Tunisia rallies after a "black day", president's health improves

Reuters , Friday 28 Jun 2019

TOPSHOT - 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

Tunisia's president is recovering his health and speaking to colleagues, authorities said on Friday, signalling a return to normality after a turbulent 24 hours in which the elderly leader fell ill and militants staged attacks in the capital.

President Beji Caid Essebsi, 92, a major player in the North African country's transition to democracy following a 2011 revolution, was taken to a military hospital on Thursday after suffering a "severe health crisis".

His health emergency coincided with attacks by two suicide bombers who blew themselves up in Tunis, killing one officer and wounding several others.

The attacks, claimed by Islamic State, took place months before an election and at the peak of a tourist season in which Tunisia is hoping for a record number of visitors.

Alarmed by the spate of troubling news, many Tunisians described Thursday it as a "black day".

But on Friday, normal life appeared to be returning.

Shops reopened in Charles De Gaulle, a commercial street, and cafes were crowded in the main Habib Bourguiba street. Tourists and Tunisians alike wandered the markets as normal.

"We are not afraid, we will not give up," said a woman who gave her name as Sana.

"We will continue our lives and our democracy, which frightens them."

Tourism Minister Rene Trabelsi told reporters that the incident would not affect tourism in the country, adding that tourist sites were under tight security surveillance.


Desperate Act

The presidency spokeswoman said Essebsi's health had improved significantly and he had called the defence minister to discuss the situation in the country.

Essebsi has been a prominent figure in Tunisia since the overthrow of Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali in 2011, which was followed by uprisings against autocratic leaders across the Middle East.

On Friday, Prime Minister Youssef Chahed played down the impact of the attacks and said it was a "desperate act of the collapse of terrorist groups".

Tunisia has battled militant groups operating in remote areas near the border with Algeria since the 2011 uprising. High unemployment has also stoked unrest in recent years.

Security has improved since authorities imposed a state of emergency in November 2015 after dozens died in militant attacks earlier that year - one at a museum in Tunis and another on a beach in Sousse. A third attack targeted presidential guards in the capital and killed 12. Islamic State claimed responsibility.

Those actions scared off holidaymakers and investors, worsening an economic crisis.

But this year Tunisia expects to receive a million tourists for the first time, seeking to restore confidence in its ability to protect its lifeline tourist income.

Essebsi's health episode raised questions on social media about the management of the country in the event that the post president became vacant unexpectedly. But Nourredine Benticha, a top advisor to Essebsi, said there would be no constitutional vacancy.

Parliamentary elections are expected to be held on Oct. 6 with a presidential vote following on Nov. 17.

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