Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi significantly better, officials say

Aides to 92-year-old president say he phoned defence minister on Friday to discuss situation after bomb attacks

(FILES) In this file photo taken on March 20, 2015, Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi delivers a speech during a ceremony marking the 59th anniversary of Tunisia's independence at the Carthage palace in Tunis. Tunisia is not threatened by any power vacuum as President Beji Caid Essebsi remains in hospital after being taken ill, one of his advisors said on June 28, 2019 adding the veteran leader was in stable condition. / AFP / Fethi Belaid
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The health of Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi has improved significantly and he has called the defence minister about the situation in the country, the presidency said on Friday.

Mr Caid Essebsi, 92, a prominent player in the country's transition to democracy since 2011, was taken to a military hospital on Thursday after suffering a "severe health crisis".

"The health situation of the president is in a remarkable improvement," presidency spokeswoman Said Guarach said. "The president held a telephone call this morning with the minister of defence about the general situation in the country."

Mr Caid Essebsi was hospitalised last week as well, for what the presidency described as non-serious treatment.

The veteran politician has been a prominent figure in Tunisia since the overthrow of veteran autocrat Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in 2011, which was followed by uprisings against authoritarian leaders across the Middle East, including in nearby Libya and Egypt.

Tunisia set itself on a path to democracy without much of the violence seen elsewhere, although it has been the target of extremist militants over the years.

On Thursday, two suicide bombers blew themselves up in attacks on police in the capital Tunis, killing one officer and wounding several others, in an attack later claimed by ISIS.

The attack, followed by the president's hospitalisation, had created anxiety among Tunisians that the country might descend into violence and political instability.

Officials sought to calm fear earlier on Friday by announcing that the president's condition was stable and there would be no leadership crisis.

"We have a president. There is no constitutional vacancy," one of Mr Caid Essebsi's top advisers, Noureddine Ben Ticha, told the Express FM radio station.

He said the president's condition was "unchanged".

Mr Caid Essebsi's son, Hafedh, spoke of "the beginnings of an improvement" in his father's condition.

Several media has reported the president's death on Thursday after his office announced that one of the world's oldest heads of state – behind only Britain's 93-year-old Queen Elizabeth II – was taken to hospital.

Prime Minister Youssef Chahed, who visited the president in hospital, said he was receiving "the necessary care", warning people not to spread "false and confusing information".

On the streets of Tunis the mood was hopeful but cautious.

"I hope he will return to the [presidential] palace in good health quickly because his absence in such difficult times will plunge the country into chaos," said Ibrahim Chaouachi, 40, echoing many of his compatriots.

Tunisia's constitution, adopted three years after the 2011 uprising against Ben Ali, provides two measures in the case of a power vacuum.

The prime minister can take over the president's responsibilities for a period of no more than 60 days, or if the vacancy is longer the speaker of parliament is tasked with the role for up to 90 days.

In both cases the decision must be taken by the constitutional court after it validates the president's incapacity.

But Tunisia has yet to set up a constitutional court.

On Thursday parliament speaker Mohammed Ennaceur, 85, met the heads of parties following the twin suicide bombings and the president's illness.

The country's first democratically elected president, Mr Caid Essebsi came to power in 2014.

His prolonged absence from the public eye could spell uncertainty for Tunisia, where democracy remains fragile especially ahead of presidential and legislative elections, scheduled for October and November.

Police officers carry the coffin of a fellow officer, who was killed in yesterday's suicide attack on Habib Bourguiba avenue, during his funeral in the Sidi Hassine western suburb of the capital Tunis on June 28, 2019. Two blasts claimed by the Islamic State group killed a police officer in Tunis and wounded several other people on June 27, 2019. / AFP / FETHI BELAID
Policemen carry the coffin of a fellow officer killed in Tunis by a suicide bomber, in the Sidi Hassine suburb of the Tunisian capital on June 28, 2019. AFP

Tunisia has been hit by repeated extremist attacks since 2011.

Mr Chahed denounced the latest bombings as "cowardly" and meant to "destabilise Tunisians, the economy and democratic transition", in a nod to the October polls and the tourism season which is in full swing.

The blasts – one on the central Habib Bourguiba avenue and another against a security base – killed a police officer and wounded at least eight people including several civilians.

Most of the wounded are "in a stable condition", interior ministry spokesman Sofiene Zaag said on Friday.

One of the bombers has been identified and a probe is trying to determine if he had any links with an extremist group, he added.

Heavy security was deployed Friday around Habib Bourguiba avenue and the nearby interior ministry, while shops that had closed after the bombings reopened for business.

"The terrorists want to scare us but we say no," Rached Mamlouk, a salesman at a bookshop said, pointing to people walking about and tourist buses parked nearby.

In the working class Tunis suburb of Sidi Hassin, mourners gathered for the funeral of the police office killed in one of the bombings.