Tunisia Opens Probe Into Former President's Death as Poisoning Speculation Resurfaces

The government's decision to look into the death of 92-year-old Beji Caid Essebsi in 2019 comes at a time of acute tensions in Tunisian politics

Amit Meyer
Reuters
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Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi surrounded by medical staff members in Tunis, in July 2019.
Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi surrounded by medical staff members in Tunis, in July 2019.Credit: Tunisia Presidency/Handout via Reuters
Amit Meyer
Reuters

The death of Tunisia’s president just over two years ago threw the country – once hailed as the democratic success story of the so-called Arab Spring – into a political crisis threatening to undo what little remains of its achievements following the 2011 uprising.

When Beji Caid Essebsi died on July 25, 2019 – coincidentally the anniversary of the proclamation of Tunisia as a republic – the presidency said the 92-year-old leader had died of a serious illness. This week, however, the government breathed new life into the speculation that Essebsi did not die of natural causes, but perhaps was poisoned.

At the request of the Justice Ministry, prosecutors have been ordered to launch an investigation into Essebsi’s death, Tunisian news agency TPA reported on Tuesday, without providing further information as to the reasons behind this decision or its timing.

Some media outlets tied the announcement to recent remarks made by Sheikh Mohamed Hentati, a religious figure who was arrested several times in recent years on numerous charges, including fraud.

Hentati claimed in a TV appearance that he has proof that Essebsi was in fact poisoned, and that Ennahda – a moderate Islamist political party Hentati has been a vocal critic of – was behind it.

People protest against Tunisian President Kais Saied's seizure of governing power, in Tunis, earlier this month.Credit: Zoubeir Souissi/Reuters

The alleged assassination, according to some versions that have been floating around for the past two years, involved poisoned bread brought to the president or a lethal substance mailed to his office. An investigation into similar claims carried out in the months just after Essebsi’s death was closed for lack of evidence, and the official cause for Essebsi’s death was a heart attack.

Essebsi’s son, who lives in self-imposed exile in Paris, welcomed the news of the investigation and said on Facebook that his family and the Tunisian nation “have the right to know the truth,” which might have been falsified in official medical reports. His father, Hafedh Caïd Essebsi claims, was targeted by political opponents.

Here, too, the alleged culprit seems to be Ennahda, though the son has avoided direct mention of the party. And why would Ennahda want to assassinate the president who joined forces with it in a national unity government? Essebsi says it was because his father refused to sign into law an amendment to the electoral law, which limited the right to political participation. The president’s veto was seen as a blow to the ruling coalition – including Ennahda.

But there are other versions, too. As Arabic newspaper Asharq al-Awsat noted, it allegedly had to do with plans by Essebsi to investigate claims that Ennahda runs a secret security agency, which the party has consistently denied.

‘Suspicious’

Walid Jalled, leader of the secularist Tahya Tounes party, called the decision to launch an investigation “suspicious” and told Tunisie Numérique network on Thursday that the current president, Kais Saied, must have at least given his nod to launching the process.

Journalist Imed Behri went as far as calling it “absurd,” arguing that Saied was trying to divert Tunisians’ attention away from the constitutional and economic crisis in the country.

The latest development, whether or not it ends up leading to new revelations about the circumstances of the former president’s death, seems to serve the current president, who seeks to consolidate his grip on power and has moved to stifle any sign of opposition.

Saied has promised to uphold rights and freedoms won in Tunisia's 2011 revolution, but has brushed aside the democratic 2014 constitution and given himself powers to rule by decree during a transitional period in which he will put a new constitution to a public referendum.

Ennahda party official arrested

On Friday, Ennahda said Tunisian security forces had detained a senior official from the party, which accuses Saied of a coup for freezing the parliament and accumulating powers.

It called Noureddine Bhairi's arrest a dangerous precedent that may foreshadow a slide towards tyranny.

The government and security services were not immediately available to comment.

Kais Saied at his campaign headquarters, as the country awaits the official results of the September presidential election, in Tunis.Credit: Muhammad Hamed/Reuters

Since suspending parliament in July, several senior politicians and business leaders have been detained or subjected to legal prosecution, often involving cases of corruption or defamation.

Rights groups have criticized some of those arrests and the use of military courts to hear such cases.

However, there has been no widespread campaign of arrests of critics of Saied or other dissidents and the state news agency has continued to report news that is unfavorable to the government.

Ennahda, which has the largest number of seats in the suspended parliament, was banned before the revolution but then became the most consistently influential party afterwards and a member of successive coalition governments.

However, as Tunisia's economy stagnated and its political system ground to paralysis in recent years, support for the party waned and although it came first in the 2019 parliamentary elections it won far fewer votes than in previous years.

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