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'Sheratongate' Shakes Tunisian Ruling Party

The scandal implicating Foreign Minister Rafik Abdessalem — the son-in-law of Ennahdha party head Rached Ghannouchi — over expensive hotel bills is yet another challenge to Tunisia’s ruling party and government, reports Mischa Benoit-Lavelle from Tunis.
Tunisia's Minister of Foreign Affairs Rafik Abdessalem attends the 9th Forum for the Future, in Tunis December 13, 2012.  REUTERS/Zoubeir Souissi (TUNISIA - Tags: POLITICS)

TUNIS – Some call it the rise of investigative journalism in Tunisia, others call it an attack by political enemies: a series of embarrassing leaks have damaged the credibility of the ruling Islamist party in this North African country, and exposed cracks in the coalition in which it governs.

The first dirty laundry was aired by blogger Olfa Riahi. Ms. Riahi published bills from the Sheraton Hotel in Tunis showing that Foreign Minister Rafik Abdessalem – the son-in-law of Ennahdha party head Rached Ghannouchi — charged expensive rooms to the ministry account, an apparent misuse of public funds.

The accusations were met with tardy and sometimes contradictory explanations from Mr. Abdessalem.

Just days later, Ms. Riahi went public with another leak. This time, Ms. Riahi presented correspondence indicating that Mr. Abdessalem's Foreign Ministry had received a one million dollar gift from the state of China directly into ministry coffers, which would be in violation of budget and oversight laws.

It was the first time that specific, documented accusations of financial wrongdoing were leveled at the party – not a happy moment for an organization that has sold itself as the morally upright opposite of the old regime.

But perhaps more worrying for Ennahdha than the damage to their reputation is the implication that Ennahdha's political enemies are showing their teeth. The fact that Ms. Riahi, who had no prior experience in investigative journalism, had two scoops concerning the foreign minister within a matter of days have led to speculations that the leaks are politically motivated, and that the coalition governing the country is beginning to break apart.

The coalition of Ennahdha with two secular parties — the Congress for the Republic (CPR) and Ettakatol — has never been an easy one. President of Tunisia Moncef Marzouki, formerly affiliated with the CPR, has repeatedly clashed with Ennahdha, most publicly over the controversial extradition of former Prime Minister of Libya Baghdadi Mahmoudi. The other partner in the coalition, Ettakatol, has remained mostly complicit, much to the chagrin of the party's rank and file, many of whom defected in the months following the formation of the alliance.

That party's docility may be coming to an end. The Ministry of Finances came under Ettakatol's control shortly before Ms. Riahi's revalations, and the British magazine The Economist has reported that the party had access to the documents in questions before Ms. Riahi herself. What's certain is that the party was quick to come to Ms. Riahi's side and has displayed an unshakeable faith in the veracity of her claims.

Mohamed Bennour, the party spokesman, wouldn't confirm that the party had leaked the documents, but did hint that it was privy to insider information regarding the allegations.

“I questioned the departments concerned [in the affair]..and they confirmed to me that the dossiers she presented are unequivocally authentic and that [Mr. Abdessalem] has made mistakes,” he said.

Mr. Bennour went on to say that the scandal would strain his party's relationship with Ennahdha.

“We don't want in any case to make mistakes. If our partners [in the coalition] make mistakes, we can't swallow that,” said Mr. Bennour.

Another recent leak indicates that Ennahdha may have enemies within its own ranks as well. A few days after Ms. Riahi's revelations, the collective blog Nawaat published videos showing prominent businessman – and Rached Ghannouchi critic – Fethi Dammak discussing with two well-connected Ennahdha party members plans to assassinate various public figures. The Ennahdha members were not part of the planned violence – the whole thing was apparently a plan to land Mr. Dammak in jail. They succeeded, but the video nevertheless showed Ennahdha using underhanded and legally questionable tactics to take down a dangerous enemy – a scenario more reminiscent of mafia infighting than professional politics.

Ennahdha's image has also not been helped by its reaction to the leaks – heavy-handed lawsuits that some see as abusing a judiciary which remains yoked to the Ennahdha-controlled Ministry of Justice. Both Ms. Riahi and the bloggers of Nawaat are under investigation from the government prosecutor's office for their allegations. What's more, a judge's order has subjected Ms. Riahi to a travel ban, an unusual move for a case of defamation and libel.

Olivia Gre, the spokeswoman of Reporters Without Borders in Tunisia, considers these measures to constitute a threat to freedom of the press. Ms. Gre explained that judges are refusing to use the post-revolutionary Press Code and instead having recourse to strict, Ben Ali era defamation laws which are meant to apply to ordinary citizens, not journalists.

“There is a real will to prevent journalists from doing investigation,” said Ms. Gre. “It's a case [the case of Ms. Riahi] which is quite...revealing of the repressive spirit of Tunisian judges.”

Those judges, meanwhile, say that they are under pressure from Ennahdha-affiliated Justice Minister Noureddine Bhiri, who has a monopoly on hiring and firing of magistrates. This power has cultivated what Tunisian Association of Judges Vice President Raoudha Karafi called an “atmosphere of apprehension.”

“This atmosphere of apprehension...makes it so that decisions are taken under constraint,” she said.

Ennahdha's political allies seem to be getting fewer and Tunisian media — already a vicious and not always objective critic of the Islamists – has stepped up its vocal attacks. But all is not necessarily lost for the party. Like other Islamist parties, such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Ennahdha's revolutionary bonafides and its perceived piety have made the it the most trustworthy choice for a large portion of the electorate and a few leaks and scandals will probably not be enough to shake that trust.

But if Tunisian journalists keep digging up dirt and the government keeps responding with legal pressure, voters' patience may soon run out.

Mischa Benoit-Lavelle is an American freelance journalist based in Tunis, Tunisia. Before becoming a freelancer, he was a senior editor for Tunisia's first English-language news website, Tunisia Live. He is currently the English-language correspondent from Tunisia for the French news network France 24.

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