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Tunisian judge orders arrest of former prime minister

Ali Larayedh, vice-president of the opposition Ennahdha party, is arrested days after the Tunisian legislative elections.

An “anti-terrorism” judge in Tunisia ordered the arrest of former prime minister Ali Larayedh, vice president of the main opposition Ennahdha party, days after the country held legislative elections marked by a very low turnout.

The judge’s decision, announced Monday, is linked to a case in which other Ennahdha officials are accused of sending Tunisians to fight alongside armed groups in Syria, according to Ines Harrath, a lawyer who has worked with a group of lawyers. who defend Larayedh.

Ennahdha, who had the largest number of lawmakers in the previous parliament, denounced the move as a political attack and called for the release of Larayedh, who served as prime minister from 2013 to 2014.

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The party said its vice president was “deliberately targeted” in a “vain and flagrant attempt” by the authorities and President Kais Saied to cover up the “failure” of Saturday’s vote, which was the first round of voting in the election.

Tunisia
Members of the police push back Ennahdha supporters who were protesting in support of party leaders in September 2022 [File: Jihed Abidellaoui/Reuters]

Ahmed Nejib Chebbi, chairman of the country’s main opposition coalition, told reporters that the arrest was aimed at “diverting attention from the results of an election ignored by the public.”

Only 11.22 percent of Tunisian voters cast their ballots, according to Farouk Bouaskar, president of the Tunisian Electoral Authority. That’s about a million voters out of the more than nine million registered.

Bouaskar said that 21 candidates were chosen in the first round, while 133 candidates qualified for the second round of voting scheduled for January 19. The final results will be announced on March 3, he said.

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Opposition parties, including Ennahdha’s Salvation Front coalition, boycotted the election, saying it was part of Saied’s efforts to consolidate power. The decision not to participate in the vote will likely lead to a new legislature subservient to the president, whom critics accuse of authoritarian drift.

‘Silence is a crime’

In his first public comments on the election, Saied rejected criticism of low turnout and accused opponents of trying to cast doubt on whether the new parliament would represent the views of voters.

He said turnout “is not measured through the first round, but through both rounds” of voting, according to a statement from the presidency on Monday.

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The parliament last met in July 2021. Since then, Saied, who was elected in 2019, has curbed the independence of the judiciary and weakened the powers of parliament.

Meanwhile, Tunisia’s powerful national union stepped up its criticism of Saied on Tuesday, urging the country’s civil society not to remain silent.

UGTT leader Noureddine Taboubi said the huge boycott of the elections shows the frustration and despair of Tunisians.

“It is time for civil society and national organizations to play their national role… today silence is a crime… We will not let them mess with the country and we will not be afraid of jails,” Taboubi said.

Tunisians are also recovering from a financial crisis amid soaring inflation, rising unemployment and a shortage of basic food items.

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“Today the clock is ticking, and if you don’t understand the message, people will say their word through peaceful struggle,” Taboubi said.

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In a July referendum, Tunisians approved a constitution that grants broad executive powers to the president.

Saied, who spearheaded the project and wrote the text himself, made full use of the mandate in September, amending the electoral law to lessen the role of political parties.

Critics have said that the electoral law reforms have hit women particularly hard. Only 127 women were among the 1,055 candidates who ran in the elections on Saturday.

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