Political Tensions Mount amid Sarsar Resignation, Controversial Speech from Essebsi

Top Stories

Electoral Body Head Resigns, Surprising Country

Essebsi Delivers Controversial Speech on Protests, Reconciliation Bill

U.S. Congress Appropriates $165.4 for Tunisia

Journalist Interrogated by Police over Leak


POMED Trip Report

After a recent visit to Tunisia, POMED Deputy Director for Research Amy Hawthorne wrote “Notes from Tunis: A Recent Trip Report” detailing numerous observations on the economic amnesty bill, anti-democratic danger signs, civil society, and more. The post is available here.

Foreign Affairs

U.S. Congress Appropriates $165.4 Million for Tunisia: The U.S. Congress reached a spending deal last week for the Fiscal Year (FY) 2017 omnibus, which includes $165.4 million in bilateral funding for Tunisia. This is an increase from the FY16 level of $141.9 million. The omnibus specifically designates not less than $28.3 million of Tunisia’s $79 million in economic aid for democracy programs. Of that $28.3 million, not less than $5 million is designated “for programs that seek to (1) engage Tunisian youth in political processes, including through participation in political parties and civil society; and (2) empower regional and local governing councils through training focused on budgeting, fiscal policy, decision-making processes, and engagement with local civil society organizations.” Regarding the increased funding level, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) tweeted, “Tunisia’s democratic future is too important – our funding must meet our objectives.”

Johnson Promises to Lift British Travel Warning: British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson promised to revise the travel warning for Tunisia, as he made a brief visit to Tunisia on Wednesday evening en route to Libya. Following the June 2015 Sousse attack in which 30 British tourists were killed, the British government recommended that its citizens leave Tunisia and advised against any nonessential travel to the country. “Tunisia now offers the same level of security as in the biggest capitals of Europe, thanks to the close security co-ordination with its partners, in particular the United Kingdom,” Johnson stressed. According to a statement released by the Foreign Affairs Department, he also emphasized the desire to broaden UK investments in Tunisia and to diversify the fields to encompass new niches such as training, education, communication technologies, and finance.

Minister Creates Diplomatic Dispute with Algeria: Tunisian Minister of Local Affairs and the Environment Riadh Mouakher caused a diplomatic dispute when he described Algeria as a “communist country.” Ennahda and Nidaa Tounes condemned the comment after Algeria summoned the Tunisian ambassador to demand an explanation. Mouakher had been attending a conference in Rome when he made this remark, and has since apologized.

Domestic News

President of Election Body Resigns: Seven months ahead of planned municipal elections in Tunisia, President of the High Independent Commission for Elections (ISIE) Chafik Sarsar announced his surprise resignation on Tuesday, along with ISIE Vice President Mourad Moualhi and ISIE member Lamia Zargouni. Sarsar stated that “sinceFebruary 10 and the arrival of new ISIE members, differences of opinion have deepened and led to a heavy environment.” Sarsar said that the departing members will continue their work until their replacements are appointed. Zargouni told AFP that “we are people who respect each other and respect the Constitution,” adding that the Commission has suffered from several “conflicts.” Ennahda spokesman Imed Khemiri, Nidaa Tounes leader in Parliament Sofien Toubel, and presidential adviser Saida Garrache each expressed surprise at the decision.

The Parliamentary Commission of Interior Regulation, Immunity, Parliamentary and Electoral Laws has asked Sarsar to appear at a hearing on May 10 to explain in more detail the reasons for his resignation. Several rumors have been circulating regarding the motivation behind the resignations, including the possibility of a referendum to expand the presidential mandate, as well as alleged political party interference in the ISIE’s operations.

President Essebsi Gives Controversial Speech: Following Chafik Sarsar’s surprise resignation, President Beji Caid Essebsi addressed the nation on May 10. With regard to the ISIE resignations, Essebsi criticized Sarsar for putting his own needs above the needs of the country, and made veiled critiques of civil society for allegedly undermining the work of the government. In response to protestors blockading gas fields in southern Tunisia, Essebsi announced that the Tunisian army would “protect” production sites from demonstrators on behalf of all Tunisians. Protesters in Tataouine have organized a meeting to formulate a response. Tarek Haddad, spokesman for the El Kamour sit-in in Tataouine, stated that Essebsi’s decision serves no other purpose but to protect the interests of foreign companies and that peaceful protests will continue. Essebsi also stated that the controversial economic reconciliation bill is the way to pull the country out of its current economic crisis, while criticizing those opposed to the bill for questioning the role of the legislative branch. Spokesperson of the Mashrou’ Tounes Hsouna Nasfi said [Ar] the speech “lacked initiatives and solutions” to ongoing problems, while Samia Abou of the Democratic Current Party called [Ar] Essebsi the “head of the mafia, not a president of the Republic” and accused him of putting the interests of “opportunists who embezzle the country’s riches before the interest of the people.

Interrogation of Journalist Exasperates Concerns Over Press Freedom: Co-founder and director of  the website Nawaat Sami Ben Gharabia was interrogated by the police after publishing an article on the president’s strategy for defending the controversial economic reconciliation law. Ben Gharbia said he was interrogated on Wednesday for “stealing documents and divulging secrets” based on a leaked document the website had received. A press release accused the police of harassment, stating that “this is the fourth time that Gharabia has been summoned by the authorities in less than a year.” In its own press release, the National Tunisian Journalist Syndicate (SNJT) denounced “the pressure of the presidency of the Republic,” while Reporters Without Borders (RSF) condemned the interrogation “in the strongest terms.” On April 21, Nawaat published an article presenting a summary of a presidential meeting on defending the economic reconciliation draft law in the media. Ben Gharbia told AFP that the interrogators had asked him to name his source, which he refused to do as part of his job is to protect journalists.Najia Bounaim, North Africa Campaigns Director at Amnesty International, said, “This incident sends a worrying signal that the Tunisian authorities are willing to clamp down on the right to freedom of expression and suggests that journalists who are critical of the authorities could be punished for carrying out their legitimate work.”

Debate Surrounding Economic Reconciliation Law Continues: On May 10, 33 civil society organizations and political parties expressed their categorical rejection of the economic reconciliation law proposed by the president and called for a demonstration against the bill on May 13 in Tunis. A similar protest was held in Gafsa on May 6. Secretary General of the Democratic Alliance Mohamed Hamdi said on May 6 that the law presents no benefits and should be considered a whitewashing of corruption. The bill, previously introduced in 2016, provides amnesty for those found guilty of corruption committed under the Ben Ali regime in exchange for the return of the funds and a fine. It was reintroduced to debate in the parliament on April 26.

Participants in a workshop on the draft law organized by the Truth and Dignity Commission (IVD) were unanimous in rejecting the draft, according to a press release posted by the IVD. Filipo De Carpina, representative of the United Nations Development Program, said that the draft law “does not contribute to boosting the economy,” recalling Tunisia’s commitment to the international conventions on fight against corruption.

Officials Respond to Rising Inflation: The Tunisian National Institute of Statistics (INS) announced on May 6 that the inflation rate reached 5 percent in April 2017. A few weeks before the month of Ramadan, the INS reported price spikes of 11.5 percent in vegetable prices, 13.6 percent in edible oils, 5.8 percent in fish, and 3.6 percent in meat prices.  Minister of Development, Investment and International Cooperation and Interim Finance Minister Fadhel Abdelkefi said on May 4 that the current situation of state-owned banks requires far-reaching reforms and restructuring to equip them with greater efficiency and better capacity to finance the economy. Governor of the Central Bank of Tunisia Chedly Ayari urged “patriotism” and called upon financial actors and economic players to show restraint to protect the value of the Dinar and iron out what he called “a minor currency crisis.” The General Tunisian Labor Union (UGTT) Secretary General Noureddine Yaboubiannounced on May 5 that the union is preparing an action plan to resolve the economic and social crisis the country is currently facing.

Protests Continue in Marginalized Regions: On May 9, participants in the El Kamour oil field sit ins presented a final list of demands, including the creation of 4,500 jobs and 100 million dinar ($41 million) for regional development. The demonstrators have been blocking roads to the Tataouine oil field since April 23, demanding that foreign companies make a greater effort to hire locally. Tataouine residents held a demonstration on Sunday in support of the sit-in participants. The road connecting Dhehiba to the border post reopened Monday, after being blocked for two weeks, following dialogue with the protesters. Youth from Dhehiba had blocked this road in solidarity with the El Kamour sit-in.

On May 5, a general strike was held in Kasserine governorate in solidarity with unemployed youth, who have been blocking the main road linking the town and the Algerian city of Tebessa since May 3. Locals decried the indifference of central and regional authorities, and demanded the implementation of a 2016 agreement with the government stipulating that a member of each needy family receive state employment.

Also Worth Reading

Blocked Transition: Corruption and Regionalism in Tunisia
International Crisis Group