Tunisia’s president says $4.8 billion of public money squandered

Kais Saied also called on traders to reduce the price of goods and warned them against speculating or hoarding

Tunisian President Kais Saied addresses the nation on July 25.  Reuters
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Tunisian President Kais Saied has pledged to address the dire economic crisis, accusing 460 business figures and entities of plundering 13.5 billion dinars ($4.8 billion) of public money.

"Four hundred and sixty figures, 450 remaining now, have robbed this country according to a report by the National Fact Finding Commission on Bribery and Corruption and it is all documented and identified," Mr Saied said in a video posted on the presidency's Facebook page on Wednesday during a meeting with the head of industry, trade and handcrafts union.

"The sum required to be returned [to the state] according to this report is 13.5 billion dinars," he added.

Mr Saied called on traders to reduce prices of goods and warned them against speculating or hoarding.

He also formed a task force to manage the coronavirus crisis and Covid-19 restrictions, including a nightly curfew and ban on travel between cities.

Mr Saied has still not announced the appointment of a new prime minister or how he intends to handle the emergency period that he announced on Sunday when he cited a national emergency to dismiss the premier and suspend parliament.

Meanwhile, Tunisian Foreign Minister Othman Jerandi received a phone call from Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, the UAE's Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Co-operation.

They discussed the measures that were taken by the president with the Tunisian foreign minister saying they were in response to popular demands based on the constitution. Sheikh Abdullah expressed the UAE's full confidence and support for Tunisia and expressed solidarity with Tunis in tackling the health and economic implications of Covid-19.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian also urged Tunisia to rapidly appoint a new prime minister and form a government.

Tunisia's powerful labour union said on Thursday it was preparing a roadmap for steering the country out of political crisis. The UGTT labour union has so far avoided direct criticism of Mr Saied's actions but has urged him to stick to the constitution.

The UGTT won a Nobel Peace Prize in 2013 for its work as part of a civil society "quartet" that helped negotiate an end to an earlier democratic crisis.

More officials sacked

On Tuesday, the Tunisian president sacked more top officials. The country’s judiciary last month opened an investigation into allegations that the Islamist Ennahda and two other political parties received illegal funding before elections in 2019.

The list of sacked officials included the defence and justice ministers, as well as the CEO of the national television channel Wataniya.

On Sunday, the president dismissed Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi, froze Parliament, issued orders to lift the immunity of legislators and assumed judicial powers.

The move was described by Ennahda, the largest party in the parliament, as a coup.

‘Foreign financing’

Prosecution spokesman Mohsen Dali said on Wednesday the probe into the suspected illegal funding of the 2019 elections is focused on “the foreign financing and acceptance of funds of unknown origin.”

As the country lurches further into political uncertainty, key civil society groups warned against any “illegitimate” extension of Mr Saied's 30-day suspension of parliament and demanded a timeline for political action.

Mr Saied, a former law lecturer who was a political newcomer when he won a landslide 2019 presidential election victory, says his actions are justified under the constitution, which allows the head of state to take unspecified exceptional measures in the event of an “imminent threat".

Mr Saied said he would appoint a new prime minister himself.

Tunisian protesters hold up placards with slogans denouncing what they describe as a 'coup d'etat' outside the parliament building in the capital Tunis, Tunisia. EPA

Early elections

After violent clashes outside the army-blockaded parliament on Monday, the Ennahda party said “organised thugs” were being used to “provoke bloodshed and chaos".

On Tuesday, Ennahda said it was ready to go to early legislative and presidential elections for the sake of maintaining democracy, while demanding that any delay “is not used as a pretext to maintain an autocratic regime".

In a statement on its Twitter account on Wednesday, the party said it had decided to campaign peacefully against the president's plans.

In the past 10 years, Tunisia has had nine governments.

Thomson Reuters contributed to this report.

Updated: July 29, 2021, 8:40 PM