TUNIS, Tunisia — A recent rumor that Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi had died sparked controversy in the country’s popular and political circles. Essebsi, the world's oldest democratically elected head of state, celebrated his 91st birthday Nov. 29.
The rumor flared up Nov. 17 after a false story about Essebsi’s death was posted in Arabic on a fake Facebook account claiming to belong to the France 24 TV channel. On Nov. 27, France 24 said it was initiating legal proceedings against those who illegally used its logo to promote the rumor of the president's death, according to Tunisian news websites.
Initial investigations into the matter revealed a political party was involved, presidential spokeswoman Saida Garrach told Shems, a private radio station, on Nov. 20. Garrach said two people were detained Nov. 19 after an investigation and admitted being affiliated with a specific political party. She declined to name the party until an investigation is completed.
Garrach's statement opened the door to a wide debate about whether the rumor was designed to be a psychological sparring tool between Tunisian political opponents and as a means to settle accounts between the ruling parties and the opposition. The rumor spread quickly on social media in light of the president’s age and questions raised about his health.
Indeed, this is not the first time such a rumor has made headlines since Essebsi took office in December 2014. But this time the presidency is addressing this issue more stringently. Tunisian authorities electronically tracked the fake account and were able to arrest the two accused.
In a Nov. 18 phone interview on Nessma TV, Garrach said, “There is no difference between the terrorist operations targeting Tunisia and the spreading of the rumor of the death of the president.” Noting that such a rumor also circulated in October 2016, she said there is a systematic attempt to destabilize the country.
Some Tunisian news websites revealed the identity of the detainees. According to Mosaic FM radio station, well-informed sources said one of the detainees is responsible for training in the left-wing opposition Democratic Patriots' Unified Party, also known as Watad.
Watad rushed to deny any involvement in the matter. Party Secretary-General Ziad Lakhdar told Mosaic FM on Nov. 21 that one of the detained was previously affiliated with the party, but had left in 2011.
Essebsi senior political adviser Noureddine Ben Ticha told Al-Monitor, “Those behind the rumor are mostly affiliated with noninfluential political parties. Their maneuver mainly aims to distort the public security of the country.” Essebsi is mocking this rumor, he added. “The president has always been keen on revealing to the media on a daily basis his political activities, movements or meetings."
The presidency is now judicially prosecuting persons involved in spreading this rumor, unlike the previous times, since this has become a repeated systematic process planned in advance, he added.
However, Adnan Monser, the secretary-general of the Al-Irada opposition party, founded by former interim Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki, told Al-Monitor, “The ambiguity surrounding the president’s health situation, and the presidency’s failure to periodically publish his medical file, are among the most important reasons that gave credibility to such rumors and facilitated their spread.”
Monser ruled out the possibility of any deliberate attempt or involvement by specific opposition parties. On Nov. 24, the Watad party called for the administration to publicly disclose the president’s medical file.
Political analyst Abdul Latif al-Hanashi told Al-Monitor, “Rumors in politics are different from rumors in arts or sports. Political rumors reflect a crisis of confidence among politicians, the ruling regime and the people. This is especially true in autocratic countries, where there is a lack of transparency in communicating information.”
In an emerging democracy such as Tunisia's, the spread of such a rumor indicates a multifaceted crisis ensuing from the president’s age and widespread talk about his health. “This comes amid the presidency’s secrecy about the health situation of the president and its failure to reassure the Tunisians in Tunisia and abroad,” he said.
Hanashi concluded that the death rumor reveals a decay of political circles in Tunisia.
“Instead of discussing programs and ideas, competing political parties are resorting to unethical tools to settle personal accounts,” he told Al-Monitor. “This gives a distorted and negative image of the political and partisan life in Tunisia and of democratic transition in general.”