After power grab, Tunisia's Saied declares graft crackdown

Saied slammed the "bad economic choices" made in recent years, during a meeting with a leader of the employers' federation UTICA.

Conservative academic Kais Saied celebrates his victory in the Tunisian presidential election in the capital Tunis on 13 October 2019. Picture: AFP

TUNIS - Tunisia's President Kais Saied accused 460 businessmen of embezzlement as he declared a crackdown on corruption, days after grabbing power in what his opponents have labelled a "coup".

Saied, who suspended parliament for 30 days and seized all executive powers on Sunday, slammed the "bad economic choices" made in recent years, during a meeting with a leader of the employers' federation UTICA.

In his comments late Wednesday, the president singled out for criticism "those who plunder public money".

Saied accused the 460 businesspeople of owing 13.5 billion dinars ($4.9 billion) to the state, citing the findings of a commission of inquiry into graft under former dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

"This money must be returned to the Tunisian people," he said, adding that he intends to offer them "judicial arbitration".

In exchange for dropping proceedings, the reimbursed money would be injected into less developed parts of Tunisia.

Saied also asked traders and wholesalers to "lower prices" in a crisis-hit economy where soaring inflation has eaten away at the purchasing power of consumers.

He also called for a revival of phosphate production, one of the country's few natural resources often used for agricultural fertiliser.

Gafsa Phosphate Company, a former flagship of the Tunisian economy, has seen its production collapse since the 2011 revolution that toppled Ben Ali, due to a lack of investment and bouts of social unrest.

Saied raised suspicions of corruption that surround the industry, referring to "people in parliament who protect themselves with parliamentary immunity".

Hours before his comments, prosecutors appointed by Saied as part of emergency measures announced the opening of an investigation into political parties suspected of receiving foreign funds for campaigning in 2019 elections.

The probe, initially opened on July 14, before Saied's power grab, targets Ennahdha, which has been part of all coalitions since the 2011 revolution, as well as its liberal ally Qalb Tounes and the Aich Tounsi movement.

After months of political crisis, Saied, whose presidential duties are normally limited to diplomacy and security, seized power on Sunday by invoking the constitution.

The move was denounced as a "coup d'etat" by his main opponents, the Islamist-inspired Ennahdha party.

Before his power grab, Saied, an austere legal academic who won office in 2019 thanks to his virulent criticism of political parties, had been well known for his stance against corruption.

Saied in January blocked a cabinet reshuffle by prime minister Hichem Mechichi, whom he sacked on Sunday, citing suspected conflicts of interest and corruption by some ministers.

While the power grab has been welcomed by many Tunisians struggling to make ends meet and fed up by the mismanagement of the COVID-19 pandemic, it has sparked concern at home and abroad.

On Wednesday evening, the president also announced the establishment of a crisis unit to manage the COVID outbreak, supervised by a senior military officer.

Tunisia has been facing a new peak in the pandemic in recent weeks.

The North African country of around 12 million people has one of the worst COVID death rates in the world, with 19,000 fatalities linked to the coronavirus.

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