including politicians, journalists and even children. A total of 903 minors between the ages of 12 and 17 appeared in court on this charge.
In 2018, a 14-year-old boy was prosecuted over an Instagram post that allegedly insulted the president. Although he was sentenced to five months in jail, it was later turned into an administrative fine.
Several students from Bogazici University were recently charged with “insulting the president” during protests against the appointment of a ruling party loyalist, Melih Bulu, as the rector of the university, one of the most prestigious in the country.
An open letter in which they addressed the president, reiterating their demands and seeking to enjoy their constitutional rights, was also subjected to criminal proceedings with charges of insulting Erdogan.
Separately, Turkey’s main opposition Peoples’ Republican Party (CHP) faced an investigation after banners were put up in the northwestern province of Mudanya.
On the banners, which were taken down within hours, the CHP asked about a $128 billion hole in the Turkish Central Bank’s foreign reserves.
For a couple of months, the CHP has been raising the issue of accountability as to where and how these reserves have been spent since 2019.
Durmus Yilmaz, former head of the Turkish Central Bank, has also called for an investigation to determine how these huge and much-needed reserves were spent.
The opposition claims that the reserves might have been spent to support the Turkish lira against foreign currencies, while Erdogan said that the money was used in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic.
The chief public prosecutor will investigate the party officials — who will be charged with insulting the president — for being involved in the preparation and display of the banners on the billboards for a couple of hours.
“The name of the president does not appear anywhere on the posters. I’m wondering what they thought about when opening such an investigation,” Zeynep Gurcanli, a senior journalist, tweeted.
The decision triggered a nationwide social media protest, with thousands of people tweeting: “Where is the 128 billion dollars?”


Disappointed Lebanese protesters return to street, demanding end of deadlock

Updated 11 min 11 sec ago

Disappointed Lebanese protesters return to street, demanding end of deadlock

  • “Soldiers can no longer provide for their families or even pay transportation to and from work,” Akar said
  • 170 days have passed since Hariri’s nomination to form a new government

BEIRUT: Heavy rainfall on Saturday afternoon prevented large numbers of people from participating in a “Day of Rage” in the heart of Beirut, declared by the Oct. 17 groups demanding a transitional government with exceptional legislative powers.

These groups are trying to reactivate protests against the political class that they accuse of corruption.

Waddah Sadek, deputy head of the “I Am a Red Line” initiative, told Arab News: “We support these protests. The aim on this day was to mobilize school and university students to take to the streets and encourage people to gradually return to the streets to express their anger. Protest squares have been empty in the past few months due to the coronavirus and people are disappointed as demos did not manage to make any change on the governmental level.”

Sadek talked about “the recent mistakes of protesters, caused by some disputes over minor issues that could have been avoided.”

Sadek said that “the main revolutionary groups, opposing political parties, independent politicians and intellectual figures will announce the formation of an opposition political front by the end of April, that has a political program aiming to form a rescue government that would save the country.

“The current political class is unable to form an alternative government. Any government they form will only be the same as the current one,” he said.

Judge Shoukri Sader, who served as head of the State Shoura Council before retiring, told Arab News: “If protesters do not unite, the same politicians will be elected in 2022. Those in power now are seeking to divide us. If we present three electoral lists in the next parliamentary elections, they will beat us. Today, we are risking our own presence. We cannot remain divided; therefore, we are forming a political front to unify votes and priorities.”

He added: “We cannot play their game; they disagree on the government’s nature and quota. We, on the other hand, must unite and put the small details aside.

“Large groups of protesters are communicating via Whatsapp and Facebook and each one of them has their own demands and opinions. What is required of these groups at this point is to be mature and aware, before actually trying to wake up the silent majority of Lebanese who are suffering.

“Activists must agree on the priorities and must not force others to follow them. People quit their political parties and joined us not to be forced to follow opposing politicians and partisans nor to be marginalized.

“The top priority we should agree on is the rejection of Hezbollah’s arms. We must reclaim the decision of the state from its kidnappers. Our second priority is restoring the provisions of the constitution because the Lebanese constitution includes all our sovereignty demands; the neutrality of Lebanon, a parliamentary republic and a free economic system. Therefore, let us cut to the chase and call for early elections and a transitional government. The country is collapsing.”

He said: “President Michel Aoun’s experience in power has been unsuccessful, from the War of Liberation in the 1980s, the War of Cancellation until his current mandate. He has only done the opposite of what he promised and has put his personal interests above the national interests. We are aware that in Lebanon, revolutions are doomed to fail, and we are also aware that a new civil war is impossible since there is no equity among fighters in the presence of Hezbollah’s arms. Chaos might prevail and this is what is making us wait for the constitutional deadlines to make the change.”

One hundred and seventy days have passed since Saad Hariri’s nomination to form a new government, yet officials are still swapping responsibilities and accusations without establishing any social security network for the poor and needy amid the worsening economic collapse.

Zeina Akar, defense minister in the caretaker government, shed light on the living situation of soldiers during a visit she made to a town in the Bekaa valley. She said that soldiers’ salaries had lost 85 percent of their value against the US dollar. “Soldiers can no longer provide for their families or even pay transportation to and from work,” she said.

Akar urged soldiers “not to slip into anything that could prevent them from performing their duties because they represent the safety valve protecting Lebanon’s sovereignty and people, and preserving its security and stability.”


As Black Sea ‘boils,’ Ankara tries to strike balance between Russia, US 

Updated 10 April 2021

As Black Sea ‘boils,’ Ankara tries to strike balance between Russia, US 

  • In line with the convention, Washington notified Ankara about its future deployment of vessels to the Black Sea on April 9, 15 days before they are due to do so
  • The warships are expected to stay in the area until May 4

ANKARA: The US decision to sail two warships through the Turkish Straits has sparked anger from Russia and may trigger a new standoff with Turkey, amid talk of a possible revision of the 1936 Montreux Convention.
Under the terms of the agreement, Turkey is granted the authority to control its Bosphorus and Dardanelles straits, including the passage, the tonnage and the duration of stay of foreign warships.
In line with the convention, Washington notified Ankara about its future deployment of vessels to the Black Sea on April 9, 15 days before they are due to do so, in a move to support Ukraine against increasing Russian activity on the country’s eastern border. The warships are expected to stay in the area until May 4. 
“We are concerned by recent escalating Russian aggression in eastern Ukraine, including the credible reports about Russian troop movements on Ukraine’s borders and occupied Crimea,” US State Department spokesperson Ned Price said last week. 
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky visited Istanbul on Saturday to attend the ninth high-level strategic council meeting between the two countries. The pair have increased their defense cooperation in recent years, with Ukraine purchasing unmanned combat aerial vehicles and ground control stations from Turkey.
However, the passage of the US warships and the visit of Zelensky drew a negative reaction from Moscow. Russian President Vladimir Putin held a phone call with his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to discuss developments in Ukraine.
A statement issued by the Kremlin revealed that Putin stressed the importance of preserving the current status of the Montreux Convention, and that he had also blamed Ukraine for carrying out “dangerous provocative activities” in the eastern Donbas region.
The presence of two warships might escalate tensions in the region, experts say. 
Aydin Sezer, an expert on Russia-Turkey relations, told Arab News: “The Biden administration made its Russia policy crystal clear: It wants to contain that country and consolidate NATO toward this goal, to restore transatlantic ties that were undermined during the previous Trump period.
“During Friday’s phone call, Putin reminded (Erdogan) of the bilateral commitments in Syria’s rebel-held Idlib region and the previous cooperation protocols. The tourism embargo is also significant as the Russian side knows that it is Turkey’s Achilles heel,” Sezer added. 
Turkey, which relies in tourism, was the most popular holiday destination for Russian tourists before the outbreak of the coronavirus disease pandemic, with over 6.7 million visiting the country in 2019. The pandemic severely disrupted global tourism, and on Monday Russia will reportedly restrict air traffic with Turkey for a month due to the virus. 
“In an ideal world, Turkey should remain neutral in this crisis, and it should also calm down NATO,” Sezer continued. “Otherwise, a serious crisis with Russia is likely to emerge, like … when Turkey shot down a Russian warplane in November 2015.”  
The future of the convention was brought into focus earlier this month, after 104 retired Turkish admirals released a controversial declaration on April 3 to warn the government over the artificial waterway project, dubbed Kanal Istanbul, to ease shipping traffic through the Bosphorus, claiming the project would open the convention to discussion and result in Turkey’s loss of absolute sovereignty over the Sea of Marmara.  
Erdogan said on April 5 that his government had no “intention to leave the Montreux Convention,” but added that it could be reviewed in the future in case of necessity.  
For Dr. Emre Ersen, an expert on Turkey-Russia relations from Marmara University in Istanbul, the latest developments in the Black Sea should be alarming for Ankara considering that Turkish foreign policy in this region has traditionally been based on striking a perfect balance between the West and Russia. 
“Even though it has become more difficult to maintain this balance after the developments in Ukraine and Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, the Montreux Convention still provides Ankara with the opportunity to implement the same policy,” he told Arab News. 
Ersen added that the Biden administration will exert more pressure on Turkey to actively cooperate with NATO in the Black Sea, considering the US president’s personal interest in Ukraine. 
“However, if Turkey decides to take action outside the framework of the Montreux Convention, this would inevitably create significant tensions with Russia which could spill over into vital issues like Syria and bilateral economic relations,” he said.


Egypt, Tunisia presidents: ‘We fully support’ Libyan peace process

Updated 17 min 58 sec ago

Egypt, Tunisia presidents: ‘We fully support’ Libyan peace process

  • The two leaders held “extensive and constructive” talks Saturday at Cairo’s Ittihadiya palace
  • Leaders demanded the exit of foreign forces and fighters from Libya

CAIRO: Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi and Tunisian President Kais Saied agreed to support Libya’s peaceful transition in a Cairo meeting on Saturday.

El-Sisi received the Tunisian leader at the Federal Palace, where an official reception ceremony was held.

The spokesman for the Egyptian presidency said that a single session of talks was held, followed by expanded discussions between delegations from the two countries.

“We confirmed our readiness to provide all forms of support in a way that can manage the transitional phase and hold elections at the end of this year,” El-Sisi said.

He added: “We discussed the developments of the Libyan crisis … we welcomed the formation of the executive authority in Libya.”

El-Sisi urged the importance of ending foreign interference in the crisis-hit country, coupled with an exit of all foreign forces, fighters and militia groups.

He called for steps that guarantee stability, the preservation of Libyan sovereignty and territorial integrity, and welcomed the formation of the new Libyan executive authority.

The Palestine issue was also discussed by the two leaders. “We affirmed the continuation of efforts to support Palestinian efforts as the central issue of the Arab world,” El-Sisi said.

The pair agreed on the importance of a two-state solution and the establishment of an independent Palestinian state, he added.

The Egyptian leader said that cultural cooperation was also an important subject of the meeting, especially addressing the dangers of intellectual extremism facing the Arab world.

As part of the cooperation, the two leaders called on the international community to present a comprehensive approach to address extremism.

El-Sisi and Saied declared that 2021 and 2022 will be “years of Egyptian-Tunisian culture” through the activation of cultural and artistic activities between the countries. “This reflects our common history and existing communication,” El-Sisi said.

He added that there will be a focus on strengthening effective communication channels between the two sides at the economic level, maximizing trade and investment.

Saied praised Egypt’s achievements in past years in the security and development sectors, which led to the “restoration of its effective role at the regional and international levels.”

He said that the change had “positive implications” for joint African and Arab action, including efforts to reach political settlements in the region.

The issue of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam was also discussed. Saied hailed Egyptian efforts to reach a fair and comprehensive agreement on the rules for filling and operating the dam.


Pentagon chief to visit Israel amid Iran talks

Updated 10 April 2021

Pentagon chief to visit Israel amid Iran talks

  • US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin is due to arrive in Jerusalem on Sunday

JERUSALEM: US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin is due to arrive in Jerusalem on Sunday, the highest ranked member of President Joe Biden’s administration to visit Israel.
The two-day visit comes as the Biden administration attempts to return to an Iran nuclear deal abandoned by its predecessor — a deal Israel opposes.
Austin is expected to meet Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Benny Gantz and armed forces chief Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi.
The trip will also include a tour of the Nevatim air force base and visits to the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial and to a Jerusalem memorial to fallen soldiers.
Austin arrives days after representatives of the remaining parties to the troubled 2015 nuclear deal launched talks in Vienna on bringing the United States back into it.
Then president Donald Trump withdrew from the deal in 2018.
The Vienna talks are focused not only on lifting crippling economic sanctions Trump reimposed, but also on bringing Iran back into compliance after it responded by suspending several of its own commitments.
All sides said the talks, in which Washington is not participating directly but has the European Union as intermediary, had got off to a good start.
Israel opposes the US attempt to rejoin the accord.
Speaking last week, Netanyahu said Israel would not be bound by its terms.
“An agreement with Iran that would pave the way to nuclear weapons — weapons that threaten our extinction — would not compel us in any way,” Netanyahu said in a speech on the eve of Holocaust Remembrance Day.
Iran and Israel have both recently attacked each other’s commercial shipping, reports say.
Austin will also visit Germany, the United Kingdom and Belgium on his tour, according to the Pentagon.

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