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Tunisia military court dismisses ‘coup’ case filed against prime minister

Case had been endorsed by the Nida Tounes party following suspension of Youssef Chahed and loss of its parliamentary majority
Tunisian Prime Minister Youssef Chahed (L) and President Beji Caid Essebsi (R) (AFP)

A Tunisian military court on Monday dismissed a case in which Prime Minister Youssef Chahed was accused of orchestrating a coup because the person who initiated the case failed to attend hearings to present evidence, according to Tunisian media reports.

The case was brought by Slim Riyahi, the secretary general of the Nida Tounes party, who accused Chahed of “planning and executing a coup” against President Beji Caid Essebsi.

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Chahed was suspended by Nida Tounes in September and the party has since declared its support for Riyahi’s case. The party’s spokesperson, Anas Al-Hattab, said the party “politically endorsed” the case.

But Chahed has rejected Riyahi’s accusations and insisted his commitment to democracy.

“We are democrats and we believe in democracy. Reports of a coup are inconsistent with reality. We will not allow attempts to sow discord between the president and the prime minister,” he said in a speech to parliament following a cabinet reshuffle last month.

Controversial figure

Riyahi is a controversial politician and founder of the Free Patriotic Union (UPL) party that won four percent of the seats in the 2014 parliamentary elections.

Last month, however, Riyahi was named secretary general of Nida Tounes, which was founded by Essebsi in 2012 as a broad secularist alliance in the aftermath of the country's Arab Spring uprising. The appointment followed a merger between UPL and Nida Tounes.

In his case, Riyahi accused the prime minister, along with four other officials including members of the president’s security detail, of planning a coup attempt against Essebsi and “conspiring against national security”.

But a military judge said in a statement on Monday that Riyahi has failed to show up, despite several court summons to present his evidence.

Riyahi, according to the statement, said he could not be present in Tunisia due to other commitments abroad. Riyahi’s lawyer, according to Tunisian newspaper Al-Maghreb, submitted a medical report, issued by a private hospital in London, as the reason for his client’s absence.

Slim Riyahi, left, secretary general of the Nida Tounes party, accused Chahed of planning and executing a coup against President Beji Caid Essebsi, right (AFP)
Riyahi’s case reflects a power struggle within Nida Tounes, as well as with its main rival, the Ennahda party, whose leaders describe themselves as Muslim democrats.

Nida Tounes, which won the majority of parliamentary seats in 2014, lost its majority in September as nearly half its members defected to join a new bloc formed by Chahed.

The defections took place in the midst of a political crisis in which Essebsi announced an end of his consensus with Ennahda and his party suspended the membership of Chahed over a perceived alliance between him and Ennahda.

Meanwhile, both Nida Tounes and Ennahda suffered a resounding loss in the latest municipal elections in favour of independent candidates, reflecting the public’s loss of faith in the country’s political elites.

In the wake of the results, Essebsi announced a new dialogue framework, called Carthage II, that included a provision to remove Chahed over his perceived failure to implement economic reforms.

But Ennahda’s president, Rached Ghannouchi, disagreed with the proposition and expressed support for keeping Chahed in office, citing the need for political stability, not least because Chahed is the country’s seventh prime minister in as many years.

During the talks, on 22 May, Essebsi’s son and party leader Hafedh Caid Essebsi called for Chahed's removal, accusing him of failing to deliver economic reforms. He also wrote a post on Facebook formally asking Chahed to step down.

Chahed rejected comments by Essebsi’s son and accused him of destroying his party, while Essebsi announced an end to the Carthage II discussions over the parties’ failure to agree on Chahed’s fate.

On 15 September, Nida Tounes suspended the party membership of Chahed. But Chahed cannot be removed from office without the approval of Ennahda’s MPs who now constitute the largest bloc in parliament.

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Following Chahed’s suspension, many Nida Tounes MPs left their parliamentary bloc and joined a new bloc led by Chahed, called the National Alliance.

The National Alliance is now the third largest bloc in parliament, and will reportedly form a political party early next year, in a direct challenge for the president and his party. 

Riyahi, a former presidential candidate, was one of the targets of a corruption probe launched by Chahed in May 2017 as part of an aggressive anti-corruption campaign that saw many businessmen, civil servants and politicians investigated including some members of Nida Tounes and Ennahda.

The campaign was criticised as being “selective”, while Human Rights Watch said it was marred by violations of human rights and illegal referral of civilians to military courts.

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