A statement by the Tunisian presidency last week described what appeared to have been an attempt to poison Tunisian President Kais Saied.
At 5:30 pm on 25 January, the presidency received an empty envelope addressed to the president that did not have the sender’s name. “When the president’s chief of staff opened the envelope, she almost fainted, experiencing an almost total loss of vision and a severe headache,” the statement said.
A presidency staff member present in the room at the time experienced similar but less severe symptoms. “The letter was put in a shredder before it was sent to the Interior Ministry. There is no information on the specific nature of the substance that was in the envelope,” the statement said.
“The presidency reassures the Tunisian people that the president is in good health and is unharmed.” In the days that followed, the Tunisian presidency’s Facebook page contained updates on the “solidarity” calls President Saied had received from other Arab leaders since the “poisoning attempt.”
However, a statement by the Tunisian public prosecutor on 29 January said that tests carried out on the suspicious envelope had found that it did not contain any suspicious toxic, narcotic, dangerous or explosive materials.
The development fuelled debate on the power struggle between the presidency and parliament in recent weeks. Hatem Alechi, a former minister and judge, said that the prosecutor’s findings had been used to undermine the presidency, now accused of lying about the envelope. “Before demonising the presidency, we need to wait for the military hospital report and eye-witness accounts of what happened,” Alechi wrote in a Facebook post.
President Saied has not publicly commented on the incident. Tunisia, which fuelled the 2011 Arab Spring Revolutions in overthrowing former president Zine Al-Abidine Bin Ali, marked a decade of democratic transformation in recent weeks with angry protests.
From the news coming out of the presidency, reports of tensions between Saied and Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi, to the nationwide protests, Tunisia has not been short of indications of the political and economic instability rocking the small North African country.
Sometimes described as the only Arab Spring success story, Tunisia’s democratically elected authorities tolerate protests, but they have still arrested more than 1,000 people in connection with the ongoing demonstrations.
The death of a young man two weeks ago fuelled protests against inequality and police brutality, especially in poorer districts hurt by an economic crisis exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic. Angry residents fired projectiles at police and attempted to enter a security post in the western region of the country after blocking one town’s main road by setting tyres on fire, according to Tunisian state news agency TAP.
Law-enforcement officers responded with tear gas in order to disperse the protesters, and a chase took place through the city streets. The army was deployed to calm unrest and protect public buildings. The family of the victim, Haykel Rachdi, claims he was struck on the head by a tear gas canister two weeks ago and was transferred to the Sousse Hospital where he died on 25 January. The international rights group Amnesty International has called on the Tunisian authorities to investigate his death.
According to local reports, 30 per cent of the protesters arrested are minors. Largely youth-driven protests against the government took place in the capital last weekend to demand the release of three young men sentenced by a court in Al-Kef in northwest Tunisia to 30 years in prison for smoking drugs. Since mid-January, the protests have continued almost on a daily basis and have been joined by the parents of those arrested.
The chants have echoed those heard in 2011 of “the people want the fall of the regime,” and they have also demanded dignity, freedom, economic reform, a minimum wage, resistance to what protesters say are attempts to recreate a police state, and the better management of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Many Tunisians are angered at a political class that is seen as being locked in power struggles and disconnected from the suffering of people facing spiralling prices and steep unemployment. A protest on Saturday denounced what demonstrators said was police repression and government corruption. Some demonstrators held signs reading “police everywhere, justice nowhere.” “The security forces are repressing us and want the return of a police state,” protester Majdi Sliti, 33, told the AFP news agency.
“We will not accept this.” “They want to steal the principles won since the revolution,” said Mohamed Smida, a protester who compared Mechichi to Ben Ali, overthrown after almost 25 years in power. Ouiem Chettaoui, a Tunisia expert, said that the moderate Islamist ruling party Ennahda and the Free Destourian Party, founded by former members of Bin Ali’s ruling party, had come out in support of the security forces in their handling of the protests.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 4 February , 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly