Corruption, partisan investigations mire electoral process in Tunisia

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Article Summary
The electoral campaign in Tunisia has been marred by serious accusations and arrests.

Even before the presidential electoral campaign began on Sept. 2, scandals, accusations and lawsuits have threatened to mire the democratic process in controversy at a time when Tunisia is in serious need of political stability.

The case of Nabil Karoui, a media mogul who was arrested on Aug. 23, has more than created scandal; it has raised questions about electoral transparency. Karoui was told he could not participate in the live presidential debates, which began Sept. 7, nor in broadcast interviews ahead of the presidential election scheduled for Sept. 15. 

In a Sept. 9 press release, the European Union’s Election Observation Mission called on the Independent High Authority for Elections (ISIE) to “take the necessary measures to enable all candidates, including Mr. Karoui, to campaign in accordance with the principle of equal opportunity,” while fully respecting the independence of the judiciary.

The ISIE had given permission for a journalist from Elhiwar Ettounsi to interview Karoui in prison. However on Sept. 10, the attorney general blocked the interview.

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Karoui was accused of financial crimes including tax evasion and money laundering following an investigation by the anti-corruption investigative association iWatch. The Nessma TV channel, which he owns, has also been under scrutiny by the Tunisian national broadcast regulator, the High Authority for Audiovisual Communications.

Karoui was first questioned by a judge in the economic and financial division of the Tunis Judicial Service on June 24, before the death of President Beiji Caid Essebsi. Imed Ben Halima, one of three lawyers representing Karaoui, said he was later charged with money laundering and on July 8, the court ordered Karoui’s assets frozen and imposed a travel ban. 

Karoui’s legal team appealed the travel ban. But on Aug. 23, the appeal was rejected a warrant was issued for his arrest. Karoui was arrested by a brigade of the General Directorate of National Security as he was returning from a trip to Beija in northern Tunisia.

Another of Karoui’s lawyers, Kamel Ben Massoud, told Al-Monitor that the police pulled Karaoui over on the motorway and arrested him “in a spectacular manner.” He said police intimidated him and used the kind of forced usually used to arrest suspected terrorists “in a manner that did not respect human rights.”

Interestingly, on Aug. 24, Justice Minister Mohamed Karim Jamoussi ordered an investigation into the arrest warrants for Nabil and his brother Ghazi Karoui. The details of Ghazi’s case remain unknown, according to Karoui’s press office, but there is speculation that he might be under house arrest.

Karoui is now detained at Mornaguia Prison, which lies outside of the capital Tunis. An appeal for his release was rejected on Sept. 3. Currently his legal team are formulating an appeal to the Court of Cassation.

Despite his arrest, Karoui's candidacy remains legitimate. His presidential campaign is currently being led by his wife, Salwa Smaoui.

The day following his arrest, Aug. 24, the Tunisian League for the Defense of Human Rights published a statement on Facebook, describing the arrest as “rushed and rash” and saying that it “raised suspicions and doubts, reflecting badly on the judiciary.” The statement read that the arrest suggests “political misuse of the judiciary for the political purpose of eliminating a presidential candidate.”

The Tunisian League for the Defense of Human Rights' President Jamel Msallem told Al-Monitor that while “we are against corruption and dirty money, we want the fight against corruption to be done in the correct way.” 

Msallem added, “Because of the way [Karoui] was arrested, we are concerned that the government has probably influenced the instruments of the state” for political gains.

Youssef Chahed has been accused of instigating Karoui’s arrest. Chahed stepped down from his post as prime minister in order to run as the presidential candidate for his party Tahya Tounes, which he established after breaking away from Nidaa Tounes in January.

Hafedh Caid Essebsi, leader of Nidaa Tounes and son of the late President Essebsi, was searched upon his arrival at Tunis Carthage airport Aug. 23 based on alleged intelligence that he was carrying a large amount of foreign currency.

Chahed went live on Mosaique FM Aug. 27 to deny the allegations that he was manipulating the justice and security systems for his own political gains. He denied any involvement in Karoui’s arrest and the search.

However, Chahed’s public denial did little to calm the political waters, leaving many candidates still unsettled by the incident. Abdelkarim Zbidi, former defense minister and current presidential candidate backed by Nidaa Tounes, told Al-Monitor on Aug. 29, “It is suspicious that a candidate was arrested two weeks before the beginning of the electoral [campaign] period.” He added, “There is a need to calm the political atmosphere without resorting to defamation.”

In an interview the same day with Al-Monitor, Hamma Hemmami, presidential candidate and leader of the leftist Popular Front, was more forthright on his opinion about the circumstances surrounding Karoui’s arrest. Hemami questioned not only the timing of Karoui’s arrest, but also that of the amendments to Tunisia’s electoral law in June, just ahead of both the presidential and legislative elections. 

Hemmami feels that Chahed “had used the state’s apparatus to change the electoral law.” Had Essebsi signed the new electoral law, candidates and political parties affiliated with charitable associations such as Karoui or those who had received funding from foreign parties would have been excluded from running for office.

Hemmami stated clearly, “We are against corruption” and “media manipulation for personal gain, but we ask why Mr. Youssef Chahed pushed the change to the law ahead of the elections.” He added, “It’s against the constitution,” and “We don’t defend Nabil Karoui, it’s a position of principle."

In a Sept. 1 interview with Rachid Ghannouchi, leader of Ennadha, which is backing Abdelfateh Mourou for president, told Al-Monitor that Karoui’s arrest was “very bad for us.” But he said Ennadha has nothing to do with the political dramas being played out.

Karoui is not the only media mogul tainted by allegations of financial crimes and running for the presidency. Businessman Slim Riahi was found guilty of check fraud in 2017. He fled the country to avoid a five-year jail sentence and has been living in exile between France and London. 

Riahi is running both in the presidential and legislative elections from abroad, as a candidate for France Nord. Tunisia’s parliament includes representatives of expatriate Tunisians. 

Like Karoui, Riahi benefits from Essebsi not signing the amended electoral law, which bans those convicted of crimes from running for office.

Riahi has managed to stir things up even more in a television interview on Elhiwar Ettounsi Sept. 4, when he openly accused Chahed of instigating Karoui’s arrest. In the same interview, Riahi claimed that his case was going to be overturned, but the judge had refused to do so. 

The High Authority for Audiovisual Communications has fined Elhiwar Ettounsi 50,000 Tunisian dinars ($17,471) for transmitting this broadcast, claiming that it was “political advertising,” and ordered its removal online, though it remains on YouTube.

Speaking to Al-Monitor, Mabrouka Khedir, a journalist who has followed Tunisian politics since the revolution and spokesperson for the live presidential debates “The Road to Carthage,” described the politicking as “infantile” and an example of why people, particularly the young, are not engaging with politics.

William Lawrence, who was an independent observer in the 2011 elections and currently a visiting professor of international affairs at Georgetown University, toldAl-Monitor, “The chances that these controversies blow over and the electoral campaign proceeds quietly and conservatively are very low. What is much more likely is, just like in elections in the US and around the world, that the rhetoric will escalate and accusations intensify.”

The scandals and political dramas do not appear to be dying down days before voters go to the polls.

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Found in: arrests, corruption, tunisian government, tunisian parliament, tunisian elections, tunisian politics

Elizia Volkmann is a journalist and filmmaker based in Tunis. She covers North Africa as a freelance reporter for online and broadcast media, including Al Jazeera, the BBC and EuroNews, focusing on politics, human rights, economic development, clandestine economy and crime.

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