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Report: US, Libyan Forces Capture Tunisian Militant Leader.

Image: Report: US, Libyan Forces Capture Tunisian Militant Leader

TUNIS, Tunisia — Tunisian state media said the head of the country’s Islamist militants had been captured in Libya by U.S. and Libyan forces on Monday, though his organization denied he had been detained.

The U.S. army also said it had not played any part in any move against Ansar al Sharia leader Saifallah Benahssine — the man accused of inciting an attack on the U.S. Embassy in Tunisia in 2012.

Any U.S. involvement in an operation on Libyan soil would be highly sensitive. Libyan Islamists were furious at what they saw as Washington’s interference after American forces captured a top al-Qaida suspect in Tripoli in October.

If confirmed, the capture of such a high-ranking Tunisian militant in Libya would also highlight close ties between Islamist groups in North Africa.

After the fall of Moammar Gadhafi two years ago, Libya has drawn foreign militants because its weak central government, uncontrolled southern areas and porous borders to sub Saharan Africa allow arms and fighters to flow to regional hot spots.

Western powers have pledged to help Libya control its frontiers and train its nascent armed forces to build up its capacity to control the country’s territory.

Tunisia’s TAP agency, citing a senior security source, said Benahssine, also known as Abu Iyadh, had been arrested in the coastal city of Misrata on Monday morning.

“An authorized security source told TAP that Saifallah Benahssine, known as Abu Iyadh, has been arrested in Libya on Monday morning,” TAP said. “The source said special American forces arrested Abu Iyadh and other members of his group, helped by Libyan forces.”

The U.S. military said it had played no part in any operation, and U.S. security officials told Reuters that U.S. intelligence agencies and their personnel also were not involved.

Some U.S. officials believed that Abu Iyad had indeed been captured, while others said that reports of his capture had not been confirmed and cannot be considered reliable.

Libya’s LANA state news agency also published the TAP report on the capture. But there was no comment from the Libyan government.

Misrata officials denied he had been captured in their city.

“Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia denies any information stating that its prince, the Tunisian Abu Iyadh, may God protect him, has been captured,” the group said on its Twitter account.

Ansar al-Sharia was one of the hardline jihadist groups to emerge after the Tunisia’s revolt against its autocratic leader Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali three years ago when long-oppressed Islamist ultra-conservatives rose in influence.

Militant violence has also increased there since the government began a crackdown on the group this year, declaring it an outlawed organization.© 2013 Thomson/Reuters. All rights reserved.


PHOTONOEWS: Wole Soyinka And Other International Writers Pay Tirbute To Kofi Awoonor In Lagos.


Remembering Kofi Awoonor: Humanity And Against By Wole Soyinka

I am certain there are others who, like me, received invitations to the recent edition of the Storymoja/Hay Literature Festival in Nairobi, but could not attend. My absence was particularly regrettable, because I had planned to make up for my failure to turn up for the immediate prior edition. Participant or absentee however, this is one edition we shall not soon forget.
It was at least two days after the listing of Kofi Awoonor among the victims that I even recollected the fact that the Festival was ongoing at that very time. With that realization came another:  that Kofi and I could have been splitting a bottle at that same watering hole in between events and at the end of each day. My feelings, I wish to state clearly, did not undergo any changes. The emotions of rage, hate and contempt remained on the same qualitative and quantitative levels. Those are the feelings I have retained since the Boko Haram onslaught overtook the northern part of our nation. I expect them to remain at the same level until I draw my last breath, hopefully in peaceful circumstances like Chinua Achebe, or else violently like Kofi. As becomes daily clarified in contemporary existence, none of us has much control over these matters.

Two earlier commitments were responsible for my inability to attend the Festival. One was a public conversation with a very brave individual, Karima Bennoune, an Algerian national, whose trenchant publication – YOUR FATWA DOES NOT APPLY HERE – is of harrowing pertinence to the events of Nairobi, a pertinence that continues to ravage our, and other nations. The other preventive factor was the annual conference of International Investigators in Tunis, doing battle with the monster of Corruption. The link of the former event is obvious enough, but if you think the latter has no relevance to what has happened in Nairobi, or is taking place in the northern part of this nation, permit me to correct you.

Yes, we all know of material corruption, we confront it all the time. Tragically neglected however is what we should learn to designate as spiritual corruption. Those who organized and carried out the outrage on innocent lives in Nairobi are carriers of the most lethal virus of corruption imaginable – corruption of the soul, corruption of the spirit, corruption of that animating humanistic essence that separates us from predatory beasts. I am no theologian of any religion, but I aver that these assailants delude themselves with vistas of paradise after life, that their delusion is born of the perverted reading of salvation and redemption. Those who attempt to divide the world into two irreconciliable parts – believers against the rest – are human aberrations. As for their claims to faith, they invoke divine authority solely as a hypocritical cover for innate psychopathic tendencies. Their deeds and utterances profane the very name of God or Allah.

Let us however abandon theology and simply designate them enemies of humanity, leaving a very real question that the rest of us must resolve – whether this breed even belongs to the human race, or should be seen as a mutant sub-species that require both moral and scientific definitions. We cannot continue to pretend that those who have set their sight against that enabling spark that we call creativity, those who arrogate to themselves the right to dispose of innocent lives at will, belong within the same moral universe to which you and I belong. Without a moral universe, humanity exists in limbo.

Not since Apartheid has our humanity been so intensely and persistently challenged and stressed on this continent. History repeats, or more accurately re-asserts itself, as a murdering minority pronounce themselves a superior class of beings to all others, assume powers to decide the mode of existence of others, of association, decide who shall live and who shall die, who shall shake hands with whom even as daily colleagues, who shall dictate and who shall submit. The cloak of Religion is a tattered alibi, the real issue – as always – being Power and Submission, with the instrumentality of Terror. Let us objectively assess the true nature of the dominion that they seek to establish in place of the present ‘dens of sin and damnation, of impurity and decadence’ in which the rest of us supposedly live. We do not need to seek far, the models are close by – they will be found in contested Somalia. In now liberated Mali.

Fitfully in Mauritania. In those turbid years of enchained Algeria, and her yet unconsolidated business of secularism. Theirs is the dominion of exclusion. Of irrationality and restraints on daily existence. A loathing of creativity and plurality. It is the dominion of Apartheid by gender. Of the demonization of difference. It is the dominion of Fear. Let us determine that, on this continent, we shall not accept that, after victory over race as card of citizen validation, Religion is entered and established as substitute on the passport, not only for citizen recognition, but even to entitlement to residence on earth.
After the deadly calling card of these primitives, the rest of the Nairobi Festival was cancelled. Understandably, but sadly.  I have however written to the organizers not to even bother to renew my invitation for next year’s edition – life permitting, I shall be there. We must all be there. And we must learn to smother loss in advance, not just for that Festival but for all Festivals of Life and Creativity wherever in the world.  Resolve that, no matter the tragic intervention, such events must run their course. Let us accept, quite simply, that a force of violent degeneracy has declared war on humanity. Thus, we are fated to be ever present on the battlefield until that war is over.

I submit that we were all present at that concourse of humanity in Nairobi. We were present by the side of every maimed and fallen victim, among who was a distinguished one of us, one of the very best that have defined us to the world. We were present in Mali even before this nation, to her credit, joined in stemming the tide of religious atavism and human retrogression. We were beside the students of Kaduna, Plateau, Borno, the school children of Yobe, the mangled okada riders and petty traders of Kano, beside all those who have been routinely slaughtered for so many years past in this very nation. In Nairobi’s hub of commerce we were present, confronted yet again with that same diabolical test that was applied to school pupils in Kano many years ago, where those who failed to recite the indicated verse of the koran were classified as infidels, and led away to have their throats serially slit. We have been present at the travails of Algeria, recorded for posterity by that lady Karima Bennoune  in YOUR FATWA DOES NOT APPLY HERE. We were beside Tahar Djaout, author of THE LAST SEASON OF UNREASON, cut down also by religious fanatics. We are the mere survivors who continually ask, when will this stop? Where will this end? The ones who echo Karima and that miraculous survivor Malala in declaiming – No indeed, your fatwa can never apply here. We have been beside the children of Cherchyna in the Soviet Union, innocents who, taken hostage, were reduced to drinking their own urine, then deliberately gunned down as they made their way out of a school gymnasium that had turned into an inferno. We continue to remain beside all who have fallen to the blight of bigotry, religious solipsism and spiritual toxicity. We shall continue to stand beside them, denouncing, condemning, but most critically, urging on all who can to anticipate, stem, and ultimately eliminate the tide of religious tyranny. We have taken the side of Humanity against those who are against.
At this very time of the latest outrage, the world body, known as the United Nations Organization was actually convened in General Assembly. We must instigate  that body to evolve, through just, principled, but severe and uncompromising action, into a United Humanity Organisation, that is, thinking not simply ‘nation’, but acting ‘humanity’. It means going beyond pietisms such as – this or that is a religion of peace, but obliging its members to act aggressively in neutralizing those whose acts pronounce the contrary, so that Humanity is placed as the first and last principle of nation existence and global cohabitation. The true divide is not between believers and unbelievers, but between those who violate the right of others to believe, or not believe.

Memories that span fifty or more years are difficult to distill into a few words. Suffice it to stress for now that Kofi Awoonor was a passionate African, that is, he gave primacy of place to values derived from his Ewe heritage.  That, in turn, means that he was thoroughly imbued with the spirit of ecumenism towards other systems of belief and cultural usages – this being the scriptural ethos that permeates belief practices of most of this continent. We mourn our colleague and brother, but first we denounce his killers, the virulent sub-species of humanity who bathe their hands in innocent blood. Only cowards turn deadly weapons against the unarmed, only the depraved glorify in, or justify the act. True warriors do not wage wars against the innocent. Profanity is the name given to the defilement of the sanctity of human life. We call on those who claim to exercise the authority of a fatwa to pronounce that very doom, with all its moral weight, upon those who engage in this serial violation of the right to life, life as a god-given possession that only the blasphemous dare contradict, and the godless wantonly curtail. This scalp that they have added to their collection was roof to a unique brain that a million of their kind can never replace.

A few months ago, in New York, on a joint platform of the United Nations and UNESCO, I entered an urgent plea into the proceedings of that International Conference on the Culture of Peace: Take Back Mali!, I urged.  At home, I impressed that urgent necessity on our own government. I know that Kofi Awoonor, poet, diplomat and democrat, would approve my commendation – in this specific respect at least – of the action of our and other ECOWAS governments – albeit after France had taken the critical lead – in taking back Mali. I especially applaud the outgoing Foreign Affairs Ambassador Gbenga Ashiru, who hearkened to that imperative of speedy intervention and urged it with vigour and urgency on the African Union. We salute the courage and sacrifices of the soldiers who reversed the agenda of the interlopers – al Queda and  company – with their arrogant designs on those freedoms that define who we are in this region, and on the continent itself. Safeguarding freedoms, alas, goes beyond even the most intense passion and will of the poetic Muse, and we must never shy away from acknowledging this cruel reality. Those who believe that a tepid, accomodative approach to fundamentalist rampage can generate peace and human dignity should study – as I have often urged – the experience of Algeria, captured with such chilling diligence in Karima Bennoune’s work. The cost of ‘taking back Algeria’ is one that will be reckoned in human deficit – and unbelievable courage – for generations to come. Today, I urge all forces of progress to – Take Back Africa! Rescue her from the forces of darkness that seek to inaugurate a new regimen of religious despotism, ruthless beyond what our people have known even under the imperial will of Europe.

These butchers continue to evoke the mandate of Islam, thus, we exhort our moslem brother and sister colleagues:  Take back Islam. Take back that Islam which, even where it poses contradictions, declares itself one with the Culture of Learning, one that honours its followers as People of the Book, historic proponents of the virtues of intellect and its products. There is no religion without contradictions – it is the primacy of human dignity and solidarity that serves as arbiter.  We call upon the fastidious warrior class of the intellect, steeped in a creative contempt and defiance of enemies of the humanistic pursuit. We speak here of that Islam that inspires solidarity with the Naguib Mafouzes of our trade, with the Tahar Djaouts, with the Karimas and the Mariama Bas, not the diabolism of al Shabbab, Boko Haram and their degenerate ilk. Let us join hands with the former, and enshrine their mission as the history prescribed destination of our creative urge. What Nairobi teaches – and not just this recently – is that there is no place called Elsewhere. Elsewhere has always been right here with us, and in the present. I urge upon you this mandate: seize back your Islam and thus, take back our continent and, in that restorative undertaking – take back our humanity.
—Professor Soyinka delivered this tribute today at a gathering of Nigerian writers at the Freedom Park, Broad Street, Lagos.


Erdogan Accuses Turkey Protesters of ‘Burn and Destroy’ Tactics.

TUNIS, TunisiaTurkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan condemned the “burn and destroy” tactics of some of those involved in days of violent protests on Thursday, and promised to press ahead with plans for an Istanbul park which triggered the unrest.

Speaking on a visit to Tunisia, Erdogan said “terror groups” were manipulating what had started as an environmental campaign, and added that seven foreigners were among those arrested.

“If you say: ‘I will hold a meeting and burn and destroy,’ we will not allow that,” he told reporters after meeting his Tunisian counterpart. “We are against the majority dominating the minority and we cannot tolerate the opposite.”

By confining his comments to a group of protesters, Erdogan appeared softer in tone than before he left for North Africa at the start of the week, when he described the demonstrators in blanket terms as looters.

Nevertheless, his defiance rattled nervous financial markets. The main Istanbul stock index was down 4.7 percent by 1257 GMT while the lira weakened to 1.8923 against the dollar. The two-year benchmark bond yield rose to its highest in more than six months.

Erdogan returns to Turkey later on Thursday to face demands he apologize for a police crackdown on the six days of protests in which three people have been killed and more than 4,000 injured in a dozen cities, and to sack those who ordered it.

What began as a campaign against the redevelopment of a leafy Istanbul park has grown into an unprecedented show of defiance against the perceived authoritarianism of Erdogan and his Islamist-rooted AK Party.

Police backed by armored vehicles have clashed with the protesters night after night, while thousands have massed peacefully in recent days on Taksim Square, where the demonstrations first began.

A policeman who fell from a bridge in the southern city of Adana while chasing protesters died of his injuries, Turkish television stations reported, the third death in the protests.

AK Party Deputy Chairman Huseyin Celik called on members not to welcome Erdogan home at Istanbul airport to avoid stirring trouble. “The prime minister does not need a show of strength,” Celik said in a television interview.

In Taksim Square, protesters remained defiant. “We have the momentum, with people like me going to work every day and coming back to attend the protests,” said Cetin, a 29-year-old civil engineer who declined to give his surname because he works for a company close to the government.

“We should keep coming here to protest until we really feel we’ve achieved something,” he said, one of thousands gathered on Taksim Square until late into the night.


Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc, formally in charge while Erdogan is away, has struck a conciliatory tone, apologizing for the initial police crackdown on peaceful campaigners in Taksim’s Gezi Park and meeting a delegation of protesters in his office in Ankara.

Around Ankara’s Kugulu Park, a middle class area dotted with restaurants and bars, people chanted “dictator resign” and “everywhere is Taksim, everywhere is resistance” late on Wednesday as residents banged pots and pans in support.

But the situation was calmer around the 19th-century Dolmabahce Palace in Istanbul, the caliph’s seat of power until the Ottoman empire collapsed in 1922 and now home to Erdogan’s offices, where some of the fiercest clashes have taken place.

Tourists picked their way along dirt paths where paving stones had been ripped up in the protests.

Despite the unrest, Erdogan remains by far Turkey’s most popular politician, his assertive style and common touch resonating with the conservative Islamic heartland.

His AK Party has won an increasing share of the vote in three successive elections and holds around two thirds of the seats in parliament. A man who rarely bows to any opposition, he clearly has no intention of stepping down and no obvious rivals inside or outside his party.

But he, and those around him, face a challenge in calming the protests without appearing to lose face.

On Wednesday, a small group of people who read a statement in support of the protests were set upon in the Black Sea city of Rize, Erdogan’s homeland and a stronghold of the AK Party, an attack that ended only after police intervened.

“Erdogan cannot backtrack now. It would mean defeat,” said Ali Aydin, 38, a car dealer in the Tophane neighborhood of Istanbul, a conservative bastion in the mostly Bohemian district around Taksim Square. “Weakness would destroy the party.”

© 2013 Thomson/Reuters. All rights reserved.

Thousands of Tunisians call for Islamist government to quit.

  • Young women calling for a stop to violence against women, chant slogans and hold pictures of assassinated secular politician Chokri Belaid, as they demonstrate against the government, along Avenue Habib Bourguiba in Tunis March 9, 2013. REUTERS/Anis Mili

    View PhotoReuters/Reuters – Young women calling for a stop to violence against women, chant slogans and hold pictures of assassinated secular politician Chokri Belaid, as they demonstrate against the government, along …more 

By Tarek Amara

Tunis (Reuters) – Thousands of Tunisians took to the streets of the capital Tunis on Saturday to call for an end to an Islamist government they blame for the assassination of a leading secular politician 40 days earlier.

It was the biggest demonstration since Chokri Belaid was gunned down outside his house on February 6, igniting the worst unrest since the Jasmine Revolution that toppled strongman Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in 2011 and started the Arab Spring.

In a bid to quell the protests, Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali resigned and was replaced by Ali Larayedh, a fellow member of the Islamist Ennahda party, who formed a new coalition governmentincluding independents in key ministries.

But protesters on Saturday blamed the ruling party for Belaid’s murder and chanted “Ennahda go,” “The people want a new revolution,” and “The people want to bring down the regime.”

No one has claimed responsibility for the killing, which Belaid’s family blames on Ennahda. The party denies involvement and police say the killer was a radical Salafist Islamist.

Belaid, a left-wing lawyer, was shot at close range outside his Tunis home by an assassin who fled on a motorcycle.

His nine-party Popular Front bloc has only three seats in Tunisia‘s Constituent Assembly, which is acting as parliament and writing a new national charter, compared to some 120 for Ennahda and its partners. But Belaid spoke for many who fear religious radicals are stifling freedoms won in the Arab Spring.

The North African state’s new Islamist-led government won a confidence vote on Wednesday although the death of an unemployed man who set himself on fire underscored popular discontent with high unemployment, inflation and corruption.

“They killed Chokri but they cannot kill the values ​​of freedom defended by him,” Belaid’s widow Basma said in front of her husband’s grave on Saturday.

Tunisia’s transition has been more peaceful than those in Egypt and Libya, and has led to freedom of expression and political pluralism. But tensions run high between liberals and the Islamists who did not play a major role in the revolt but were elected to power.

The government is also pressing ahead with tax rises and subsidy cuts to reduce this year’s projected budget deficit of 6 percent of gross domestic product, despite a storm of public criticism.

Lacking the huge oil and gas resources of neighbours Libya and Algeria, Tunisia’s compact size, relatively skilled workforce and close ties with Europe have raised hopes it can set an example of economic progress for the region. Tourism is a major foreign currency earner.


By Tarek Amara | Reuters

Tunisia’s broadened government begins mission to ease unrest.

By Tarek Amara

Tunis (Reuters) – Tunisia‘s new Islamist-led government, broadened to include independents to defuse unrest after the assassination of an opposition leader, began work on Thursday pledging to tackle grave economic woes before elections later this year.

The new leadership got a reminder of the volatile discontent it is grappling with when Adel Kehdri, an unemployed 27-year-old man, died on Wednesday after setting himself on fire to protest at economic and social hardships.

Kehdri’s act recalled the self-immolation of street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi, whose death in December 2010 ignited popular upheaval in Tunisia that toppled dictator Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali and then spread across the Arab world.

New Prime Minister Ali Larayedh replaced Hamadi Jebali, a fellow leader of the moderate Islamist Ennahda party who quit after the February 6 murder of secular politician Chokri Belaid ignited the worst violence in Tunisia since Ben Ali’s overthrow.

A formal ceremony at the Kasbah Palace inaugurated the new government, which will lead the North African state until elections expected towards the end of this year.

Larayedh’s cabinet retains two junior secular coalition from the previous government but Ennahda gave some key ministries to independents to quiet critics who say Tunisia’s relatively secular society is under threat from Islamist hardliners.

Larayedh said the government’s mission – steps to ease an official 17 percent unemployment rate and high inflation – would be difficult but he was “confident of success”.

The economic and social problems that fuelled Tunisia’s 2011 uprising have yet to be solved and often spark unrest. Feuding politicians have missed deadlines to produce a new constitution and set dates for parliamentary and presidential elections.

The malaise worsened when Belaid was shot dead in broad daylight in what the Tunis authorities said was an attack by Salafi Islamist militants. Ennahda denied any involvement but mass protests erupted, often targeting the party.

Hundreds demonstrated again on Thursday during Kehdri’s funeral in the town of Jendouba, shouting anti-government and anti-Ennahda slogans and demanding attention be paid to their economic difficulties.

Kehdri, who set himself ablaze in the centre of the capital Tunis on Tuesday, was the latest of several Tunisians to emulate Bouazizi’s self-immolation in desperation over daily hardships.

The government this month raised most fuel prices for the second time in six months, lifting petrol levies by 6.8 percent, and slapped a 1 percent tax on monthly salaries above 1,700 dinars to help fund remaining fuel and food subsidies.

Taxes on alcohol were also increased this month and the state-controlled milk price was put up a few weeks ago.

The Tunisian Organization for Consumer Protection has called for protests on Friday against the fuel price hike and high inflation and thousands of people are likely to turn out.

Taxi drivers plan a one-day walkout on Monday while petrol station owners have announced a three-day strike in April, saying higher fuel prices will spur petrol smuggling from Libya.


By Tarek Amara | Reuters

Tunisia forms new government, hopes to end crisis.

TUNIS, Tunisia (AP)Tunisian politicians have formed a new government that they hope will defuse the country’s deepest political crisis since it overthrew a decades-long dictatorship and inspired similar uprisings across the Middle East.

The killing of an opposition leader last month set off the crisis and led to violent protests against the Islamist-led government. Some have criticized the ruling party of not doing enough to rein in extremist violence.

Ali Larayedh, the former interior minister tapped to be the new prime minister, announced thegovernment Friday. It will include independent politicians in the key posts of the Interior, Foreign, Defense and Justice Ministries — a concession aimed at calming tensions ahead of elections later this year.

Tunisia‘s transition to democracy is being closely watched since its revolution sparked the Arab Spring uprisings.


Associated Press

Tunisian PM unveils new Islamist-led government.

TUNIS (Reuters) – Tunisian Prime Minister Ali Larayedh unveiled a new Islamist-led coalition government on Friday that he said would serve only until an election is held before the end of the year.

The new government is led by the Islamist Ennahda party, backed by the centre-left Ettakatol and the secular Congress for the Republic led by President Moncef Marzouki – the same parties that were in the previous cabinet.

Larayedh replaced Hamadi Jebali, who resigned following the assassination of secular politicianChokri Belaid on February 6, which provoked the worst unrest in Tunisia since the uprising that overthrew President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali two years ago.

Ennahda has ceded control of several key ministries to independents in the new cabinet, with career diplomat Othman Jarandi named as foreign minister, Lotfi Ben Jedou interior minister and Rachid Sabbagh defence minister.

Elyess Fakhfakh of Ettakatol, an economist, keeps the finance portfolio.

Jarandi, a former ambassador to the United Nations, has strong ties with international bodies and the West.

Ben Jedou and Sabbagh are both judges. Ben Jedou took part in an investigation into the killing of dozens of young men during the uprising that toppled Ben Ali and inspired revolts against autocrats in other Arab countries.



Tunisia’s Islamist Ennahda to pick hardliner for PM.

  • Tunisia's Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali speaks as he announces his resignation during a news conference in Tunis February 19, 2013. REUTERS/Zoubeir Souissi

    View PhotoReuters/Reuters – Tunisia‘s Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali speaks as he announces his resignation during a news conference in Tunis February 19, 2013. REUTERS/Zoubeir Souissi

TUNIS (Reuters) – Tunisia’s main Islamist Ennahda party will pick a hardliner to replace moderate outgoing Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali after he declined to head the next government, a party official said on Thursday.

Jebali, who is secretary-general of Ennahda, resigned on Tuesday after his plan for an apolitical technocrat cabinet to prepare for elections collapsed, largely because of opposition from within his own party and its leader, Rached Ghannouchi.

“Jebali declined to accept nomination (for next prime minister),” Ennahda said. “A new candidate will be presented to the president of the republic this week.”

The assassination of opposition leader Chokri Belaid on February 6 plunged Tunisia into its worst political crisis in the two years since a revolt toppled President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali and inspired Arabs elsewhere to rebel against autocratic rulers.

The secular leftist’s killing sent protesters flooding into the streets, exposing the deep rifts between Tunisia’s empowered Islamists and their liberal and secular-minded opponents.

Jebali had proposed forming a technocrat cabinet to replace his Ennahda-led coalition, which included two secular parties, to spare the North African nation’s nascent democracy and its struggling tourism-dependent economy from further strife.

But Ghannouchi blocked the moderate premier’s plan and a senior Ennahda official told Reuters the next prime minister would come from the party’s hardline wing, which opposes any role for politicians linked with the Ben Ali era.

The official listed outgoing Justice Minister Nourredine Bouheiri, Health Minister Abdellatif Mekki, Agriculture Minister Mohammed Ben Salem, Interior Minister Ali Larayedh and Transport Minister Abdelkarim Harouni as the possible nominees.

“Ennahda will hold a meeting tonight to choose a candidate. The next prime minister will be one of the names on this list,” said the official, who asked not to be named.

In a televised address on Thursday, Jebali apologized to the Tunisian people for “failing and disappointing” them and urged them to unite to pull the country out of crisis.

“Tunisians must be patient during the coming months,” he said. “Demands and sit-ins must stop until the revolution wins.”


Ennahda won Tunisia’s first free election in October 2011 and controls 89 seats in the 217-memberNational Constituent Assembly assigned the task of drafting a new constitution.

Tunisia’s secular president, Moncef Marzouki, will ask the next prime minister to form his government within two weeks.

Ghannouchi has previously said it is vital that Islamists and secular parties share power now and in the future, and that his party was willing to compromise over control of important ministries such as foreign affairs, justice and interior.

Marzouki’s secular Congress for the Republic party (CPR), which has 29 assembly seats and was part of Jebali’s coalition, said on Thursday it was ready to join the next one.

“Our party will take part in the new government and will have an active role to play,” the CPR’s spokesman Hedi Ben Abbes said after a meeting with Marzouki.

Together, Ennahda and CPR would have 118 seats, wielding a majority in the assembly. It is not clear whether other secular parties would join such a coalition, particularly in the charged political atmosphere following Belaid’s assassination.

Ennahda’s own unity might also come under strain following the very public differences that have emerged between Ghannouchi and Jebali, who served as prime minister for 14 months.

Tunisia began a transition to democracy after Ben Ali’s peaceful overthrow in January 2011, holding elections for the National Constituent Assembly and then forging a deal under which Ennahda agreed to share power with its secular rivals.

But disputes have delayed the constitution, and grievances over unemployment and poverty have led to frequent unrest.

Police seized a big weapons cache in Tunis on Wednesday night. “Dozens of Kalashnikov assault rifles, rocket-propelled grenades and explosives were seized in a home in Mnihla district,” the Interior Ministry said.

Secular groups accuse Ennahda of being too soft on militants. In December, Interior Minister Ali Laryed said police had arrested 16 Islamists who had been accumulating arms with the aim of creating an Islamic state.

Negotiations on a $1.78 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund cannot be concluded amid the political uncertainty.

Standard and Poor’s lowered its long-term foreign and local currency sovereign credit rating on Tunisia on Tuesday, citing “a risk that the political situation could deteriorate further amid a worsening fiscal, external and economic outlook”.

(Reporting by Tarek Amara; Editing by Andrew Roche)


By Tarek Amara | Reuters

Political instability erodes gains by Tunisia economy.

  • Tunisian protesters clash with riot police during a demonstration after the death of Tunisian opposition leader Chokri Belaid (in poster), outside the Interior ministry in Tunis February 6, 2013. REUTERS/Anis Mili

    View PhotoReuters/Reuters – Tunisian protesters clash with riot police during a demonstration after the death of Tunisian opposition leader Chokri Belaid (in poster), outside the Interior ministry in Tunis February 6, …more 

TUNIS (Reuters) – Political instability in Tunisia looks set to slow growth of its economy this year just as business was starting to recover strongly from the turmoil following the 2011 revolution.

The economy grew 3.5 percent from a year earlier in the third quarter of 2012, according to the most recent official data. That was a rebound from a shrinkage of 1.8 percent for full-year 2011, when the ouster of president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was accompanied by a wave of labour unrest and street violence that drove away foreign tourists.

Just a few weeks ago, government officials were predicting expansion of around 4.5 percent for 2013 – in line with the average growth rate in the decade before the uprising.

But the killing on February 6 of human rights lawyer and opposition leader Chokri Belaid has ravaged the immediate outlook for the economy, underlining the fragility of the region’s recovery in the wake of the Arab Spring uprisings.

Former central bank governor Mustafa Kamal Nabli said Tunisia’s economy now faced a difficult year during which the government would have difficulty funding its budget deficit.

“The restoration of political stability and security is a priority because there will be no investment, and no tourism or exports, without stability,” he told the local Attounissia newspaper.


The death of Belaid, a fierce critic of Tunisia’s Islamist-led government, was the country’s first politically motivated assassination in decades, so it does not necessarily indicate a pattern of political violence.

But by upsetting a delicate truce between secular and Islamist groups in the country, it has raised the threat of major unrest; one policeman was killed in street protests that swept the country after the assassination, with crowds attacking offices of the Ennahda ruling party in Tunis and elsewhere.

The threat of violence already seems to have been enough to damage Tunisia’s tourism industry, a major earner of foreign exchange and source of jobs.

“The effect is disastrous for tourism…Bookings for French tourists are down by 80 percent compared to the same week last year,” said Khaled Allani, a hotel manager in the major eastern resort town of Hammamet.

The number of tourist visits to Tunisia last year climbed 30 percent to about 6 million. The industry is estimated to provide some 7 percent of the country’s gross domestic product and 400,000 jobs in a population of about 11 million.

Tourism is also important to pay Tunisia’s bills abroad; tourism receipts totalled 1.09 billion dinars in the third quarter of last year, offsetting more than a third of the country’s trade deficit of 2.83 billion dinars.

A second threat to the economy is that Tunisians could start waging political battles through industrial action. Belaid’s killing prompted labour union UGTT, Tunisia’s biggest, to call the country’s first general strike for 34 years on February 8.

“The general strike caused the state Treasury losses of about 280 million dinars,” estimated former finance minister Hussein Dimassi, predicting that the losses would force the government to cut economic development spending this year.

A third risk is that the political turmoil could distract the government from drafting policy reforms needed to strengthen its finances – while even if such reforms are drafted, it may be hard to win public support for them in such a politically charged atmosphere.

Tunisia has been in talks with the International Monetary Fund on obtaining a $1.78 billion loan, but it is expected to have to reassure the IMF that it is shoring up its budget position with politically sensitive steps such as limiting spending on food and fuel subsidies.

Such undertakings may have become a lot more difficult to give since Belaid’s death, partly because the shape of the government that will rule until the next elections, which are expected by the end of the year, is no longer clear.

After the assassination, Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali proposed forming a non-partisan, technocratic cabinet to run the country until the elections. But senior members of his own Ennahda party rejected that proposal, prompting Jebali to resign on Tuesday.

Tunisia may soon resemble Egypt, where the expected signing of a $4.8 billion loan agreement with the IMF, and reforms to the state’s subsidy system, have been held up for months by a worsening political climate.

“Once a new government is named, we will enquire about its intentions/mandate. Once the political situation is clarified, we’ll assess how best to help Tunisia,” IMF spokeswoman Wafa Amr told Reuters in an email on Tuesday.


Economic disaster is by no means inevitable. New foreign direct investment jumped to 3.00 billion dinars in 2012 from 1.62 billion in 2011, partly because of privatisations, according to official data. Last year’s total exceeded the 2.17 billion dinars recorded in 2010, before the revolution.

The data shows that because of Tunisia’s strengths, including its educated population and proximity to Europe, foreign investment held up fairly well even in 2011.

So long-term corporate investors are unlikely to change their view of Tunisia merely because of a few weeks of unrest this year; investment inflows may continue if the political outlook stabilises in coming months.

The stock market has also held up quite well in the last couple of weeks, suggesting investors are not panicking. The main index tumbled nearly 4 percent on the day of the assassination but has since recovered roughly half of those losses.

Many small, local businessmen do not have the luxury of betting on the long term, however. Some small shop owners in Tunis say they are already close to going bust – particularly those that rely wholly or in part on foreign tourists. The number of customers visiting their stores has shrunk, and some have been closing during demonstrations out of security fears.

“We lost everything because of the political crisis,” said Mohamed Ayari, 42-year-old owner of a gift shop. “Our daily profit has become no more than a few dinars.”


By Tarek Amara | Reuters

Tunisia Islamist leader says new govt coming.


TUNIS, Tunisia (AP) — The head of Tunisia‘s largest political partysaid Monday that the country’s crisis will be solved by a new compromise government of technocrats and politicians.

Rachid Ghannouchi, whose moderate Islamist Ennahda party holds the most seats in parliament, said the leaders of the main parties had agreed on a new limited Cabinet that would work toward holding new elections as quickly as possible.

Tunisia was plunged into a political crisis after the assassination on Feb. 6 of a leftist opposition politician provoked anti-government riots around the country and sapped confidence in the Ennahda-led Cabinet.

Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali originally called for a technocratic government to guide the country to new elections and threatened to quit if his initiative was rejected.

On Monday, Jebali announced his technocrat option did not have sufficient support and that he would see President Moncef Marzouki on Tuesday. Jebali did not say he would resign.

Ennahda, his own political party, which had rejected his initiative, said it still wants Jebali to remain as the head of government.

“We of Ennahda continue to support the leadership of Hamadi Jebali at the head of government, and this is the case of all parties at the meeting,” said Ghannouchi. The meeting consisted of 11 heads of parties, including the opposition.

Tunisians overthrew their long-ruling dictator in January 2011 and kicked off the Arab Spring uprisings in the region. A moderate Islamist Party won elections and formed a coalition with secular parties, but the country has been dogged by a faltering economy, high expectations, and a rising strain of extremist Islam prone to violence.

Efforts to write a new constitution and organize elections for a permanent government also were stalled by bickering between the political parties, culminating in the crisis over the assassination.


By BOUAZZA BEN BOUAZZA | Associated Press

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