Tunisia Weekly Update: Tunisian Blogger Imprisoned for Defamation

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Tunisian Blogger Imprisoned for Defamation

Kebili Sit-In Negotiations Fail

Ghannouchi Interview Continues to Spark Debate

IMF Report Expresses Cautious Optimism

Domestic News

Tunisian Blogger Imprisoned for Defamatory Posts: Nabil Rabhi, a Tunisian blogger who was arrested [Fr] on July 23 due to his Facebook posts allegedly insulting public figures, was sentenced [Fr] on August 5 to six months in prison and fined 1200 dinars (around $500). In his social media posts, published on July 21, Rabhi criticized Hafedh Caïd Essebsi, the executive director of the Nidaa Tounes Party, and son of the Tunisian president, Nidaa Tounes parliamentarian Sofiène Toubel, and Nidaa Tounes’s communications officer, Borhène Bsaies.  Rabhi also was charged for defaming the President and his family. His Facebook commentary can be found here [Ar].

Kebili Sit-In Negotiations Fail: On August 4, representatives of the Kebili sit-in met with a government delegation, led by Minister of Social Affairs Mohamed Trabelsi, to negotiate the renewal of gas and oil production in the region. The Kebili sit-in, situated in the south west region of Tunisia, has been ongoing since May 2017 and has extended beyond the similar Tataouine sit-in, which ended [Fr] on June 15. The protesters presented 214 demands to the government, 80 percent of which the government approved [Fr], including a five-million dinar increase in regional social responsibility programs, the creation of 600 jobs under the Tunisian-German Program for Economic Stability and Youth Employment, and several other employment programs. Nevertheless, this round of negotiation ended again without any signed agreement.

The main reason for the stalemate [Fr] appears to be the demonstrators’ unfulfilled request to negotiate directly with official petroleum company representatives. Secretary of State for Public Property and Land Affairs Mabrouk Kourchid expressed his frustration with the sit-in, stating, “We came here with an open mind to seek solutions. But unfortunately, the protesters have asked to negotiate directly with representatives of the oil companies, which in itself constitutes an attack on the sovereignty of the state.” After 18 hours of negotiation, the government delegation returned to Tunis. The sit-in continues to block oil and gas pumps, suspending production at Kebili.

Ghannouchi Interview Continues to Spark Controversy: The August 1 Nessma TV interview [Fr] with Ennahda Party leader Rached Ghannouchi (covered in detail here) and his apparent recommendation to Prime Minister Youssef Chahed not to seek the presidency in 2019 continues to provoke debate in Tunisia. Abdelkarim Harouni, the chairman of the Shura Council of Ennahda, announced [Fr] in an August 6 press conference that the council supports Ghannouchi’s remarks, saying that they “are official and represent the party.” Nevertheless, Harouni assured [Fr] that “these statements should not be interpreted as a move opposing the national unity government, which we support.”

On August 7, Secretary General of the Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT) Nouredine Taboubi called Ghannouchi’s remarks “inappropriate.” He insisted that “the 2014 Tunisian constitution stipulates that every Tunisian has the right to run in the presidential election” and “no one has the right to block the political ambitions of anyone else.” The Al-Massar Party also reacted to Ghannouchi’s interview, stating that the right to run as a candidate is a constitutional right protected by law. The party announced [Fr], “No one has the right to put limits on the sovereignty of the people.” The Afek Tounes Party released a statement warning that “prematurely raising this question [2019 elections] can threaten political stability and threaten the legitimate constitutional right of each Tunisian citizen.”

Port Employees Prevent European Boat from Docking: On August 6, port employees and representatives of civil society gathered [Fr] at the Zarzis fishing port on Tunisia’s southeastern coast to prevent the docking of a boat leased by the European right-wing group “Generation Identity.” The C-Star, funded through a “Generation Identity” crowdfunding campaign for the “Defend Europe” mission, was sent to intercept and foil attempts of illegal migration to Europe as well as to return migrants to the African coast. Generation Identity accuses [Fr] NGOs of “smuggling hundreds of thousands of illegal migrants into Europe” and promises to “do something to oppose it.” The group’s initiative was denounced by humanitarian organizations as a potentially dangerous publicity stunt. The boat was scheduled to dock in Tunisia in order to refuel and restock its supplies.

In an August 7 Facebook post, UGTT joined [Fr] the employees of the Zarzis and Sfax ports in calling on Tunisian port employees to “prohibit the racist ship from accessing our ports.” A security source told [Fr] Mosaique FM that the boat is en route to Sicily, where many refugees arrive when saved from shipwrecks by NGOs. The mayor [Fr] of one Sicilian town has already announced that he would refuse entry to the boat.

ISIE Launches Pro-Democracy Video Game: On August 4, the Independent High Authority for Elections (ISIE) announced [Fr] the launch of a video game called “Run for Democracy” in an effort to garner youth participation in the December 2017 municipal elections. This game was developed by four Tunisian youth at the first national Hack4democracy camp. According to a statement published by the ISIE, “The game consists of choosing an avatar and running on Habib Bourguiba Avenue or in a desert environment of southern Tunisia to be the first to register to vote in municipal elections. This game guides Tunisian youth through a race to democracy and provides them with easy and useful information on registration and voting.” Government officials hope that the game will become an effective means of guiding young people through the voting process.

Foreign Affairs

IMF Report Expresses Cautious Optimism: The International Monetary Fund (IMF) sent [Fr] a mission to Tunisia from July 26 to August 3 to examine the state of the economy and the effectiveness of ongoing reforms. The mission met with Acting Minister of Finance and Minister of Development Fadhel Abdelkefi, Chief of Staff Ridha Chalghoum, and Governor of the Central Bank of Tunisia Chedly Ayari. In its report, the IMF expressed [Fr] cautious optimism about the future of reforms and development in Tunisia. “The prospects of the Tunisian economy are slowly improving, but challenges remain. Growth is on track to reach 2.3 percent in 2017, supported by the recovery in phosphates, agriculture, and tourism. However, structural constraints on the economy continue to weigh on exports.” The report warned that “it is essential for Tunisia to control its 2018 budget.”

In an interview on August 5, Robert Blotevogel, the Resident Representative of the IMF for Tunisia, stated, “There are very important advances in terms of reform implementation, the business environment seems to be improving, growth is resuming.” He added, “Our goal is to achieve accelerated economic growth and create more jobs for young people, especially as social tensions persist, which shows that economic performance has not lived up to the Tunisian population’s expectations.”

Unofficial Parliamentary Delegation Visits Syria: A delegation composed of nine People’s Assembly of Representatives (ARP) deputies, led by Popular Front deputy M’barka Aouainiatraveled unofficially [Fr] to Syria on August 4. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad received [Fr] the delegation on August 7. During their meeting, al-Assad highlighted [Fr] the need for Arab parliaments to start “a dialogue about the present situation of [Syria] and its future.” The Tunisian delegation stressed that its meeting with the Syrian head of state was motivated by the desire to express the “Tunisian people’s support [for] the Syrian people.” Tunisian deputies also welcomed “the process of reconciliation in Syria and the Syrian determination to rebuild the country.”

According to an Al-Horra deputy within the delegation, this visit demonstrates the will of the Tunisian people and the parliament to resume relations with Syria. Nevertheless, the ARP Head of Information and Communication, Mongi Harbaouiexplained that “it is not an official parliamentary delegation; the ARP Bureau did not issue an authorization. This visit was the initiative of a group of deputies.” Foreign Minister Khemaies Jhinaoui explained Tunisia’s official stance towards Syria in an August 8 interview, stating [Fr], “What interests us in Syria is how to help this country emerge from the crisis, how to maintain the ceasefire, and how to help find a way out of the political crisis.”

This trip follows the visit of a UGTT delegation to Syria last week. UGTT Deputy Secretary General Bouali Mbarki defended the UGTT trip, claiming [Fr] that, “Those who are against our visit to Syria are those who align themselves with the Salafist movement and terrorism. To be against our trip is to be against democracy.” While the UGTT delegation was not officially sanctioned by the Tunisian government either, Jhinaoui announced [Fr] on August 8 that, “We are not opposed to such visits even if they are not made in coordination with our services.”

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