After Tunisia’s Supreme Electoral Commission decided that media mogul Nabil Al-Qarawi could continue his campaign in the country’s presidential elections despite his arrest on Friday on money laundering charges, the race for the country’s presidency has become fiercer.
The Heart of Tunisia Party led by Al-Qarawi and the Long Live Tunisia Party led by incumbent Prime Minister Youssef Chahed have been embroiled in a war of words about the arrest of Al-Qarawi, who owns the popular Nessma TV channel.
The Heart of Tunisia Party has accused Chahed of fabricating charges in order to remove Al-Qarawi from the presidential race “after it became apparent he is leading in polls,” according to party officials speaking on Nessma TV and to newspapers.
The rival party responded by saying that Chahed had no say in judicial matters and that the charges were made by the local human rights anti-corruption group I-Watch.
Investigations of Al-Qarawi and his businessman brother Ghazi Al-Qarawi began in 2017 when I-Watch filed a report against the brothers, but Al-Qarawi was not charged until 8 July this year when his assets were frozen and he was prevented from leaving Tunisia.
Before his arrest last week, the Tunisian High Authority for Audiovisual Communication (HACA) decided to ban three local media organisations, including Nessma TV, from covering election campaigns due to their “influencing the pillars of the state.”
The decision also included Al-Zaitouna TV and Quran Radio, which are supporters of the Ennahda Movement, the political front of the Muslim Brotherhood in Tunisia.
HACA President Nouri Lajmi told the French news agency AFP that “it was a joint decision by HACA and the Supreme Electoral Commission.”
When Al-Qarawi announced his candidacy for president, power circles in Tunisia were concerned, and in June the country’s parliament amended the election law based on a recommendation by the government to reject the candidacy of anyone who had been found to be involved or had profited from illegal activities within one year of presidential or parliamentary elections.
The amendment passed by 128 to 30 votes, and the abstention of 12 MPs.
Former president Beji Caid Essebsi, whose recent death triggered the holding of the early presidential elections, had not yet signed the amendment into law, however, which means that Al-Qarawi can run for president.
The law bans anyone who has “provided direct funds to the Tunisian people” or has received foreign funding from running for office, and this could be applied to Al-Qarawi since he has presented himself as a philanthropist in recent years, dishing out money to Tunisia’s poor.
Al-Qarawi has accused the government of drafting a law to prevent him specifically from contesting the elections, something which was denied by Cabinet Spokesman Iyad Al-Dahmani.
Another amendment was also passed banning candidates who “praise human-rights violations,” this being believed to target Abeer Moussa, candidate for the Democratic Constitutional Rally, who has fiercely defended the legacy of deposed former president Zine Al-Abidine Ben Ali.
Al-Qarawi is a liberal and co-founder of the Tunisia Call Party, which was led by the late Essebsi, and he was an engineer of the unity government between Ennahda and Tunisia Call that enabled the country to overcome serious deadlock. He left Tunisia Call to launch his own party called Heart of Tunisia.
Although the electoral scene remains much the same despite Al-Qarawi’s arrest, there has been fierce criticism of Chahed for not resigning from his post, since his staying in it could allow him to “influence the elections,” according to critics.
Chahed’s rival and former defence minister Abdel-Karim Al-Zubaidi resigned his official post to run for president. Chahed has said that as a result of “political pressure,” he will temporarily delegate his powers to Minister of the Public Sector Kamal Morjane, in order “to focus on the presidential campaign and for the sake of a more transparent electoral process.”
Chahed has also renounced his French citizenship to run for president and is now among the frontrunners.
According to Article 74 of the Tunisian Constitution, presidential candidates must be Muslim, Tunisian and over 35 years old. Article 41 of the election law states that candidates must be nominated by at least ten MPs or 10,000 voters from at least ten electoral districts, none of whom are allowed to nominate more than one candidate.
A security fund must also be deposited with the HACA.
The presidential race is not limited to Al-Qarawi and Chahed, but also includes other well-known figures including Al-Zubaidi, former president Moncef Marzouki, Ennahda deputy leader Abdel-Fattah Moro, former prime ministers Mehdi Jomaa and Hamadi Jebali, and leftist candidate Hamma Al-Hammami.
Al-Hammami’s chances are slimmer compared to 2014 when he came in third after Essebsi and Marzouki with 7.84 per cent of the vote, because the left has since disintegrated in Tunisia, and he could slip further down the ladder.
There is grumbling within Ennahda, which many fear could fracture the movement that is more focused on parliamentary rather than presidential elections. It has fielded several candidates, since Jebali joined the Muslim Brotherhood in Tunisia when he was young, and Moro is the movement’s official candidate.
Nonetheless, many believe that many Tunisian Islamists will vote for Chahed, especially since they earlier supported him against his rivals from the Tunisian General Labour Union. This is so even though Chahed is seen as a product of the political establishment and is similar in approach to Tunisian independence leader Habib Bourguiba.
Local commentators believe that interest networks loyal to Ben Ali’s regime will not vote for Moussa, but will support any candidate who is likely to win so they can benefit from this.
Although the candidates are strongly divided between the Bourguiba camp (Al-Zubaidi and Chahed) and the Islamists (Moro and Jebali), both sides are worried a liberal such as Al-Qarawi could win in a country that is used to veteran statesmen with socially progressive but politically conservative orientations.
Tunisia’s presidential race thus still lacks a candidate whom the majority can agree on, such as Essebsi in 2014. This prevented fragmentation resulting from the power struggle between the Tunisian Islamists and their rivals for power in the country.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 29 August, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.